Painter Joshua Borkovsky wants you to walk by his paintings and think they’re as ordinary as an outdoor tablecloth – at first. But he also hopes to activate that instinctual self-questioning mechanism that might urge a viewer to stop and wonder whether what we think we see is really what’s in front of us.“[The work] makes you stop,” says Borkovsky, who recently opened a large exhibition called “Veronese Green” at the Israel Museum, marking 25 years of creative production.“If you don’t linger, you can’t be astonished,” says Shuky, as Borkovsky is known to curators, artists, and students of his at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design. His play on the Hebrew words mishtaheh (linger/delay) and mishta’eh (be astonished/astounded) reveals his appreciation of subtle differences.
In keeping with this affinity for words, his paintings are the subject of a recently published book by award-winning poet Israel Eliraz. Titled Look: Poetry Looks at Painting (Habet: Shira Mebita B’tziyur), the book of poems and short writings reflects on the nature of Shuky’s work alongside the poet’s reflections on writing. The book, published by Kashet L’Shira, includes reproductions of several of Shuky’s paintings and acts as a literary companion to his exhibition.The running theme in his oeuvre, as the title of the book suggests, is that in order to get a sense of what these paintings might be about, the viewer must look at them. The first moment, in which they appear either simple or obscure, is deceptive: It is a challenge and also an invitation for longer engagement.“Painting comes from the eye and goes to the eye,” the artist says, paraphrasing the French philosopher Maurice Merleau- Ponty. “With all these patterns, you’re never sure of what you see. It’s a question of vision and of doubting vision.”His comments reveal the metaphysical nature of his painting – his interest in the experience of being, and especially of seeing.His work is abstract in the sense that what interests him as an artist has more to do with existence than with knowledge – or, in philosophical terms, more with ontology than epistemology.The knowledge that viewers can hope to gain through interaction with his painting is knowledge of themselves as seeing bodies.The word “interaction” is key here – Shuky’s work makes viewers set aside their habitual expectation of ready-made ideas and look to their experience in the moment of viewing to supply them with the significance they seek. The “meaning,” so to speak, is implanted in the activation of their gaze.Shuky is a highly self-conscious and deliberate artist, and in choosing nominal subjects for his works, he aims to give viewers clues to the viewing experience to which he invites them. The painting cycle called Echo and Narcissus, made up of pairs of body-sized canvases covered in gold leaf, is meant to hint at the importance of “reflection” in his work. That theme is evident in the mythological figures of Echo and Narcissus, as well as in the reflective nature of the material he uses. The size of the paintings also suggests a reflection of our own size.But these material and thematic layers are not the ultimate aim of the work. They are a part of Shuky’s reflection on the very concept of reflection, what Merleau-Ponty calls hyperreflection, and they invite the viewers to enter this contemplation along with the artist – as his own Echo or Narcissus.What’s at stake for Shuky is less the ideas that the mythological figures specifically represent, or the materiality of gold leaf as such, than the chance that viewers will join him in a space of experiencing themselves and their bodies through art.BORN IN Rishon Lezion in 1952, Borkovsky took part in a highly intense math and science program in high school.But on graduating, he decided he was finished with both and, after the army, pursued art. He undertook undergraduate studies at Bezalel in 1974-77 and graduate studies at New York’s Hunter College in 1980-81. He then returned to Israel and began to teach at Bezalel, the Art Teachers’ Training College in Ramat Hasharon, and eventually the Art History Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.He has exhibited widely in both solo and group shows and, in addition to paintings, has produced several artist books – including The Hajj Paintings (2005), with photographs of Muslim folkpainting related to the pilgrimage to Mecca, and Heterotopia (2006), with photographs of the tombs and graves of sheikhs.Shuky started out as a sculptor, and during that period, he says, developed his thought about the interrelationship of the body, the artwork, and the space in which they meet. He suggests that in an immanent way, this line of thinking entered his painting. His artistic philosophy is based on thinking cyclically rather than linearly, in terms of both time and space.His current exhibition reflects this philosophy in several ways – first and foremost in his decision to exhibit works spanning 25 years in a non-chronological manner. Paintings from the 1980s and ’90s are placed next to paintings finished just weeks before the exhibition opened, and – he hopes – it is unclear immediately which came first and which later. His groups of paintings are called “cycles” rather than “series,” and to further break any sense of linearity, he has scattered the different cycles through the large exhibition space rather than concentrating each cycle in its own area.