Walking the tightrope between abstraction and realism,  Silvia Bar-Am exhibits intimate works in the exhibition “Walls and Voices”  in Jerusalem’s Artspace Gallery.

Bar Am, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and in Israel since the early 70’s, is a trained classical musician, but followed her muse to art.  She developed an early interest in abstract painting and, eventually, she found herself drawn to realism.  Studying at the Avni Institute in the early 90’s for a short term with the well-known realist painter, Israel Hershberg, she has continued producing works emphasizing observation from nature through the present, with a strong predilection for still life and landscape.

"Triptycon I" oil on linen mounted on wood 19.5 X 51 cm 21-11 by Sylvia Bar-Am (image courtesy of Artspace Gallery)

This, Bar-Am’s third solo exhibit at Artspace Gallery, centers on twenty-six oil paintings of architectural motifs in Jerusalem’s Nachlaot neighborhood.  Mostly of small dimension, these works are modest in scale but not ambition.  Commonly, landscape artists choose small scale works in order to complete them on site in a single setting.  Here, however, the works were meant to be completed in the studio as Aviva Winter, a professor of art history, points out in the accompanying catalogue, “She starts out alla prima, but most of the work  is done in the studio, where the walls, openings and windows move and take shape in a metamorphosis process….”

Hans Hoffman,  the influential artist /teacher said,

 Creation is dominated by three absolutely different factors: First, nature, which works upon us by its laws; second, the artist, who creates a spiritual contact with nature and his materials; third, the medium of expression through which the artist translates his inner world.

(Or hers, as here.) This reduction of the act of painting to these basic elements is useful to organize how these works might be considered, where these key items are precariously combined.

There is much to consider in pulling off a successful work done from nature.  One of the challenges of the landscape painter, besides the logistical aspects of requiring a mini-studio brought to the site of the work, also includes the changing light and weather conditions if working outdoors.  Constant variations of light, whether due to time of day, moving clouds or wind in the trees, are part of the vibrancy of the outdoor experience that an artist, working en plein air, must react to with immediacy and efficiency on the canvas.

A certain risk exists in re-working paintings started in nature in another removed setting – shifts of color can diminish their impact, the original excitement which the artist found in the motif can be weakened while accommodating to other aesthetic considerations, the fascination with detail can sometimes derail the power of the original big idea of the painting. Of course, in the best scenario, when away from the motif, the artist can consider the painting on its own terms and, if the painting gods cooperate, salvage an awkward start or bring a painting to its potential.

With skills as an abstract painter and as a realist painter both under her belt, Bar-Am has chosen to combine these seemingly disparate approaches in her works. Finding a balance that rings true in this challenge is a difficult feat.   Painted over the course of three years in Nachlaot , her varying attempts to find the right equilibrium are on display, with some of her works stressing one end of this spectrum more than the other.

 

"Entrance, Late in the Day" oil on linen mounted on wood 19.5 X 17 cm 2010 by Sylvia Bar-Am (image courtesy of Artspace Gallery

They range, on one end, from works in which the strong Jerusalem light falling on the sun-bleached, white-washed, crumbling walls and openings is carefully observed, resulting in studies emphasizing simple geometry. The best of these, where the essential structure of the work is preserved despite later added flourishes, achieve a certain humbleness and are the most successful.   On the other end are works which are invested with great effort at creating a high level of finish and, in my opinion, an excess of detail.  In building up layers of paint, then scraped and reapplied to achieve a mottled effect on a wall, the solidity of the wall may be lost, sometimes to the detriment of the work as a whole.  In others, the siren call of the picturesque may capsize a well-launched painting.

Gideon Ofrat, the noted art historian, says in a literary letter to Bar-Am, included in the catalogue:

What is art if not the attempt to enter the orchard, and who is an artist if not the one who peeked and was hurt, but wishes to peek again.

Overall, Bar-Am has struck out on a good path and should keep peeking over the wall and attempting glimpses into the orchard.

 

Exhibition continues at Artspace Gallery approximately through mid-June.