Drawing on early experiences

After bursting onto the art scene at 12 and disappearing from it in 2006, Tal Slutzker is back.

painting 311 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
painting 311
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Tal Slutzker, barely 25 years old, has decided to stage the first full-fledged, high-profile solo exhibition of his paintings. Some would ask, “Why so soon, when the artist is still so young?” Others, however, who are familiar with this young man and aware of his resumé as an artist, are demanding to know what has taken him so long.
You see, Tal Slutzker has a history. Painting since he was eight, studying privately with artist Zachar Sherman at age nine, Slutzker was already being hailed as a child prodigy by the time he was 10. At 12 he felt confident enough about his artistic skills to send a photograph of one of his paintings to then-president of the United States Bill Clinton, who sent a warm letter back, wishing him further success as an artist.
“I sent him a photograph of a painting I made in honor of NASA. Some vehicle reached Mars and inspired me to do this painting. It was a two-meter canvas. I worked on it for quite a while. I just sent him a photograph of the painting with a little letter, and got a letter back,” he says.
A 2000 feature article by Gil Goldfine in The Jerusalem Post began, simply, with the word “remarkable.”
Participation in a few group exhibitions followed, as well as one or two solo shows in minor venues. A now notorious “one-painting exhibition” in the window of the Tova Osman Gallery in Tel Aviv, showing the enormous derriere of a nude woman in a bathtub, stopped both pedestrian and vehicular traffic in front of the gallery on Ben-Yehuda Street.
And then, around 2006, Slutzker simply fell off the radar and disappeared from the local art scene. The young prodigy, after a few heady years of acclaim, decided to quietly hone his skills and develop as an artist. Little or nothing was seen by him or heard about him for the next five years or so.
Until now.
We visit Slutzker at the home of his parents in Herzliya a week before the opening of his exhibition, called “Where is My Mind,” at the Bernard Gallery in Tel Aviv. Slutzker lives and works in Tel Aviv but prefers to keep his paintings in his parents’ apartment, where they seem to cover almost every available inch of wall space. “I keep them here so my parents can enjoy them, or store them, or do whatever they want with them – except destroy them,” he says with the mirthful laughter that punctuates many of his remarks.
Slutzker’s parents, Nachum and Paula, made aliya from the former Soviet Union in 1981, five years before Tal was born. An accomplished violinist, Nachum presented his young son with a choice.
Slutzker recalls: “For some reason my parents thought when I was young that I should be concentrating on one specific activity, so they asked me to choose between the violin and the brush. I chose the brush.”
That choice drove Slutzker through five years of painting and private lessons with Sherman, and propelled him directly from middle school to the Jerusalem Studio School, under Israel Hershberg, which he attended instead of high school. Although lacking in formal education, Slutzker is a voracious reader. He does not read widely but deeply, preferring to concentrate on the subjects that interest him most: art, philosophy and psychiatry. He is both fascinated with and inspired by the theories of psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, and calls a lot of what he paints, especially his hyper-colorful collages, “psychiatric Dadaism.”
What are his major art influences? “I have many influences, and many styles as well. Do you know the book by André Malraux that talks about a museum without walls? So I grew up in this sort of museum-without-walls environment of books and the Internet. I can see paintings of different styles,” he says. Although clearly a figurative painter, Slutzker professes an admiration for some abstract art, particularly the work of Willem de Kooning.
Asked if there is any kind of painting he does not like, Slutzker ponders a moment and replies, “Wow, that’s a difficult question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. Well, when I first came to Israel Hershberg’s school, I was really turned on by the school’s figurative direction, perhaps because I only saw works by the best students. But then when I started to think more about the Israeli art scene, and I saw a growing number of students coming out of this school, I noticed that many of them were painting the same sort of painting, like a patch of a knee or something with a lot of empty space around it. I hate it! That really turns me off!” Slutzker’s oeuvre runs a wide gamut of everything from observational oil paintings that are almost photographic; through works that seem to reference 19th-century Romanticism and Expressionism; onward through surrealism; to Dadaist collages that are done on his computer and are not paintings at all. He says, “I think that collages done on the computer, using Photoshop or something similar, will one day be considered equal to oil paintings, just as Dadaist collages are considered masterpieces today.”
The “Where is My Mind” exhibition draws its title from a song by The Pixies, an American alternative rock band formed in Boston the year Slutzker was born. Asked for the connection between the song title and his exhibition, Slutzker replies, “Perhaps you can see this exhibition about being where my mind has been, because whatever was on my mind, I put on canvas.”
The paintings in the exhibition fall into three groups. The first is composed of realistic figurative paintings taken from observation. The second group consists of hyper-realistic and surrealist paintings in blunt colors that seem to leave their after-images on the retinas of your eyes. Two of these, Double and Schizo, are painted mostly in shades of blue and seem to come from a very frightening corner of Slutzker’s subconscious. The paintings in the third group explore the realms of mass consciousness and pop culture, with some that will perhaps remind a few of us of the psychedelic pop art posters that were sold in “head shops” in late 1960s America.
These allusions are lost on 25-year-old Slutzker, whose reference points are more contemporary. “A lot of this exhibition is driven by Internet imagery,” he says. “The painting of the woman in the bathtub, for example, was done from an Internet jpg file, a very small jpg, blown up and painted. But not all of it.
Some of the works are derived from other sources.
Some are done from photography – my photography – and some are done from life.”
Some of Slutzker’s paintings are not only drawn from his life but occasionally impinge on it as well. He shows me the painting Schizo, for which he says he posed. “My father was very angry at me for painting this. Both of my parents said to me, ‘What are you doing? Why are you painting this kind of stuff? Stop it!’ I don’t know why I got this reaction from them. I don’t know what the problem was. And this one, Narcissus, also drew a very harsh response. I don’t know why.”
It might have to do with what Slutzker says is a somewhat unusual fascination that drives much, if not most of his work. He says: “I am very intrigued by ugliness, extreme ugliness. I’m fascinated by it. I was in Paris not long ago, and I found this book about mental illness and art. I opened the book accidentally to a page showing two people with a terrible, terrible brain disease – microcephaly – tiny heads on huge bodies. It made a huge impression on me. The image came directly into my nervous system. My reaction to it was physical. It was so strong. I had to buy the book just for this one image. And I’ve had a thought for quite a while to paint from this photograph. Extreme ugliness! “People love talking about beauty in painting. But I think that ugly things are way more interesting.
Because beauty attracts people socially. We want to be around beautiful people. We want to have beautiful people as our friends. But extreme ugliness is something we keep away from us, in closed spaces, in hospitals. We hide it away. That’s why it’s not as common to see it as beauty. We see beauty everywhere, on billboards, in advertisements, in the cinema, everywhere, because it attracts people. But extreme ugliness is much more hidden, and therefore much more mysterious.”

“Where is My Mind” is on display until January 14 at the Bernard Gallery, 170 Ben-Yehuda Street, Tel Aviv. Call (03) 527-0547 or visit http://www.bernard-gallery.com for further information.