Art that's realer than real

When Eran Reshef paints the doorway to a dimly lit room, we almost have to force ourselves not to walk through it – that’s the compulsion of his work, now on show at the Tel Aviv Museum

Painter Eran Reshef (photo credit: Carl Hoffman )
Painter Eran Reshef
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman )
A once-brilliant entertainer died last January at his home in Las Vegas.
At the peak of his career in the late 1960s, David Frye (formerly Shapiro) was America’s leading impressionist. Specializing in comic imitations of the prominent political figures of the day, Frye’s renditions of people like Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy were breathtakingly accurate.
His imitations of Nixon were particularly devastating, complete with eyes screwed angrily upward, jowls puffed out, the mouth set in an almost frightening sneer, and the arms raised perpetually upward, with both hands making V-for-victory signs. Frye made Nixon look and sound more like Nixon than Nixon did.
Ditto his leering, reptilian impressions of conservative columnist William F. Buckley.
How did he do it? Frye made his characters so compellingly real by boiling them down to their cores, by distilling each of those “public figures” down to the very essence of their being and personality.
There is an artist in Tel Aviv doing – in his medium – the same thing Frye used to do on The Tonight Show. Eran Reshef, 49, is painting pictures that go far beyond photographic realism. His pictures look more real than the reality.
When Reshef paints the interior wall of an old building in south Tel Aviv, we can see every crack, leak stain and bit of chipped paint; almost smell the mildew accumulated in 60 years of first industrial use and then neglect; and virtually touch every painted over light switch and broken electrical outlet.
When Reshef paints the doorway to a dimly lit room, we almost have to force ourselves not to walk into the painting to try to enter the room.
We meet this unusual artist at his current exhibition, Eran Reshef: Paintings 2000- 2010, at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The privilege of exhibiting at the museum is one of the perks of his having won the 2010 Haim Shiff Prize for Realistic – Figurative Paintings.
As we wander into the exhibition hall, this writer needs to pause for a moment at the entrance, to deal with a severe attack of cognitive dissonance. For one disconcerting moment, it is impossible to determine whether we are looking at paintings of things, or the actual things themselves.
What seems to stand out is the view from a distance of a painting we later learn is called Gates, a doorway view of the bathroom at Reshef’s studio. At a height of around four meters, it is not immediately clear that we are looking at a painting and not an actual bathroom.
Finally venturing forth, we come first to a painting called The Pink Cabinet depicting what appears to have been left behind in the bathroom of a long-abandoned building.
A broken, long-disused bathtub sits on a stained and scuffed wooden floor, with one floorboard missing. The wood underneath the missing floorboard is dark and grimy, suggesting that the floorboard has been missing for a very long time. The bathtub is half-filled with dirty water, and above it, a pink soap-and-shampoo cabinet is still precariously screwed into the wall, which is stained by water dripping down from the cabinet long ago.
WE MOVE next to a painting called Refrigerator featuring a broken Amcor fridge circa 1970 – almost nauseatingly dirty and with a missing front door – in which something bloody and wrapped in paper appears on the bottom shelf. The refrigerator itself reposes sadly on a floor of old, faded ceramic floor tiles; and a blue-and-white Jewish National Fund collection box sits like an tin icon atop the fridge. As we stand speechless and slackjawed in front of this painting, we learn something about how Reshef works.
He does not paint from photographs, but neither does he paint from casual observation.
He is painting from things that he shleps from the streets into his studio; and from sets – like movie sets – that he builds there before commencing.
Pointing to The Pink Cabinet, Reshef says, “First, I built a complete set for this. I ordered the tiles from a tile-maker, to my specifications. I built a stage at a certain height, and put everything on it and painted it.”
He also does not paint on canvas. “I hate canvas,” he says, “it dictates texture.
“I sometimes use extreme measures in my work that canvas would not allow. I need to have complete control when I am painting, and a hard smooth surface like wood allows me to have that.
