‘The politics of here and there’

"The videos give the paintings a context. Someone can see the video and then see a painting that is based on a still from the film footage"- David Reeb.

Israeli security forces stand watch over detained protesters as the media capture the moment, a painted interpretation of a film still. (photo credit: DAVID REEB)
Israeli security forces stand watch over detained protesters as the media capture the moment, a painted interpretation of a film still.
(photo credit: DAVID REEB)
A painting titled Beautiful Architecture from Israeli artist David Reeb’s retrospective, on display in the Tel Aviv Museum, highlights a dilemma felt by the artist vis-a-vis the country’s charged political climate.
A horizontal black line divides the canvas on which Reeb has painted two contrasting scenes. The upper level shows a scene of relative calm, a picture of a prestigious cultural institution – the Israel Museum, set against a landscape of plants and trees. On the lower level, he has painted a rendition of a Palestinian policeman on the streets of a city in the West Bank, aiming an assault rifle.
Nothing is sensationalized in the painting; it is a realistic depiction of two scenes as the artist visualized them.
The painting – a good example of a convention Reeb used in some of his early works – can be interpreted as what the artist’s friend and sometime collaborator, Simon Faulkner, refers to as the “politics of here and there”: the “here” referring to the safe haven experienced by Israeli citizens that is Israel proper; the “there” being the so-called occupied territories, a region under military jurisdiction and often an area of turbulence for the Palestinian and Israeli settler populations.
Today, it is almost impossible to ignore the differences in what Israelis consider to be a stable democracy, and the awareness that the West Bank is anything but. The dichotomy of here and there infuses much of Reeb’s oeuvre and is explored, among other themes, in this exhibition.
Reeb is one of the country’s most politically engaged artists. Awarded the Rappaport Prize for an Established Israeli Artist in 2013, the present exhibit – curated by Ellen Ginton – displays a selection of paintings and video works from 1994 to 2014. In addition to political works, some of Reeb’s conceptually based number and text paintings, abstractions and scenes of city life are also on display.
Central to this retrospective are a number of paintings and videos going back to 2005, based on the artist’s visits to the territories and to demonstrations against the security barrier in Bil’in, Ni’lin and Nabi Salih.
Reeb has been visiting contentious areas of the West Bank for almost 20 years.
He views this as a commitment to being an informed and relevant artist.
In a conversation with The Jerusalem Post, Reeb remarked, “There were occasions that were shocking for me, but I always try to be careful and I’ve gotten more used to it. If you are an Israeli Jew, you have more control of the situation you’re in.”
He recalled his first visit to a demonstration in Bil’in in 2005: “I took some photographs and thought it would be interesting to return and record some footage on video. The next time I went, I brought a video camera. I realized that using a camera during a demonstration performed a function. It documents what happened and it has some legal value, because it serves as a visual record of events.”
Some of the paintings in the exhibition are based on film stills from the recorded footage, something Reeb had done in earlier works with his own photography and that of his friend, photographer and photojournalist Miki Kratsman.
“I had worked from photographs for a long time, then I started doing paintings from the still frames of videos.
With regard to photos, you’re using an image that someone else made, so you don’t necessarily feel a connection with the place or the event. It was more involving with these paintings; the video footage works together with the paintings,” he said.
Many of the scenes in the paintings are typical of pictures we are used to seeing in the media. Images of masked Palestinian demonstrators throwing stones, Israeli soldiers arresting Palestinians and battle-scarred jeeps are rendered alternately against the backdrop of a rugged desert or city landscape, often interspersed with vividly colored masses of green vegetation.
There is none of the glamour of war in the paintings, but neither is there gore or graphic violence. More striking is the normalcy of events portrayed: soldiers performing tasks in the line of duty, protesters going through the motions of demonstrating, and the press bearing witness.
“The banality of war” is a phrase often used in connection with Reeb’s work, yet there is action and activity in many paintings. His striking use of color ensures that they often have an unexpected lightness, despite their subject matter.
The accompanying video works are hard-hitting and disturbing, all the more so for being shown on a large-screen format – making it more difficult for the viewer to establish distance from the events portrayed and assimilate some of the chaotic scenes shown in the films.
Reeb felt it was important to show the videos as part of the exhibition. “The videos give the paintings a context.
Someone can see the video and then see a painting that is based on a still from the film footage. I think that after you see the paintings, you will view the videos differently and vice-versa,” he explained.
The political theme in Reeb’s work is seen elsewhere in this exhibition, particularly in a series of paintings from 1997 ironically titled Let’s Have Another War.
Several street scenes painted in black and white show troubled situations in the West Bank, at times juxtaposed with peaceful scenes in Israel. Printed across, atop or on the lower part of the canvas, in capital letters, is the title of the series.
The graphic quality and use of text seen in the Let’s Have Another War series are a feature of Reeb’s work, possibly influenced by “agitprop,” a term given to art forms with an overt political message.
Elsewhere, text is incorporated in the form of excerpts from the Bible, news snippets, word formations and number sequences, in many of the conceptually based paintings. These works and many of Reeb’s abstract paintings show the wide range of his palette, as canvases are emblazoned with striking lines and shapes of color or rendered in stark black and white.
Although Reeb is regarded as a political artist, his embracing of varied means of expression within his painting practice, such as realism and abstraction, give his work and this exhibition an added dimension.
Considering the present political climate here, so heated as to allow little time for reflection, both Reeb and the museum might have been more fortunate in the timing of the exhibit. Israelis might be inclined to avoid such subject matter, yet maybe this is the very time we should engage with art of this nature. ■
“David Reeb: Retrospective” is on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art until November 29. For more information: www.tamuseum.org.il/about-the exhibition/david-reeb