Pushing the limits of realism

Zer’s trajectory as an artist is an inspiration for anyone trying to achieve recognition in the Israeli art scene.

Pushing the Limits 1 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pushing the Limits 1
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 ‘The most important thing in life,” painter Maya Zer says, gazing out over the treetops on Rothschild Boulevard as she taps the ash off her cigarette, “is that it be interesting.”
Zer’s first solo exhibition since winning the Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art in 2010 is now showing at the Rothschild Gallery on 48 Yehuda Ha Levy in Tel Aviv. The show, which closes August 5, offers a fascinating look at what that might mean for an artist intent on creating visual expressions of her own psyche.
“When a woman draws a woman, she can’t treat her just as an object,” Zer explains, and indeed, the work in the show, titled “Nine Lives,” presents a series of paintings of mostly female subjects that depict an enigmatic complexity. Zer’s women are self-possessed, unapologetic, distinct personalities. Through the placement of each in a specific setting, Zer evokes a sense of a hidden narrative in which the dominant motif is the power of the subject’s presence.
“These new works are not just snapshots, or a representation of a single moment. They are attempts to capture something under the surface – something less immediate and deeper.”
In many of the works, the background constitutes an essential part of the picture. In In Front of the Wall, for example, a woman stands facing the viewer, her expression inscrutable but her empty palms open, in resonance with the twin lovebirds on the wall behind her.
Between her and this background, her own dark shadow is clearly visible, as if denoting a second, mysterious person or persona.
In another, the subject is positioned smoking against a wallpaper-like background of dark red, printed with flowers. Her expression, though half hidden by smoke, conveys something knowing and weary, almost cynical.
The title of picture is Amnesia.
Visitors to the exhibition are provided with an essay by writer and art critic Dror Burstein, an admirer of Zer’s work, about the paintings on display. He points out that several of the pictures were inspired by classic works of art. For example, Namir, which shows a woman set against a deep aqua-blue flowered background and holding a cat, is Zer’s own take on Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (c. 1490). The cat, is according to the essay, is a “domesticated bodyguard,” a version of Leonardo’s ermine – “a little predator, tensed to attack.” The viewer is invited to consider how these two pictures are similar and how they are different. What does Zer’s subject know that Leonardo’s cannot? Or are the two women, separated by more than six centuries, more similar than we would want to believe? Zer explains that as a fan of his writing, she approached Burstein, asking him to write about the paintings in the show, and she was delighted to find that he seemed to comprehend the ideas and themes that she set out to address.
“These pictures are different from my previous work,” Zer says. “They aren’t naturalistic paintings, they’re stories.
They are art that talks about art. I had specific experiences in mind when I created them, but they resonate differently with each viewer.”
There is something inherently engaging about all of the works, but one of the most captivating is Guard. Set under a full moon that illuminates the scene, it shows a woman pushing against the walls that surround her in a position that echoes Samson’s toppling of the pillars in the Philistine temple. In contrast to the legendary biblical figure, Zer’s subject appears to be an actual, fully realized subject. With long red hair, wearing a pleated miniskirt and braless underneath her sheer shirt, her pallor greenish, her expression grave but fully owning her own physicality, she appears to be bursting out of the enclosures behind her, an image of movement and color contrasted against the dark doors and curtains that frame her. The painting creates a vision that is both powerfully real and eerily surreal at the same time.
Zer’s trajectory as an artist is an inspiration for anyone trying to achieve recognition in the Israeli art scene. After studying at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in the 1980s, she went to Paris and Amsterdam, where she was at liberty to explore galleries and develop her own style. She describes her art education as mostly autodidactic, citing artist Yisrael Hirshberg, who sometimes served as a mentor and sounding board for her explorations and ideas. Though she didn’t show at many exhibitions, the feedback she received was very positive.
Her first solo show was in the now-defunct Golconda Fine Art gallery in 2004, which exemplified her eye for realism. But it was in 2010, after winning the Shiff Prize and the opportunity to show her work at the Tel Aviv Museum, that her paintings began to receive wide acclaim.
“As you age, your experience of creating art only gets better,” Zer muses. “To be a painter in your 50s is so much more satisfying than being a younger artist. I understand far better today what I’m doing. It’s so much more intense.
“Right now I’m in the middle of a very creative period.
I’m full of ideas. I want to continue exploring the way painting can convey a narrative, the role of imagination, and I’m also excited about working in new formats.
For example, many of the pictures in the show were painted on wood instead of canvas. Canvas is limiting, but wood allows you so much freedom – you can use as many layers of paint as you want and it never gets tired.”
Though many of the paintings in the show resist easy interpretation, Climber offers the viewer an optimistic vision of the struggle to attain something rare and beautiful. A girl climbs a tree, attempting to catch one of the golden birds that fly about its bare branches.
Though the girl’s shirt is caught in a branch and the tree is spotted with red blood-like stains, she is determined and earnest in her quest.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not she will catch one of the elusive birds – all that matters is that she believes that she can.