So all of my paintings are either oil on wood, or oil on paper mounted on wood.”
Gesturing toward the smooth surface of the inside of the fridge juxtaposed with the rough surface of the wall behind it, Reshef says, “This is something I can do with a hard surface.”
The hard surface may explain the ability to produce certain effects, but not how Reshef makes his painting of an old gas tank look more real than a real gas tank; or how his painting of a door – with all its old paint jobs, dents and scratches from where a succession of now long-dead people aimed their keys and missed – looks real enough to try to open.
For Reshef, the trick is to learn how to “gaze.” Pointing to a painting called Turkey, which features another ancient refrigerator with a defrosted, discolored turkey on top, he says, “I’m sitting in a studio. I have this in front of me. I gaze at it for hours every day.
“It’s not about seeing, it’s about gazing.”
Told that he makes it all sound so easy, Reshef replies: “Look, if anyone – anyone – were to sit in front of a Coke Zero can for three months and have to write down everything he sees about that Coke Zero can during those three months – every single characteristic – he’d end up with a list of things as long as the Tel Aviv phone book. I go one step further, and put all these things into painting.”
As for his extraordinary degree of detail, Reshef says, “If it’s there in my studio, and I’m there in my studio, why stop painting? The only reason to stop is if the painting suffers.
If continuing doesn’t do good for the painting, then I’ve gone overboard.
“It’s happened to me many times. But you never know if you’ve gone far enough unless you go too far. This is something I learned to recognize, and to know when to stop.”
a painting, he says, can take anywhere from “weeks to months, to years” to complete.
ASKED WHAT it was that made him an artist, Reshef answers simply, “Nothing.”
Pressed for a longer explanation, he says, “I don’t recall being especially interested in painting when I was a kid. My mother would tell you that I was, but I don’t remember being much into it, or having any talent for it. I wasn’t one of those people who knew from early on that they were destined to be painters. It grew out of stubbornness and hard work.”
That hard work began at the Avni Institute of Painting and Sculpture in Tel Aviv when Reshef was in his 20s. He then moved to New York and spent a year at the Parsons School of Design before going on to complete his undergraduate and graduate studies at Brooklyn College, under the guidance of painter Lennart Anderson.
As we wend our way through the exhibition, we pass paintings depicting the artifacts of yesteryear: a chipped metal basin, a rubber hot water bottle, a broken wooden ironing board, a corroded insecticide spray can, and a portable green picnic cooler, which Reshef declares to be “exactly like the one my parents and I took to the beach when I was a kid.”
Despite having recorded these vanishing mementos for posterity, Reshef insists he has no interest in creating nostalgia.
“I don’t like nostalgia, and I specifically avoid it whenever I am making a painting.
I think that art hits people in their areas of sensitivity.
“So if someone is nostalgic about these things, they may burst into tears looking at some of these paintings, and say, ‘Oh, I remember these, and oh, I remember those.’ “But I just make an offer. I don’t present a narrative or give a solution. Art has to come from somewhere. It needs to have a trigger.
So my triggers are these things that I remember from my own history and the collective history of this place, of Tel Aviv, of Israel. But where it hits people? That’s not my problem.
“I react to things that make me jump. It has to be something very specific. It’s something relating to my own personal history. The gas tank, for example. You see them everywhere.
But I had to look for that particular gas tank.
“I found it at a metal merchant’s place. It was one of around 40 in a row. But I knew exactly which one I was going to paint. It’s like seeing a person you know, far away from you, with his back to you. You just know it’s him. How? You just know.
“It’s a trigger – unexplainable, but extremely recognizable. When I look at the paintings in this show, I see me everywhere. And it’s very scary.”
When his current exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art closes on September 3, Reshef has no plans other than to do what he always does.
“I go into my studio every day, close the door, get my coffee, and get to work. I close myself off from the world and deal with my own echoes.”