My Word: Homing in on corona-era art

The theme is “Four Cubits,” relating to the biblical concept of personal space.

 Motta Brim, the inspiration for ‘Shtisel,’ in his temporary JB2021 studio in the old Shaare Zedek building. (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
Motta Brim, the inspiration for ‘Shtisel,’ in his temporary JB2021 studio in the old Shaare Zedek building.
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)

Open your home to art. This could sum up the theme of this year’s Jerusalem Biennale taking place at several venues around the capital. JB2021 is more thought-provoking than provocative, which is itself refreshing.

Jerusalem Biennale founder and chief curator Rami Ozeri admits that this one, the fifth, had particular challenges, including budget and travel constraints, given how much the world has changed since JB2019. He managed nonetheless to draw together some 300 artists, mostly from Israel but also from the US, UK, Italy, Belgium, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, United Arab Emirates and Argentina.

The theme is “Four Cubits,” relating to the biblical concept of personal space. “This year’s Jerusalem Biennale is very different from previous ones where we would gather in museums, galleries and other public spaces to share the art experience,” says Ozeri. “This year, we are asking the question is art part of our private domain? Do we have meaningful artworks on the walls of our living room, bedroom or kitchen? And if so, what should we do to take this one step further and share this art with family, friends or even strangers?”

Ozeri shares that in his own home his children have a monthly rotating exhibition of their artwork.

On a press tour in the former Shaare Zedek Hospital building on Jaffa Road, an architectural delight, Ozeri explains that most of the paintings, although signed, are deliberately not labeled. This enables visitors to judge how they feel about the works without preconceived conceptions about the artists and their reputation. 

The Jerusalem Biennale is taking place throughout the capital. (Moran Family, Nuclear Capsules Exhibition at the Black Box Gallery). (credit: YAIR MEYUCHAS)
The Jerusalem Biennale is taking place throughout the capital. (Moran Family, Nuclear Capsules Exhibition at the Black Box Gallery). (credit: YAIR MEYUCHAS)

As part of the #TakeMeHome project, visitors can enter a lottery and if chosen will be able to adopt their selected piece of art on a six-month loan with the possibility of buying it at the end of that period. With this in mind, the artists submitted work they thought people would want to see in their homes. It’s a literally “picture this” experience – imagining whether you would want to live with a particular painting. (Even without a label, I immediately identified and admired the work of my friend and former colleague, Yael Oren.)

The Four Cubit theme allowed for a great deal of creativity. One accompanying installation, by Yehudit Barmatz Harris, is called “Hush,” based on the children’s book Goodnight Moon. Barmatz created a small pendulum clock and a picture of the moon and chairs using lint from a clothes dryer. (She seems taken aback by my offer to provide huge quantities of dog hair to turn into art, each person and their own association of home.) The centerpiece is a mobile, also made from lint, behind which a spotlight projects a shadow of a nursing mother on a wall situated behind a rocking chair.

Two artists, Chanan Mazal and Motta Brim, have their own on-site temporary studios. Mazal’s is full, floor to ceiling, with his colorful paintings. Many were painted on reused canvases as he worked “in such isolation” in his studio during corona lockdowns, he notes. 

As a veteran immigrant from New York, his work is both Zionist yet universal. Many of the displayed paintings are based on the theme of “the need we all have to be an insider, to belong,” he says. He also addresses the idea of self-sacrifice and courageous moves, like aliyah, moving to Israel: “What we do for our children, so that even if we are outsiders, our kids will be at home and belong.”

During corona, Mazal says, he had a burst of creativity, painting for the proverbial “ordinary person.” “I want the viewer to be able to enjoy my work even if they haven’t taken a course in post-modernism,” he says.

Brim has become known, not by his own design, as the character who inspired the hugely popular series Shtisel, although this ultra-Orthodox artist and son of a haredi school principal admits he has only seen two episodes.

The affable Brim is happy to talk (in Hebrew) about his work. He is also participating in the JB2021’s PHASEs project, Private Homes Art Space Events, in which audiences can visit artistic private spaces for more a intimate experience.

Brim is a born artist. A strong childhood memory was, at the age of six or seven, recreating in plasticine the Western Wall and an Arab woman carrying a basket on her head. One of 12 children, a younger sister didn’t appreciate the budding talent and took the plasticine for her own needs. “I’ve always wanted to recreate it again,” Brim says. “And one day, I will.”

His parents were very accommodating of his passion for art, he says, and he spent hours painting while lying on the floor. In one exhibit, he has placed a painting of his childhood home, with a print of the patterned tiled floor beneath it. 

Brim thinks out of the box, or out of the frame as they say in Hebrew. A series of works is based on the pattern that hallot leave on the baking paper when they come out of the oven. The stains of braided loaves turn into dancing figures.

After doing many self portraits, looking back and forth between his image in a mirror next to the easel, he decided to try something different. Placing the mirror directly in front of himself, he painted his portrait, over his shoulder, on a canvas behind him. It’s a skill and an art.

After the press tour, I came across two more Biennale participants. Selena Rojhani, from Los Angeles, managed to combine a honeymoon and family visit with JB2021, particularly fortuitous after corona-enforced separation. Sara Shira Cutler looks every inch the artist when I first see her, covered in paint, standing close to a bold, red painting of an open-mouthed man. “I was trying to paint sound,” she says. With a distinctive style, she has found her own voice.

The Jerusalem Biennale itself has a home at last, at least for the next few years. The 120-year-old, former Shaare Zedek building, which also served the now defunct IBA, has been acquired by Ruach Hadasha which has dedicated the space to serve as a gallery in the non-Biennale years. The hospital’s former synagogue on the ground floor, with a splendid decorated ceiling, currently, fittingly, has a display of judaica by silversmith Sari Srulovitch.

Other venues for JB2021 include: HaMiffal, Jerusalem Print Workshop, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the Agripas 12 Gallery, Gesher Guest House, Mamilla, and the Tower of David. 

On the press tour, we take in two more venues. The open-air Black Box Gallery outside the Clal Building, curated by Asaf Cohen and Yitzhak Mizrahi, encapsulates the corona era with photographic depictions of Jerusalem families, “imprisoned in lightboxes,” four cubits in size. 

At the nearby, once splendid, Beit Alliance building we meet artists from a different school – the Pardes School of Art in Givat Washington, which caters to religious students. Among the collective displaying their works is British-born Sam Griffin whose paintings explore the themes of his search for his family history and his spiritual journey.

JB2021 runs until December 30. I’m not sure I’ll have time to visit all the sites, but I hope to see the work of another Post colleague Heddy Abramowitz whose mixed media “The Book of Shared Burdens 2021” is on display at the Kol HaOt Gallery. Abramowitz honors Ruth Bader Ginsburg and women soldiers in the IDF.

ONE OF THE best lessons I learned in life came from the Post’s late art critic Meir (Mike) Ronnen. Many years ago, while covering a charity art auction for the paper, a painting beckoned me to take it home to my tiny studio apartment.

The next day, I found Ronnen and blurted out: “I think I have done something stupid. I bought a painting at an auction without knowing who the artist was or what it was worth.”

Ronnen replied: “There are two things you have to ask yourself: Do you still like it and did you have the money for it? If the answer to both those questions is ‘yes,’ then nothing else really matters.”

In that spirit, if the corona lockdowns left you climbing the walls, now is a good time to refresh them with a painting. Even when life is not picture perfect, it can incorporate a thing of beauty. As the Post’s Barry Davis put it, “Home is where the art is.”