Is the child’s view essential to the artist? Does this benefit the painting?

These and other questions arise from the exhibit “Vayehi Hayom” at the Jerusalem Artists’ House. Arad-born Shimon Pinto shows oil paintings winding from childhood memories, through identity questions, and ending with complex references in deceptively simple settings, often punctuated with humor.

It was Pablo Picasso who said: Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.

It is with eyes open in wonder that Pinto approaches the world.

Israeliness, 2012, Oil on canvas, 75 x 65 cm by Shimon Pinto

Israeliness, 2012, Oil on canvas, 75 x 65 cm by Shimon Pinto (courtesy of Artists’ House)

In Israeliness we see the optimism of early harbingers of spring, Cyclamen (rakefet) flowers, uncharacteristically yellow, reaching skyward from a summit topped with a pita-shaped vase or pot, in the simple hues easily found in a crayon box. Is this the joy of mundane pleasures or an understated stab at political criticism? Curator Ilan Wizgan suggests both are possible in his statement:

Whether idealistic and ideological as in the works of early artists in Eretz Yisrael, or critical and political as in those of contemporary Israeli artists, the characteristic they have in common is the attempt to adopt the perspective of the child, the untouched gaze, unspoiled and free of mannerism and excess.

In today’s climate of charged codes, can pita merely be bread or is it part of the turf war of local imagery in the wider political conflict? Is it a simple childhood pleasure or is it a visual statement asking whose fertile ground gives rise to nature’s annual renewal? And, given the naiveté used, can we be over-thinking this – or, in Freudian parlance, is a banana just a banana?

This exhibition assumes familiarity with certain symbols and connotations in the paintings from Israeli art history and from Jewish traditions. Itzhak Danziger’s iconic sculpture Nimrod, considered so central in Israeli art that it is displayed at the juncture of the Israel Museum’s three main wings, is seen by many as the quintessential expression of angst over Jewish/Israeli identity (religious references can be found here, artistic ones here). Nimrod is pivotal in Israeli art – an exhibition at this same venue was devoted to a gathering of contemporary responses to it.

White Crow, 2010, Oil on canvas, 150 x 130 cm by Shimon Pinto

White Crow, 2010, Oil on canvas, 150 x 130 cm by Shimon Pinto

Pinto continues the long line of artists who have wrestled with Nimrod. Danziger’s sculpture, which harkens to a pre-Jewish age, is apparently uncircumcised, bears a falcon on his shoulder as a reference to ancient Egypt and is, indeed, an unlikely visitor to a tiled Jewish ritual bath (mikveh). His companion is perched while he immerses, witness to a ritual change, an unusual mikveh attendant. A complex chain of references are subsumed in Pinto’s pared-down setting. The viewer is left to ponder the implications.

Tel Aviv, 2011, Oil on canvas, 150 X 130 cm by Shimon Pinto

Tel Aviv, 2011, Oil on canvas, 150 X 130 cm by Shimon Pinto

In Tel Aviv, we see the vision of a white donkey, which Jewish tradition says will bear the Messiah to redeem the world at the site of the Temple Mount. Instead of that site vital to Judaism and Islam with its highly-charged atmosphere, we see a riderless donkey incongruously wandering the entrance plaza of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a very different sort of pinnacle in the Israeli art world. Despite its relaxed exterior, Pinto may be suggesting, tongue-in-cheek, that its inner workings could also be highly-charged and controversial in other ways, or that the donkey is tarrying in secular Tel Aviv while the Jewish people wait. Pinto leaves the question open.

As an artist from Beer Sheva it would seem likely that he would draw his influences from local Israeli culture. As Wizgan mentions, Pinto is a double outsider in the Israeli art world, neither running with the Bezalel School crowd, nor, being religiously observant, is he an easy fit in Israel’s decidedly secular art world. Ori Reisman’s  paintings of flat simple shapes comes close as an antecedent to Pinto’s works.

As a graduate of the Visual Art Center of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Pinto was as peripheral to the art scene as one could be in those formative years. This, perhaps, may have contributed to the clarity of his personal voice.

The question of influence was once a relatively simple matter for the curator: could the artists have crossed paths, could they have visited each other, known about each other, seen one another’s exhibits, owned each other’s works? Pity the poor curators who will write of artists and their influences in the internet age, with social media a given in terms of cross-fertilization.

One can make a case that Philip Guston – whose painterly cartoon-like masterful works pack a strong visual punch and are laced with humor and charm — could have been an influence. There are others, notably Katherine Bradford, who, though working in NY a world away, share a closely-related approach, though not identical.

Swimmer, oil on canvas, 19 x 20 cm by Shimon Pinto

Swimmer, oil on canvas, 19 x 20 cm by Shimon Pinto

Pinto’s boy, swimming amidst strokes of blue-is-for-water-blue, embodies a memory of pleasure, while Bradford’s Man Under Water, also done with a child-like approach, evidences more tension and fore-boding in the subject matter and displays greater sophistication in color choice and execution, with well-integrated happy accidents of drips in her paint handling. If Pinto is not already familiar with these artists, he will find an affinity in their works.

Man Under Water, oil on canvas, 8" x 6 " 2010 c. by Katherine Bradford

Man Under Water, oil on canvas, 8″ x 6 ” 2010 © by Katherine Bradford

Regardless of influences absorbed, it is not the universality of his work that stands out, for these paths are already fairly well-beaten. It is rather the individuality of the voice, as one who is very close to local  experiences in his outlook, and who draws both from his upbringing as a Jew and as an Israeli as resources for his work without apology.

Like a child and yet not.

Artists’ House (Images courtesy of the Artists’ House, Jerusalem and of artist Katherine Bradford).

Till October 18, 2014.