There’s a lot to dig into over at the HaMiffal gallery. For starters, there’s a century and a half of history. You don’t immediately get that when you walk into the compound from a quintessential Jerusalem alleyway that leads off busy Agron Street. A couple of strides into the quaint walled passageway, and you enter a different world with a tranquil village ambiance.
The old world feel of the surroundings segues into the compound grounds with its leafy shaded spots and polychromic floral display. But that begins to dissipate when you get to the building. Parts of the old stonework are obscured by an announcement board mottled with all kinds of posters advertising this or that forthcoming cultural event, and the aesthetics of the edifice exterior are augmented by an intriguing spread of artworks.
That is a natural overflow from the considerable creative goings-on inside the building that formed part of the second neighborhood to sprout up outside the woefully overcrowded 19th-century Old City.
Whenever I encounter charming cultural gems of this nature in the capital, my thoughts run along the lines of “This is gorgeous… I wonder how long it will be around before some developer moves in.” Call it genetic Polish pessimism or the result of bitter past experience.
Indeed, there was a rumor circulating that the venerable cultural hub was under threat, due to gripes from neighbors. Thankfully, curator Avital Wexler put my mind to rest on that score. “There was a complaint from one neighbor, but that’s been settled,” she smiles, adding that she and the rest of the HaMiffal crew do their best to keep a low exterior profile.
“That’s why we don’t have too many events outside,” she explains. Then again, with the Netanyahus safely and securely ensconced at the nearby Waldorf Astoria Hotel, there may be the odd security-related restriction temporarily imposed on ordinary taxpaying Jerusalemites in the vicinity.
In fact, there is plenty to see inside, anyway. The only al fresco action I caught during my visit there this week were quiet discussion groups going on in some verdant corner or other, and someone out for a smoke or to make a phone call. Otherwise, all seems to be well at HaMiffal, especially as the second floor has been converted into a spacious, airy area for putting on exhibitions. The current display takes in three offerings – one tandem affair, a solo effort, and an installation.
“Where We Stand”
The triad spread appears under the “Where We Stand” titular umbrella, which is a nifty translation of the Hebrew banner “Where Are Our Relationships Going?” As such, all the works look at interfaces, possible flashpoints, overlaps, confluences, yin-yang dynamics, distance, and identity.
All four artists in question are women, which Wexler explains, is not by chance. Neither is the thematic line.
“I felt there is something in the air about relationships right now,” she says with a nod toward the prevalent protest spirit that has spread across the country. There doesn’t seem to be anything that ever happens here that doesn’t have some political overtone or undertone, whether we like it or not. Seems that’s the case with the thinking behind the current HaMiffal exhibition crop.
“Recently, because of the political situation, that has risen to the surface,” she suggests. That relates to politics with an uppercase and lowercase “p.”
“It might be within families, with relatives having fierce arguments during the lockdowns, and thereafter. The whole business of relationships between partners, siblings, and other people, is all in upheaval. There is a feeling that the political situation is bringing out tension. That is on the political level, but it also comes down to the very personal sphere, too.”
That comes into the curatorial line of thinking as well. Wexler says there is a sequential kinesthetic to the three layouts.
“They are separate but, in a sense, they also form a single cohesive unit.” Always happy to go with the flow, I observe that is the essence of a curator’s brief – to find connections among different artworks and to place them in a way that draws the spectator in, and then along a thematic and/or aesthetic continuum.
In this case, Wexler puts that down largely to the structural milieu. “There is something about this space. This is my first gig as a curator here. It is a wonderful place.”
We start the tour with the dyad exhibition created by Liron Cohen and Ayala Netzer. They bring varied disciplinary backdrops and styles to their shared public plate.
Cohen is a Jerusalemite artist who also works with tattoos, as well as being a graphic designer, illustrator, and painter. Netzer is a graduate of screen arts at Bezalel, now studying textile design at Shenkar College of Engineering Design and Art in Ramat Gan. That’s quite an artistic purview which, says Wexler, informs their show. Their slot in “Where We Stand” goes by the sensorially enticing and intriguing name of Roses and Fur.
There is an oxymoronic core element to Netzer’s artistic ethos, suggested by her decision to attend Shenkar, where texture is a prominent feature, coupled with her embrace of technological presentational advancements.
“She works with digital painting which she prints out on all sorts of materials,” says Wexler. Sounds like a neat combo of the virtual and the corporeal.
Personal dynamics also come into the display equation. Cohen and Netzer are pals, and the simpatico factor is in evidence throughout. That and a fine balancing act between the pristine linear avenue and a less bridled attack. Then there are the mythological elements that evoke echoes of ancient Greek culture and a primeval take on emotions and imagery. There are some fantastical creatures in there, alongside some theistic shapes, which together impart a sense of heightened energy somehow couched in gentler visual verbiage.
