Artspace Gallery, very close to the beaten track of the German Colony’s popular Emek Refaim Street, is a destination in itself. Gallery owner Linda Zisquit started exhibiting contemporary art here in 1994, and for 22 years has been showing art in her Jerusalem home, with its high-ceilings, arched windows, carpet style-tiled floor, and natural sunlight pouring into the exhibit rooms. The gallery gives a glimpse into Yerushalmi homes from an earlier age.
Zisquit, is a published poet, literary translator, editor, and teacher of creative writing at Bar Ilan University. One of her great talents is bringing people together. Exhibit openings often become an oasis for conversation, with the artworks propelling discussions between lovers of contemporary painting and drawing.
In Exiles, 4 years ago, much of the focus was on people set adrift in boats, which is as timely now as ever. Now, in Characters…, the emphasis shifts to bureaucrats and officials that come to the artist in an almost stream-of-consciousness process.
Though I discussed her background here, her fascinating life bears some repeating.
Born in North Wales, UK, and educated in art schools in Great Britain, Sassoon lived for blocks of time in apartheid Johannesburg, post-apartheid Cape Town, Boston, London and Jerusalem. Then as now, her art reflected her world. Her drawings in the 80’s were of black defendants on trial, and she found herself exhibiting with artists of the South African Resistance Art Movement, including Robert Hodgins, Deborah Bell, and William Kentridge. At the time, Kentridge, an animator, was known only locally, but in the 90’s catapulted to international recognition. Despite the compelling art environment, the political situation deteriorated, causing her and her husband, journalist Benjamin Pogrund, to say their good-byes to their jailed friend Nelson Mandela and re-locate first to London and later to Jerusalem.
All these parts of her life serve to invigorate her visual memory bank and are used to address social and political tremors she senses. Sassoon finds embryonic sparks for her paintings through visual prompts from a variety of sources, including drawings from life, memory, YouTube, and scraps of photographs from around the studio.
She allows the characters emerging on her canvas the flexibility to shift, change, and develop with some fluidity into the final image, sometimes asserting more of a presence, sometimes diminishing into more subdued roles in service to the finished work.
Her involvement in these works is more like that of a choreographer than an artist. She is not specifically invested in formal structure, or in a laborious process. She is an observer of people and is attuned to body language in their movements, and says in her statement:
The movement between the characters as they relate or turn away from each other creates a kind of dance, which interests me. It’s about public or social performance and self-awareness, political and theatrical gestures, people attempting to approach each other.
Gesticulating bureaucrats speaks of an all too familiar world of officialdom. Absent are women at these tables of insistent people. Masks carry over from the previous exhibit as part of her arsenal of revealing and concealing expression. She shows many paintings of paired people that either connect or fail to connect to each other, creating insights into the relationships.
As is her custom, Sassoon commits herself to painting a self-portrait once a year on her birthday. One of the many things we learn from the great Dutch master Rembrandt is his personal practice of painting self-portraits over his life time. Individually, they were paintings of that moment, recording himself. Together, they form a continuum of the artists’ self-awareness as he changed in age, maturity, and psychological state.
It is not unusual for painters to do self portraits; the artist is the model that always shows up and is affordable. Nothing else about the endeavor is easy. The artist-model may not talk too much, but on the downside, she never stops moving. When painting a different sitter, the artist may mark the pose with tape, chalk, plumb lines or other devices to get back in position, but when the model is also the artist, she, out of necessity, is in constant motion, mixing colors, stepping back from the canvas, and if a mirror is used, then every slight shift creates a challenge to return to the same view. This can be an exercise in frustration for a less experienced painter. Sassoon overcomes this challenge by painting from intuition with confidence garnered over time.
Sassoon’s self-studies serve as documentation of likeness, but much more. She is not so much interested in meticulously copying life. She knows this model inside and out. That self-knowledge comes across with a seemingly facile burst of interconnected strokes, unifying the figure to her environment in a cohesive whole.
Uninvited subjects fly in through the door. This exhibit brings us into Sassoon’s world.
The exhibition is open at Artspace Gallery through the summer: in June during gallery hours Tuesday and Thursday 5-7 and by appointment and continues in July and August by appointment.
HaTsfira St. 5
All images courtesy of Artspace Gallery