Tribute to a distant past

The 4 gallery spaces dedicated to Izhar Patkin’s new exhibition can only be fully taken in by being present in the space.

‘The Dead Are Here’ (detail), 2009 521 (photo credit: Yulia Tsukerman)
‘The Dead Are Here’ (detail), 2009 521
(photo credit: Yulia Tsukerman)
‘Lovely” is generally not a word associated with contemporary art. In fact, the word might be anathema to the large majority of today’s working artists, and to art world commentators and critics.
Nevertheless, Izhar Patkin’s current exhibition, on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, is just that: lovely.
Titled “The Wandering Veil,” the exhibition is organized thematically and is billed as a career survey, a glance at the artist’s oeuvre over a period of 30 years.
It includes paintings, sculpture and examples of the artist’s occasional works in porcelain. The center of the exhibition, a group of large-scale works, is referred to as The Veiled Suite.
The initial idea for the exhibition came from the museum’s curator of Israeli art, Ellen Ginton, and with the coordination of the museum’s former director, Moti Omer, and the artist, was eventually brought to fruition. The exhibition extends to the Open Museum at Tefen Industrial Park in the Galilee, which features Patkin’s sculpture Don Quijote Segunda Parte, originally shown at the Venice Biennale in 1990.
Patkin was born in 1955. At school he was considered talented, but did not make the effort necessary to excel. Due to the influence and advice of sculptor Itzhak Danziger he began studying lithography at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and then left for New York in 1977.
According to Patkin, Danziger said, “Go forth from here, from Tel Aviv and from Raffi Lavie, before they get their hands on you and won’t let you be what you are. Skip Europe, it is no longer the place.”
Strong words, no doubt, to the ears of an impressionable 22-year-old.
Patkin fared well in New York; after a period of study he began exhibiting and met with some success. He explored various media and in 1982 began experimenting with tulle – a light but durable netting material often used for veils and gowns. It is the works executed in this material, as well as his sculptures, that he is best known for.
Patkin’s subjects revolve around the themes of history and memory and tentatively explore family attachments and childhood memories.
Commenting on his work processes in a recent interview in Haaretz, the artist said, “I cast the images and actors. I invent a place, a stage and a context that deepen the narrative.”
On display in this exhibition are a series of works done in collaboration with Agha Shahid Ali, an American/Kashmiri poet who died in 2001. Patkin undertook to create a visual realization of some of Shahid Ali’s poetry and translations and render his ideas on tulle hangings.
The works are hung throughout four gallery spaces; each space presents a painting that Patkin has themed around a poem. The paintings stretch from floor to ceiling on each of the gallery’s four walls, almost enfolding the viewer in a theatrical scene. The effect is impressive, and at times magical.
The works, subtitled “illusions,” appear to be a world unto themselves, a series of interwoven, staged settings with a host of characters that conjure up both faded and idyllic visions of an old Europe and a prestate Israel.
Patkin enacts his dramas by contrasting scenes of splendor, of ballrooms and horse-drawn carriages, with barren landscapes peopled with lone characters and travelers.
In the work titled Violins, done after a translation of a Mahmoud Darwish poem, we see historical figures such as John F.
Kennedy and the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, famous for his renditions of the Bach cello suites.
Kennedy and his e n t o u r a g e appear to be in an elegant ballroom and are in full evening dress.
Portraits adorn the walls.
Patkin has lightly sketched out the figures and the scene, the colors are muted and everything seems spectral or veiled.
In close vicinity is a battalion of soldiers, either coming from or going to war. The grit and harshness of everyday life are not far from the grandeur of the ballroom and its blessed personages.
Making our way further into the Suite, we enter a work titled The Dead Are Here.

Despite the title, the work is anything but bleak. The hangings present a panoramic vista, resembling an arcadian scene of classical statues, a lake and fields of white graves, all set against vibrantly colored, rose-blossomed trees.
A girl sits beneath one of the statues, a birdcage by her side.
The scene is beautifully rendered, the colors as vivid as those of Matisse or the Impressionists. Yet as with the other settings it is tinged with melancholy; the gravestones cast no shadow on such a glorious scene; rather, it is the realization on our part that this is simply too lovely, too unreal and so removed from our present-day life.
The four gallery spaces given over to these hangings can only be fully taken in by being present in the space – even photographic reproductions do not capture their effect. This is possibly because each work essentially creates a setting on a four-walled space, but also because of Patkin’s technique, partly achieved through his use of tulle, of never fully revealing his characters, who appear as apparitions in ill-defined landscapes.
The Veiled Suite is the high point of the exhibition, but there are other works on display that, taken as a whole, contribute to a show that, at times, seems like a paean to a distant past, or at least to have left the 21st century behind.
The soft folds of a porcelain sculpture of the Virgin Mary are offset by a striking, jagged glass sculpture titled The Messiah’s GlAss. Portraits of family members, ballet dancers and a series of paintings influenced by Middle Eastern mosaic patterns, all continue the historical theme, which is at times nostalgic, but not sentimental.
The exhibition closes on December 1.