Portrait of the artist as a young man

Ilya Gefter on talent, universality and ‘art that does not work.’

Painting 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Painting 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
At the tender age of 32, Ilya Gefter has had no fewer than nine solo exhibitions of his paintings in the US, Canada and Israel. He has participated in upwards of 10 group exhibitions, has received eight prestigious grants and awards, and has held four teaching positions in Canada and Israel. He is currently an instructor at Hatahana School for Figurative Art in Tel Aviv. “Lights,” an exhibition of 20 of his most recent paintings, opened recently at the city’s Bernard Gallery.
Unusual for an artist – even one as young as this – Gefter shows up more or less on time for his interview on the day of the opening of his show. He is slender, sparely built, and greets us with piercingly observant eyes and an intensely thoughtful gaze. He speaks very softly, smiles often, and punctuates many of his remarks with almost inaudible laughter.
Gefter will not be hurried by an interviewer. He takes his time, sometimes a lot of time, to think about a question before answering it. When the answer finally comes, it proves to be worth the wait.
Tell us a little about your life. How did you get to be you?
That’s a tough question, how I came to be me. I’m not sure I’ve become myself. I was born in Russia, in St.
Petersburg. If there was one thing that was stable in my early childhood, it was my understanding that I wanted to do drawing and painting. That became clear very, very early on.
When I was 10 years old, my family started moving around. I finished my high school education in Canada.
After that I went to college in the States, in Baltimore, at the Maryland Institute College of Art. I could have gone to some very fine universities and studied a more academic field, in liberal arts, but I decided when I was 19 to focus on painting and art right away. I went to art college and got a full scholarship to study there. That allowed me to leave home, to go study where I wanted, and to be independent ever since.
Where did you want to go study?
I wanted to go to Italy – and I went. I studied art history, and a bit of art restoration. I was looking a lot, trying to absorb everything I could find there. Of course that’s impossible, so I decided that as soon as I could I would go there again. And after college, I got a grant that I used to go to Italy again. I studied there a little bit and I painted in Florence, and after that I came to Israel.
Why Israel?
I was invited to come to the Jerusalem Studio School. I started teaching there, and somehow things unfolded – I didn’t have an intention to stay – things unfolded nicely.
I was getting interesting projects going, and I had a teaching position that I really enjoyed. So I stayed. I’ve traveled quite a bit, but one thing that remained quite stable was my understanding of what I wanted to do with myself. And wherever I was I took my profession with me. I took my easel with me, and I took my eyes with me to study everything I could see.You have held several teaching positions in art schools. You hold one now. Can artistic talent really be taught?
“Talent?” Hmm… I’m not even sure I know what that is.
For me, it’s more about having a burning desire to do a particular kind of thing – painting, for instance. This is a much clearer concept to me than “talent.” But good teaching can really save a student a lot of time spent on futile searches.
But in the final analysis, we all teach ourselves. As a teacher I try to offer as much as possible, but eventually artists teach themselves, if art is what is really important to them. I’m grateful for having met certain artists, teachers, colleagues, but eventually it was me doing the analysis, me going through the creative processes – trying this, trying that. It was me going to museums, deciphering what I see for myself and making that part of my visual vocabulary.
So who are your major influences in art?
How many pages do you have for this interview? If I name them all, it will end up being as long as a phone book.
Is there any kind of art that you do not respond to?
I do not respond to art that does not work.
What do you mean by “art that does not work”?
Again, how many pages do you have for the interview? “Art that does not work” is simply a more professional way of saying “bad art.” For me, good art is not about a style or culture that much. For me, any style is valid as long as the artwork holds together as a unit, and as long as it retains my gaze.
The paintings in your current exhibition, “Lights,” seem to meet those criteria. What are we looking at here?
The work is all from the last two and a half years. Some of the paintings are portraits, of myself and others, while other paintings have to do with the urban landscape.
The landscape is defined by light, by the particular kind of composition and atmosphere that light creates. The light of a place is often more important to me than the place itself.
The paintings here of Tel Aviv, particularly those depicting nighttime street scenes, seem to ring true both visually and emotionally to anyone who has ever lived in a city.
Thank you. That’s important to me. On the one hand, I want to be specific about some decisions I make in a painting. They relate to a particular place. They are born out of that place. On the other hand, the element of universality is also quite important. I want to have both in a painting, a specificity and universality.
What do you mean by “universality”? Are people all around the world supposed to look at one of your nocturnal scenes of Tel Aviv and say, “Hey, yeah, that’s definitely what my city looks like at night”?
Hmm… I have to think about this one for a while… These paintings are not designed to have any kind of particular effect on a viewer. Different viewers can have different responses. My job is to make a good painting, not to impose an experience on a viewer. If there is some sort of an experience, then that’s what’s important.
What is universality?
On the most rudimentary level, it would mean yes, that the painting is painted in a particular place, at a particular time of day or state of mind, but it can be taken out of its context and still work as a good painting somewhere else.
One final question: what is the worst mistake an artist can make?
I don’t know… In paintings we always make mistakes, and we do something with them. We make a mistake. We fix it.
We make another mistake, and we fix that. And that’s how paintings are born.
We put something down and we do something with it and we’re dissatisfied and then do something else again… I don’t know. I guess I haven’t had enough experience making horrible mistakes to really answer this question.
The “Lights” exhibition is on display until May 17 the at Bernard Gallery, 170 Ben- Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv. The gallery is open Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., 4-7 p.m.; and on Fridays, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Information: (03) 527-7547.