In the crosshairs

Dissecting Israel’s collective emotional baggage as a country perpetually on the brink of war.

Figures of soldiers surrounded by stark monochrome paintings (photo credit: RON ERDE)
Figures of soldiers surrounded by stark monochrome paintings
(photo credit: RON ERDE)
 The catalogue that goes with Eugene Lemay’s new exhibition “Between Identities: Trauma and Ethics,” which opened last week at the Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan, is a fine volume. In addition to the reproductions of the works on display, it features an illuminating essay by museum director and chief curator Meir Ahronson titled “The Generations That Come After.”
The essay, which follows an excerpt from David Grossman’s 2008 novel To the End of the Land, observes that the exhibition “deals with the trauma that is present in practically every home in Israel.” As a veteran of the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, the 70-yearold museum head evidently knows what he’s talking about. So does the artist, who has quite a bio thus far.
Lemay, a 50-something US-born and currently USbased Israeli, made aliya at the age of seven with his parents and 14 siblings. Moving here involves all sorts of cultural and social recalibrations, but Lemay’s transition was made even more complicated by the fact that his parents were converts from Christianity. His father had even been a member of the clergy, and his mother was a Syrian-Lebanese who grew up in Lebanon. The latter was to come into play when Lemay was on active duty during the First Lebanon War. As a member of a crack IDF unit, he found himself in the village of Tebnine, where his maternal grandfather was born and raised.
All artists must invest their heart, soul, guts and emotional baggage in their creations, but with “Between Identities: Trauma and Ethics,” one gets the feeling that Lemay was also able to channel some of the psychological detritus he accrued in the Lebanon war. But he says that is not a new departure for him.
“I’ve been dealing with the issues of war and traumas from war for many years,” he says. “I think that every Israeli soldier has some trauma of war, even though they don’t express it. I have done many shows based on this idea. I don’t know whether [this show has] more or less [of the trauma in it]. But it’s what I do.”
Lemay has a creative outlet for his emotional wounds and says it is a form of self-therapy.
“I deal with my issues,” he says, noting that there is still some mileage to the sometimes hackneyed idea of an artist’s having to suffer in order to be able to produce creative output. “I think that artists who deal with their issues have more to say. You deal with your fears or your experiences or your memories. I deal with that all the time.”
One is struck by the impact of Lemay’s emotional tribulations and his uncompromising corporeal outpouring as soon as the exhibition hall comes into view. The first thing that meets the unprepared eye is a mass of wooden plinths topped by small silver models. On closer inspection, you realize that they are figures of soldiers in a wide range of positions and postures. The common denominator among them is their battlefield demeanor. The 154 figures include soldiers crouching, running, preparing to fire and helping a wounded comrade-in-arms. Lemay saw and experienced all that and more as a member of the Golani Brigade unit that took part in the bloody battle at the Beaufort Castle, the Crusader fortress in South Lebanon that was previously used by the PLO to fire on Christians in Lebanon and in the Galilee. On the walls of the museum’s display space are nine outsized monochromatic outsized paintings with intriguing layered textures.
Like the good soldier that he was, Lemay staked out the exhibition facility before getting down to brass tacks.
“I went to the museum ahead of time. I always do that first, and then I create my show. I get a feeling of the space,” he explains.
The reconnaissance mission revealed that he couldn’t possibly squeeze in all the 300 model soldiers had created over time, so he made do with about half that number.
Scanning the diminutive figures, it looks like an album of snapshots of things Lemay saw during the course of battle.
“That’s exactly right,” he says. “They are all positions I have seen before of what a soldier does and what I have done, too.”
In addition to presenting the viewer with some appealing aesthetics, Lemay is also keen to engage them as actively as possible in what he produces. Among the 154 figures, there is just one in gold. Why? “I can’t give you an answer to that,” he says.
“It was to create a question. I always try to create layers of questions. Why that figure is in gold is for the observers of the show to interpret in their own way.”
Lemay wants viewers to meet him halfway, if not more.
“Usually my work is much larger,” he notes.
Most of the paintings in the Ramat Gan exhibition are rather sizable, measuring more than 1x2 meters, but Lemay has displayed paintings that are more than 10 meters long and seven meters high in places such as Hong Kong, Luxembourg, Dubai, Amsterdam, Venice and the US.
“I always try to make the person participate in the work so that he is not just a viewer of the work but is part of it,” says the artist.
Lemay certainly gets the viewer viscerally on board.
“I chose black paintings for this show because black draws you into the painting. Even from afar, if you see a black dot it brings you in and you start participating in the work,” he says.
The paintings are, in fact, based on letters that Lemay wrote over the years to the families of his fallen comrades.
But the viewer can’t read what he wrote, which is very much the point.
“I wrote the letters over a period of about 10 years, and I just couldn’t send them. What could I say to parents who had lost their son? The letters were about themselves and who these people were. I couldn’t send them, so I scanned the letters into the computer, created images through layering and layering of the letters, and then I painted on them. It is similar to the computer image, but it is much more free,” he explains.
What you get is a multi-textured affair that keeps the eye and mind busy, trying to decipher the odd character and getting into the shades of the essentially monochromatic spread. Basically, Lemay took something which, if they had access, anyone could read and understand, deconstructed it into illegible form but still left the viewer with the sense that there is something to be delved into and decoded.
While “Between Identities: Trauma and Ethics” was spawned by Lemay’s own military experiences, as Ahronson says, it is something with which many Israelis can painfully identify. Then again, Lemay says the exhibition communicates with people of all cultural stripes, including those who have no firsthand knowledge of the horrors of war.
“A year ago I had a show in Rome. I was amazed by the questions of the people and the interest there. It wasn’t so much about Israel and Palestine, it was really about universal issues. I was very surprised,” he says.
Lemay is clearly working through his own experiences, to great aesthetic and emotive effect.
“You work with what you are, and you have to live with it,” he muses. “It’s not terrible. Life’s a gift.”
“Between Identities: Trauma and Ethics” is on display until May 31. For more information: