Painting her own path

Sali Ariel captures the colors and lines of The White City in her newest series “Tel Aviv Paintings.”

ariel pain 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
ariel pain 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
Sali Ariel’s life is a mosaic. Bright, sun-catching pieces sit next to darker shades, each building off its neighbor to complete a story.
“Tel Aviv Paintings,” the newest series by Ariel, runs until January 9 in the Bauhaus Center at 99 Dizengoff Street. The exhibit displays the city’s Bauhaus architecture – the white- or beige-painted buildings with rounded balconies and flat roofs, that led to Tel Aviv being called the “White City.”
The artist explores the beauty of a city ceaselessly striving toward Westernized urbanization in a world often overshadowed by Middle East war. Her paintings are a culmination of her experiences and studies, whether in Israel or the United States, transposed on canvas in the message of the iconic buildings. Or a dog.
Ariel did not move to Tel Aviv on purpose. The Arkansas-born, Oklahoma-raised artist lived in Jerusalem for 20 years before a snowstorm blew her garden wall over and left cracks throughout the house walls. After the municipality deemed the house unsafe to live in, she and her husband, Dry Bones cartoonist Yaakov Kirschen, found a Bauhaus apartment on Sheinkin Street.
“It was a really fun transition,” says Ariel, “even if it wasn’t by intention.”
Many of their friends lived close by, and she quickly felt at home in her new city. She says she fell in love with the Bauhaus style, its clean lines and dazzling light from the large windows typical of its architectural patterns.
So she began to paint. Since 2002, she has completed 92 paintings for this exhibition. They are filled with glowing colors, of which ultramarine blue and viridian green are consistent favorites. She says the colors represent hope and growth.
Her paintings fuse the figurative and abstract, two artistically opposite and usually mutually exclusive techniques. The combination tells the story of her struggle to follow her own path and her determination to keep going, which she says parallels Tel Aviv’s history.
The result, she says, is Tel Aviv though her eyes.
Ariel’s formal training began at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She moved to Israel with her soon-to-be first husband after the Six Day War, supporting his path of Zionism, but the couple later relocated to New York, where she studied at The Cooper Union School of Art. Her New York days involved almost daily hangouts with singer Bob Dylan, occasionally alongside artist Andy Warhol, sculptor Claes Oldenburg, and music icons John Lennon, Yoko Ono and The Grateful Dead, before she made aliya in 1972.
While this acquaintance resumé is impressive, Ariel says she never felt like herself when she participated in conceptual art and Happenings, an American type of pop art that fused painting, poetry, music, dance and theater in a live performance.
“I always loved putting paint on canvas,” she says.
“It’s more sensual.”
Once settled in Israel, she began to paint figurative pieces, starting with trees and parks before moving to buildings. She has been painting oil on canvas since she was a child, when her artist mother passed down her love of the “mushy, messy quality of oil paints.”
Ariel’s first painting was a portrait of a guinea-pig family.
Her technique involves various thicknesses of oil colors mixed with turpentine. She sketches in charcoal first, adds paint and often retraces many charcoal lines to “seal it in.” She says she imagines using her liquidly thin colors to draw rather than paint and her textured, thick colors to stroke sensuality into a piece.
These two methods, abstract and figurative, complement each other to create her iconic blend of real-life images and dreamlike colors. She paints from pictures she takes of each scene, usually capturing 30 to 40 shots before seeing what she wants. But then she’ll add unnatural colors or extra lines. Skies are yellow or purple. Streets are blue or red. She either leaves some canvas unpainted or primes the entire canvas with gray, beige or light blue. She’ll then use bright, transparent colors that subtly show the color underneath. She likes leaving accidental drips visible because, she says, she makes paintings, not pictures.
“I try to stay as true as possible to the building architecture, but it’s not always accurate,” she says. “I try to stay true to the spirit more.”
She also leaves out the city’s grunge, staying away from painting cats and trash into her backgrounds. Although cats are rampant throughout Tel Aviv, and possibly a major characteristic of it, she says they are not domestic and would take away from the idea of a civilized city.
“I’m not covering it up on purpose, but I just don’t see it myself,” she explains.
Her exhibition takes a further step toward domesticity when she adds dogs to her paintings. Her history with canines goes back to her days in Oklahoma, where she raised and trained dogs and horses. Three of her years in Jerusalem were spent living at Sha’ar Hagai, a kennel in the Jerusalem hills, where she and four other women raised, boarded and trained 100 dogs.
Her time at the kennel influenced some of the pieces in this exhibit. With no electricity, she painted at night by kerosene lanterns, which do not give off much light and make colors hard to distinguish. She often painted with silvery aluminum because she said it reflected well.
“The coolest part about aluminum is that depending on how the light hits it, it’s either the lightest or darkest element in the painting,” she says.
Dogs appear throughout the exhibition, always up close and in the spotlight. Ariel says she began adding them in front of buildings after an observation she made on a Saturday morning at the junction of Sheinkin and King George streets. She was standing in the middle of the road to get the perfect picture of a building without cars in the way, when she noticed how many people were walking their dogs.
“When I moved to Israel, and even Tel Aviv, people didn’t have dogs as pets, so it was a sign to me that Tel Aviv has become more Westernized and cultured,” she says.
The artist says she is able to catch a dog’s expression in her paintings. She snaps almost 50 shots of each dog she paints in order to capture its personality in its face.
The dogs are not naturally in front of the buildings as they appear in the paintings, which adds more to the abstract element of her work.
Perhaps the biggest statement her dogs make parallels both her life and her vision of Tel Aviv, defining her exhibit and pulling it together, and is most apparent in one of the largest and most visible canvases on display: a dog in the front left corner, posed by a bombed area.
Ariel’s studio is a rented municipal bomb shelter in Meir Park on King George Street, and during Operation Pillar of Defense she received a call at midnight on the first Thursday, informing her she must move out by the next morning. Less than two weeks later, she was allowed to reclaim the shelter as her studio, just as it had been for the past nine years.
The painting, although revealing the aftermath of a bomb, is filled with bright colors and lines. The dog has some blue lines added, which the artist says she often does to physically connect the dog to the scene behind it. She says the bomb piece is symbolic of the city’s dual nature: determined to remain beautiful and metropolitan under the threat of bombs, a paradox her own life validates each day she creates art in her bomb-shelter studio next to a dog park.
“The way Tel Avivians love life and the atmosphere here just comes through,” she says.
She adds that she feels connected to Tel Aviv, the city she never thought she’d love, because this duality exists in her personality.
Talkative and full of positivity on the surface, she explains that she self-identifies natural sadness and depression in her character – but for reasons she doesn’t know, color blasts through her art in radiant, glowing shades.
“Having your studio turn into a public bomb shelter and back again is an experience that could be considered normal only in a special place like Tel Aviv,” she says.
The “Tel Aviv Paintings” exhibition is free and open to the public during the Bauhaus Center’s hours: Sunday to Thursday 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday 12 noon to 7:30 p.m. Ariel’s paintings are all for sale and range from NIS 900 to NIS 1,200.