Much like encountering an insect caught in amber, certain moments have been frozen in the ooze of what feels like memory:   the wending of wind through olive trees, the breaking up as light meets water, the arc of his wife’s back.  New paintings by Gil Haller on display at poet Linda Zisquit’s Artspace Gallery in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighborhood focus on a specific time and place.

“Sharon by the Pool” 2012 50 cm X 40 cm oil on wood by Gil Haller

The choice of subject includes landscapes from Israel, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Italy,  self-portraits, family and a still life, but more than the pleasant locations or situations that inspired these works there is  something else mixed in between what Haller transposes  from the perceived into what he conveys. Strong compositional divisions of the formats are evident and his search for  color includes the range from intensely warm oranges and ochers to quieter lavender and peachy pastels, sometimes bordering on the sweet and delicate.

Haller, Jerusalem born in 1979, studied painting at the Jerusalem Studio School for three years, and subsequently spent time on student cultural exchanges in Italy.  This is Haller’s third solo exhibit, his second at this venue. Fans of the television program “The Portrait (“ha Diokan”) may recall his appearance on that popular reality show where he painted Knesset member Ahmad Tibi’s likeness.

Old photographs often serve as a source of inspiration for Haller, and, in other work outside this exhibit, he has transposed black and white photos into close duplications of the originals, parlaying vintage sporting events or obscure family memorabilia into a second life for those long-forgotten moments.  The verisimilitude is so close that they can cause confusion as to whether they are formed mechanically or by the human hand, and beg a philosophical question regarding the significance of “reality.”

“Landscape 7″ 30 cm X 50 cm oil on wood by Gil Haller

The 25 paintings completed over a three year period in the current exhibit, titled “You had to be there,” are not efforts at painstaking duplication of musty photographs or of nature. While photographs are Haller’s starting point in these works, as well, something else besides marveling at his copying abilities is at play here.

There is certainly nothing new in the use of photographs as an aide memoire for a painter.   Practically since the invention of photography painters quickly caught on to the camera’s faster eye and ability to order space as an asset to their work.  Delacroix, Degas, Eakins,  and thousands of painters in their wake adopted photography as one more tool to achieve their goals, though it might remain in the realm of a trade secret.

A handy shortcut to translating the three-dimensional world into two dimensions,  photography organizes much of the visual information that real life assaults one with and saves the artist many decisions.   But stream-lining creates other issues for the painter:  how can one keep the painting vital in a time when the photograph is ubiquitous, when a phone camera and Instagrams are a click away for every lay person?

The photograph, whether from magazines, the internet or family albums, is the start, but not the end of Haller’s paintings.  The instantaneous click is slowed to a much different pace when transformed into paint,  a kind of technical  throwback as if applying a buggy whip to jet travel.

“Olive Trees” 2010 48 cm X 55 cm oil on wood by Gil Haller

The works have a contemporary feel,  but the execution is not accomplished through the latest technical processes. The shapes of color that Haller interconnects sometimes give a sense of color separation in modern printing processes, resulting in the simplification of the larger masses of the paintings and the intertwining of smaller details with jagged geometric borders delineating them one from the other.  His brushwork is nearly flat, a good thing here, so that the viewer can appreciate the unadorned, directly- painted color transitions without distracting flourishes. Inside the shapes, some masses are a single hue, while others have their own nuances of variety within the borders. The paintings are not formulaic in their creation, thus saving them from being deadened by an automatic procedure.  Here perception, memory and imagination co-mingle.

“Self-Portrait 2″ 50 cm X 40 cm oil on wood by Gil Haller

Of the two self-portraits on display, one profile, one full-faced, it is the latter that drew me in.  Haller’s steady gaze takes us into his own frozen moment, we see his neutral expression that fails to belie a hint of weariness. To my taste, Haller is at his best in his carefully considered figure paintings, where his feel for emotional nuance is just under the surface.  Confidence is paired with restraint.

Simplified, yet not simple.  Like being there.

Artspace Gallery,  ends January 17, Tuesday 5-7, Thursday 5-7 or by appointment 02-5662423. (All images courtesy of Artspace Gallery).