A brush with transition

With a new exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Julie M. Gallery, Anat Betzer talks about her unusual move from conceptual art to painting

Anat Betzer untitled521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Anat Betzer untitled521
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘Everybody thought I was crazy – my friends, my family, people in the art world. After 10 years of building a good reputation as a conceptual artist, everything was fine, but I realized that it wasn’t for me, something didn’t feel right,” said artist Anat Betzer in 2002. Since then Betzer has built up a career as a landscape and figurative painter, exhibiting in group exhibitions and with the Julie M. Gallery in their Tel Aviv and Toronto bases. “Forget-Me-Not,” an exhibition of her recent works opened at the Julie M. in Tel Aviv at the beginning of the month.
Betzer’s move from conceptual art to the more traditional medium of paint was brave and unusual. At the time Israeli painters and sculptors were and still are championed, but in the main the Israeli art scene’s focus had shifted to video and conceptual art.
Betzer recounts how she spent two years preparing a large installation for an exhibition at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. “I didn’t visit my studio much” she says. “There were lots of meetings and time spent raising money. I spent a lot of time thinking about the space, and then there were two weeks of very physical work for building the show, and that’s it. The process of conceptual art is very different, very on/off.
The art starts, and sometimes finishes, with the moment of the idea” she continues.
Conceptual art is, by its very nature, more cerebral. It was this realization that played a part in her switch to painting. Unsurprising, perhaps, since conceptual art can at times seem alienating.
“I have to believe people really want to be moved.
Conceptual art seems somehow removed from us,” she says, reflecting on the transition.
Its not difficult to see why she was initially drawn to conceptual art. Painting is rarely considered “sexy” in the world of modern art, not to mention the fact that local art schools have gradually shifted their focus to newer mediums such as video and installation.
“It was exciting to think about doing big installations with sound,” she explains. “I have this idea and then I need to start to make it happen. I would spend time thinking about the space, trying this and that. It was like a circle; finally I would come back to square one,” she says.
Betzer studied and taught fine art at Hamidrasha School of Art in Tel Aviv. As a student and as a teacher she recalls as beneficial both learning and teaching with artists such as Rafi Levy, Tsibi Geva and Yair Garbuz.
Having taken the decision to stop teaching, in effect to establish some distance for herself, she could then devote herself to painting full-time.
The decision was not an easy one, she admits.
“They were good years. I liked the students, the environment, and it kept me in touch with what’s going on, but [at a certain point] I felt that I don’t have it the way I should to be a good teacher. The more I am into my art, the less I am into others.
You can’t teach if you’re not interested in what they are doing,” she states.
For the most part Betzer’s paintings have been landscapes, specifically wooded areas and forests with occasional solitary figures and deserted houses.
Mostly rendered in hues of black and white with occasional muted color working its way in, the scenes are bleak and desolate and anything but typically Israeli.
“My grandparents are from Russia and were partisans.
My family grew up on a kibbutz near Jerusalem, called Kiryat Anavim,” she says. “The kibbutz was surrounded by woods and I spent a lot of my childhood playing in and around the area. I think probably that the woods and my family history play a part in my work. I see it as part of my DNA, a part of who I am,” she explains.
This collective memory likely influenced a series of portraits exhibited in 2010, under the title Run Betzer Run. Using photographs gleaned from the Internet she painted what are probably her strongest works to date: several portraits of hunters and their prey in the stark Siberian landscape.
Bear hunting has a long tradition in Russia.
Once the sport of tsars, it still continues today.
The paintings show tough and rugged men in gritty, realistic scenes. For Betzer there is no glamour or romance in the typically male world of the hunt.
In her current exhibition Betzer, in part, deals with a subject close to her heart.
“I came across a book about three years ago titled Women Who Read Are Dangerous,” she says, “and I started to read about the history of reading and literature and its place in art.” One of the works that will be on show, titled Emma Bovary, C’est Moi (Emma Bovary, It’s Me), is, she says, a reference to herself.
“Reading is a large part of my daily life. I am taking [Flaubert’s character] back for myself because I finally understood that the woman who reads is me,” she says.
Betzer’s studio has well-stacked bookshelves, as well as many canvases for her upcoming exhibition.
Since her switch from conceptual art she has been more comfortable with the working processes involved in painting and putting the necessary time into the studio.
“Each painting takes me between two and four months,” she says. “Sometimes I become interested in certain ideas and don’t quite know what is leading me there. When I was younger I wanted to know, but now I trust myself. If I hit a wall I have the confidence to be patient and move on. For painting I need to be here every day, but that’s okay, I like this intimacy with my work.”
“Forget-Me-Not” is showing at Julie M., 10 Bezalel Yafeh Street, Tel Aviv, until May 11. For more information: (03) 560-7005.