Wexler has cleverly juxtaposed monochromic works by both artists, and the observer can find themselves lulled into a false sense of supposed uniformity when, in fact, the black and white creations contrast sharply, both in intent and presentational format. Another wall has a bunch of colorful digital prints by Netzer which still retain a sense of the monochrome with, once again, an equal-and-opposite seesaw element. The pictures are seeped in rich gay tones yet convey a sense of darkness and even foreboding.
On closer inspection, more defined and recognizable forms begin to emerge in some of the paintings.
“Animals represent relationships,” Wexler tells me when we catch some of the zoomorphic shapes in Cohen’s paintings, particularly some larger works suspended from the ceiling in the next room.
“In a given situation, she feels like this cat, for example.” Then again, the paintings are hardly the result of thorough zoological research. “She didn’t spend her time observing animals,” the curator continues. “It is as if the animals are like artistic metaphors for the way she is feeling at that time.” Indeed, that reminds one of part of the idea behind mythology, whereby deities serve to “explain” natural phenomena and emotions, such as the waves of the sea, thunder, love, and jealousy. Stands to aesthetic and conceptual reason. “It is a sort of personification.” It is a rich storybook-like display.
And, as the works hang freely in the room rather than on the wall, we get to walk in and around them. We can also view the obverse side which imparts a sense of a photographic negative and draws us into the machinations of how Cohen went about her business. Texture, tangibility, and plain physical presence also play a part in the display mode, as if the paintings are an embodiment of the artist’s inner world. There is a playful, almost mischievous, element to it all, too. In one painting, Cohen even has a hefty line trailing out of the confines of the work and onto the wall.
The Hamiffal structure is very much part and parcel of the presentation philosophy.
Naturally, that is the case with the site-specific installation by Shulamit Etzion which she calls Last Watch #2. The materials and objects feed off elements of construction sites, including cement, wood, metal, and nylon. The coarse source substances are fed into a lyrical arrangement so that, notwithstanding their unrefined essence, they combine to produce a perfectly acceptable natural symphony of shapes and textures.
Relationships are front and center here too. We are faced with an intimate interior of a bedroom, complete with a ramshackle double bed. Or is it? There is, in fact, only a single mattress with a gaping void next to it where the artist’s partner should be. Etzion is a single mother with two children who, despite creating a domestic structure, is missing the last piece of the familial jigsaw. It is an emotive and arresting piece.
“The delicate and fragile room is positioned overtly in a public space that intensifies the sense of absence and loneliness it elicits,” Wexler explains in her exhibition notes. But there is a sunny side to the religious artist’s installation, too. “Alongside the pain of searching for partnership and love, there is a hidden promise, the hope of the scarlet thread tied to the ladder leaning against the wall,” Wexler continues.
Hope shimmers through the personal gloom as, perhaps, the artist may climb up the steps to a higher, happier plane. There is another, personal, moving touch to the work in the shape of a white hand towel with blue stripes – used for traditional ritual purification purposes – which, apparently belonged to the artist’s Holocaust survivor grandmother.
The timeworn edifice, and its accrued storied backdrop, also come into play in the works, the positioning thereof, and the selected display area of Merav Shinn Ben-Alon’s In Recent Months. There is a frisson to the layout which sits in the most colorful and evocative section of the second floor. The largely minimalistic oil and felt pen pictures play a nip-and-tuck part with the 19th-century polychromic floor tiles, as well as with the decorative vignettes, on the walls and ceiling, that have survived the unceasingly frenetic flow of life in this neck of the global political woods.
“The series of paintings was created recently out of an impetus to act within a disturbing, paralyzing reality,” Wexler writes.
There is an autobiographical-chronological core to the show. Ben-Alon chronicles events that affect her, and the emotional passages of her life, in sketchbook diaries in which she records the things she observes and ponders “freely and with minimalistic precision, sometimes referring to images from current affairs or art.”
That makes for compelling and immersive viewing as you catch truncated body parts and vegetation, incomplete figures streaked with diluted paint that leads you hither and thither. There is a comic book or figurative study look to the spread which somehow combines into a cohesive narrative. The works are largely created in black and red – as per Ben-Alon’s wont – but there is an outsized orangey orb in there as well, with shrubs, charred tree trunks, and some fetching foliage dotted around proffering a dystopian-utopian dynamic.
That fits the “Where We Stand” ethos and, let’s face it, large tracts of human life – especially relationships.
‘Where We Stand’ closes on September 22. For more information: hamiffal.com/ ❖