The hills are alive in Ruth Kestenbaum Ben Dov’s exhibit, “The Same Landscape,” at the German Colony’s Artspace Gallery. Whether you prefer Julie Andrews or Carrie Underwood, there is no bursting into song and dance. These are, after all, not Swiss Alps, rather softly undulating Galilean hillsides.
Kestenbaum Ben Dov, in this, her third solo at this charming off-the-beaten-track Jerusalem venue (a review of the previous one can be seen here), digresses from the art work we have come to associate with her, such as Hebrew texts and self-portraits. She has chosen, instead, to concentrate on her own front yard.
And what a front yard it is. American-born, Kestenbaum Ben Dov has lived in Israel for over thirty years, holds a BFA in art from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and lives and works in the village of Eschar in Misgav in the north of Israel.
These works, all created in close proximity to her studio were done in the same landscape, session after session over a three year period, between 2010 and 2013. Most entail long hard looks at the views to pin down the subtle color changes resulting from differing times of day, seasons or atmospheric changes.
This is not an exhibit that shouts out at the viewer. The volume has been turned down very low. Seeing is paramount and no intellectual gymnastics are required. Try to listen for the hush of the bristles.
While their approaches to painting the landscape differ widely, it is Claude Monet who comes to mind as an antecedent to these works. Kestenbaum Ben Dov’s works are a close response to the nature as seen, rather than painting an impression of one’s perceptions which Monet did, bringing him to be considered the founder of Impressionism. His series of paintings of haystacks changing color and light with the angle of the sun spring to mind, as well as the later series of views of the Rouen cathedral at different times of day.
In the mammoth exhibit, “Claude Monet (1840-1926),” shown at the Grand Palais in 2010 -2011 in Paris, John House pointed out that these works represented a shift in the artist’s approach:
Two points are crucial here: Monet’s emphasis on the changing light effect as his primary subject, rather than the material motif represented, and his insistence on the value of the entire series, seen together.
Here too, Kestenbaum Ben Dov sees the same view afresh in each painting, open to shifts in light, a different angle or emphasis. Light is also her main subject. By exhibiting these works of the same landscape together, like Monet, the artist demands from the viewer to slow down and look at what may, at first glance, seem like very similar paintings, yet are all unique.
The artist standing en plein air has the experience of smelling the earth, hearing the shrubs rustle, feeling the wind in her hair, the warmth of the sun or the coolness of the breeze, as well as the more annoying aspects of nature like gnats and flies drawn to the smell of the oil and paints. Of course, these sensations are unknown to the viewer.
Nature is often overwhelming in its complexity. Seeing the works of repeated engagements with the hills together, one gets to share in the decision-making process of the artist vicariously. Like an editor, the artist must decide what is included, what is important, what is superfluous to convey the particularity of each separate outdoor session. The paintings vary in sizes, from small studies to more sustained larger paintings, from classically proportioned rectangles to elongated narrow ones, with the occasional vertical view as well. In some, a unifying underpainting color may be used which peeks through later applications of paint, in others not. The viewer can compare all these nuanced choices, without the sweat and dust.
The Western approach to landscape painting traditionally divides the image into foreground, middle ground and background. For many painters, very often it is the foreground that presents the greatest challenge, and some of her works evidence that battle. In one effort she uses an arc to delineate the space, in another Kestenbaum Ben Dov simplifies it in a blurry shortcut to a solution. One title reveals a painting focusing on a centered single flower that is pulled from memory, another tack.
Many of the stronger works take on less and stand well on their own with nature providing the answers. Her atmospheric series called “Five Views” includes gentle fog rounding a bend, like that which “comes on little cat feet” a delicate evocation of winter drives through the cooler times of the year, as now (nod to Carl Sandburg- this gallery is owned by a poet, after all).
Though her approach is a narrow one vis à vis the range of contemporary approaches to landscape painting, Kestenbaum Ben Dov succeeds in conveying the experience of her vista with the sensitivity of one who breathes it in and out each day. For the rest of us, the city dwellers and those that live far from the splendor of the Galilee, these paintings make her front yard ours.
Doing what comes naturally works. Over and over again.
Artspace Gallery, exhibit extended through the end of January, closing date undetermined as of this writing. Hours are Tuesday and Thursday from 5-7 p.m. or by appointment (02) 566-2423.
Announcement: The exhibition “My Soul Thirsts” at Heichal Shlomo in Jerusalem, part of the Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art that was reiviewed here, has been extended through December 22, 2013.