Spring has been in the air for weeks in Jerusalem – we get the first optimistic buds in early February and then bursts of almond trees blossoming all over. They enliven unexpected places like back lots in densely-built neighborhoods and otherwise mundane commutes, helping to jar our eyes with beauty so easily overlooked in the daily grind.
With a solo exhibition in transition at Artspace Gallery in the German Colony, I’d like to introduce a couple of the works. The exhibit will include cityscapes, portraits, self-portraits, landscape, a broad range of subject matter united though direct observation. I will discuss two of the still lifes.
Is Still Life really boring? The French refer to it as Nature Morte – dead nature – perhaps saying that the subject is bereft of life. Or is it more like the idea behind the Dutch term – stilleven –which suggests closeness to the act of living life? To me, still life can be an exciting combination of the process of finding beauty in the mundane, weaving traditional concerns of color, light and composition with threads including something more.
At this time of year, clearing our homes of leavening for Passover, I have heightened awareness of the stuff of modern life, the objects we use and live amongst. Though observation may be at the heart of my still lifes, they can extend beyond relating the experience of seeing and become vested with personal meanings, symbols, associations and larger thoughts, sometimes approaching personal allegories, and occasionally social commentary. Of course, these are my own thoughts, a different viewer may never sense what I was thinking, and may bring their own reactions to the works.
In “Almond Buds with Finjan”, I combine very early glimmerings of spring with an unusual vase – an ordinary pot for brewing coffee known in local parlance as “botz” or mud. The buds first sprout while the weather is still prone to blustery days and offers the promise of approaching spring. ‘Mud’ combined with optimism create a dissonance that I feel is typical of life generally and life in Israel particularly. My jumble of thoughts run from the aroma of strong coffee through to early Zionist songs from kumzits days, winding to the innocent songs of gan (pre-school), jolting to the mud associated with wars and its despair and lurching to the mud of early spring and the pull of life as it continues the rhythm of natural renewal.
This is one of a number of my works in which I do a twist on the classic still life subject of flowers in a vase – sometimes the vase is the oddity, sometimes what goes into the vase is the change, together they are a combination that is meant to jiggle thoughts beyond the first encounter of looking in itself. A dichotomy of meaning is what speaks to me in these still lifes.
It is hard to pin down where painting ideas come from. Years of looking – at paintings and at life around me – seems to have created an internal resource file that I pull from. I find that it can take a long time for a painting idea to coalesce, even years. And then it does.
The visual source that led to the related painting, “Almond Blossoms in a Tea Cup”, came from a number of Claude Monet’s paintings of a Japanese bridge in his Giverny gardens, a subject he revisited several times, examples of which can be seen at the Met in NY, the National Gallery in D.C., the National Gallery in London, and at the Orsay and Marmorttan Museums in Paris. The bridge in those works, an arc, stayed with me, percolating subconsciously until I knew I wanted to use it for this painting. A bridge safely traverses over something avoidable and this one has an elegance that I associate with the arched back of a dancer in space. It is the stretch of an extended body, the grace of a long line that I wanted to bring to this painting, which is comprised of three elements – a branch of freshly-sprouted almond blossoms, a glass of water and a table top.
Many painters have been inspired by flowering almond trees, Van Gogh comes to mind, and Bonnard’s haunting last work is essential to that theme. My engagement with local nature has included them – but those approaches related to the tree as the subject in nature. I wanted to reduce the gaze to the wonder of a single branch.
Almond trees hearken to ancient times and are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, where it is a symbol of watchfulness and promise felt by its early flowering. This is as relevant today as ever.
The other elements bring me to more associations. Typically, still life paintings have the subject matter placed on a tabletop. Sometimes I think of the surface as more of an altar, a place to contemplate the uniqueness of the objects, a visual offering.
In this painting, the tabletop is one that appears in many paintings and has a personal significance. When I moved to Israel long ago, the Jewish Agency gave new immigrants basic supplies to manage with until they could adjust to their new surroundings. This included some very practical items: simple pots, plates, cutlery and plaid acrylic blankets.
Some things struck this spoiled westerner as quizzical – I had never before seen a p’tilia – a standing burner for cooking, great for appliance-less bare apartments in times of austerity. It has since become the vital tool for home- style restaurants of the amcha variety, a sort of culinary backlash to the pretensions of affluence.
Two stools. And a red-topped table with iron legs.
That table joined us as marriage and life in Jerusalem began. Eventually it was re-purposed as my work surface where it has built up a patina of splatters, drips and spills, a silent witness to my life and work. Warhorse that it is, it has served as a prop for many a painting. In this work, the red surface leans towards a deep burgundy, an association for me to the local earth. It is simultaneously both the fertile soil of gnarled grape vines developing into their maturity to become deeper, more complex wines; just as it bears the stains of battle in a war-torn land.
The final element is a simple tea glass of water. In arid Israel, water is a high concern. In Judaism, it is part of daily prayers; Israeli weather reports include the level of the Sea of Galillee – how close are we to the red line? Or, which red line? The upper red line or the really critical bottom red line? (A part of the national character is the ability to distinguish run-of-the-mill normal crises from it’s already-too-late real emergencies). Water is inseparable from life.
From buds to blossoms, these paintings represent a return to living and hope for good things to come.
Artspace Gallery, by appointment only, contact:
Phone: 972-546371100 or 972-2-5639567,