“The way the exhibit is organized was a question not of progress or chronology, but of creating musical sentences,” he says. “The space between each sentence is like a break in music. This gives the exhibit the feeling of a single event.”Just as one might have a sense of immediacy when going to a musical concert, Shuky seeks to activate the viewer’s sense of immediacy while experiencing his paintings.“The work has a present time only. It happens when it’s being viewed. Each work has only present time – whether this ‘present’ is the time it was made [in the studio] or whether this ‘present’ is the time it’s being viewed [in the gallery].”He adds that the paintings therefore have a phantasmagoric tendency that takes place in real time. But the rejection of chronology is not the wholesale rejection of time. The cyclical and repetitious nature of his body of work attests to both hours of painterly production and years of artistic activity. What he hopes to create is a sense of time that’s fluid and open, where backward and forward are less important.“What interests me in repetition is the thing that’s different when you return,” he says. “It’s never the same, though it’s the same atomic core to which you’re trying to return. It’s the difference, not the security of coming back to the same place, and every so often you return and feel that deviation.”At the same time, he admits the danger in returning to similar themes and images repeatedly. The important thing in repetition, he notes, is not to repeat yourself.“If you repeat yourself, then there’s no difference, it’s creating a copy. And that’s the place we call death.”SHUKY’S OEUVRE – at least over the past 25 years – is indeed full of indexes, shadows, echoes and reflections.In addition to the Echo and Narcissus cycle, there is the Dream Stone cycle, which refers to the circular Chinese object of contemplation; the Chandelier (Reflection) cycle, which hints at crystal’s diffraction of light; the Flying Dutchman cycle, which uses the image of a ship in the fog to invoke the ghostly spirit of the ship that could never make port; the Vera Icon cycle, a combination of Latin and Greek terms that might be loosely translated as “Truth Representation” and that refers, in Christianity, to images of Jesus that were not made by a human hand; and the works called Mirror – referring to that simple everyday object that throws our reflection back at us, often without our giving it a second thought.“Since I deal with things that are so enigmatic,” he says, “I have no problem with specificity [of these subjects]. But the question is how we determine things at the moment we see them – through the behavior of our eye and sight.”Hence a painting like Echo (Night) is not a painting of a sculpture as it looks at night; it is a painting of the behavior of the eye at night.For Shuky, then, time is less an indication of a specific moment than a circumstance. This is true not only for the paintings, but also for the process through which he creates them. For some paintings, he prepares for a month, and then the execution has to be total and quick – once he starts, there’s no going back.“Unlike many other painters, I don’t have a single technique,” he says. “Artists usually develop a technique or style of their own, and then the different works become a question of subject matter. For me, every cycle creates its own style. There’s a long period of experimentation that I call ‘laboratory,’ when I try one thing, another, often things I’ve never done before.Nothing I do is according to the book.”The same goes for material. For him, anything is a potential material, and he always chooses the one he thinks is right for a specific cycle. Such was the case with the gold leaf, which he realized he would need when he decided to make icon-like works. He had to master the material, with which he’d never worked before, and his own sense of rigor required that he practice with the real thing and not a substitute.It’s not about working with it in the “right way,” he says, but with the particular way he needs to work with it for his own paintings.“I almost reject the word ‘technique,’” he insists. “It’s so essential to the work that you can’t really separate them. It’s during the work that the technique becomes necessary, and not the other way around. And maybe, you hope, you learn it well enough to make the work.That’s why artists sometimes say: ‘It worked out!’ It’s not just that you intended. You’re only responsible for so much – and then it has to happen.”The accurate and the necessary, he says, work together. When a technique is both necessary and miraculously accurate, then it is also essential – and at that moment, the technique transcends itself.That’s why, despite the total painterliness of these works, they are also concerned with space and with the viewer. They invite us to enter the space where they hang and to explore through our eyes the conditions under which they were made. In a sense, we are invited to recreate or remake the works in our imagination.“The works seem meditative at first,” says the painter, “but the more you view them, the more you ‘make’ them. And suddenly you become nervous – you’ve entered the tension of their creation.”