Heddy Abramowitz
Artist Living in the Eye of the Storm

Wet and Wild: Rita Mendes-Flohr at Agripas 12 Gallery

Rita Mendes-Flohr points her camera to Kambucha mushrooms in her solo exhibit Latent Image now on view at Agripas 12. Mendes-Flohr came to photography after exploring painting, drawing, and writing via her love of hiking in nature. Her medium of choice, as well as the amorphous subject of this exhibit, were latent and now take the spotlight at this venue.

2017 pigment print on archival paper mounted on D-bond by Rita Mendes-Flohr (Photo: Doron Adar)
2017 pigment print on archival paper mounted on D-bond by Rita Mendes-Flohr (Photo: Doron Adar)

Small independent art initiatives have been ‘mushrooming’ in the Jerusalem scene in recent years. One of the trail-blazers was the Agripas 12 Cooperative Gallery. While it is an off-the-beaten-track locale in the sense that is not widely known out of art circles, it is very much accessible, being in the city center.

Only in Jerusalem can the exhibit location jiggle so much history. Located on Agripas Street (recalling the Judean King by the same name, 41-44 CE) it connects the popular outdoor Machaneh Yehudah market (established in the late 1880’s) and King George Street (named for King George V during the British Mandate in 1924), it was founded in 2004 as an artist-run co-op. As part of the historic courtyard-neighborhood Even Yisrael, founded in 1875, the surrounding lanes bear exploring as well.

The cooperative runs independent of public support and its roster of members has evolved from the original founders. This exhibit is Mendes-Flohr’s first as a new member and is curated by photographer Doron Adar.

She is showing a dozen images, some printed on transparent paper and displayed in light boxes (30 x 30 cm), other larger scaled works of pigment prints on archival paper mounted on D-bond (120 x 80 cm and 75 x 50 cm) as well as an installation of a low light table displaying glass jars of the live organisms (80 x 80 cm).

Mendes-Flohr is no stranger to the workings of small arts initiatives, being a co-founder with artist Nomi Tannhauser of the Antea Gallery established in 1994, a multi-cultural feminist art gallery, and served as its director and principal curator from 1998-2010. Living in Jerusalem since 1970, Mendes-Flohr was born in Curaꞔao (formerly The Netherlands Antilles), the Papiamento– and Dutch-speaking Caribbean island, to a family who descended from Spanish Inquisition escapees and was raised in its small but still active Sephardic Jewish community.

I have invited American-born Jerusalemite Barbara Gingold to be a guest-blogger and review the exhibit. Gingold is an editor, photojournalist, and garden designer, with long experience in art publications (her upcoming website and blog “Holy Rocks and Hollyhocks” is under construction).

Rita Mendes-Flohr: Latent Images

Still photography, in its basest form, is a matter of scale: three-dimensional bites of the seen world edited and reduced to two dimensions, irrevocably bounded by the four sides of a screen or a piece of paper and digested, relatively quickly, by the human eye and mind. Or the reverse: minute visual details of that world, enlarged to reveal that which is most often overlooked and/or underappreciated. The rest, the other intrinsic qualities of photography — color, form, content — constitute either a limited replica of reality or a manipulated version thereof, depending upon the skill and creativity of the photographer.

Rita Mendes-Flohr, an intrepid hiker, became a photographer about ten years ago, in the course of her trekking. She has previously exhibited her exquisite photographs of vast spaces online: monumental, pristine landscapes, sculpted rock formations — magnificent sweeps of primal beauty. Whether crossing the sandy stretches of the Judean Desert or ascending the forbidding heights of the Anti-Atlas, she captures the majesty of nature, the mystery of Creation. Faithfully preserving their infinite glory in two dimensions, her sensitivity and skill also capture and transmit the ineffable spirit of these places, their grandeur, and sensuousness.

At the same time, Mendes-Flohr has focused her lens on the minutiae of the landscape— the scaly “skin” of a prickly pear cactus, the suggestive sensuality of a fading arum flower — often transmuting them into anthropomorphic innuendos. “We limit eroticization to certain parts of the body,” she declares. “I think it’s much broader than that. I grew up feeling at one with the natural world. It’s both life and death, and endlessly fascinating. All my art has the theme of death and eros.”

2017 pigment print on archival paper mounted on D-bond by Rita Mendes-Flohr (Photo: Doron Adar)
2017 pigment print on archival paper mounted on D-bond by Rita Mendes-Flohr (Photo: Doron Adar)

In Latent Image, her current exhibit at Agrippas 12 in Jerusalem, Mendes-Flohr indeed continues to explore life, death, and eros, but she’s turned her photographic gaze to another scale altogether: the world contained within a jar on her kitchen table. No longer content with documentation of that which is already present in the physical world, her lifelong curiosity about nature pushed her to become an active player herself in the very act of creation. Like a scientist with her Petri dish, she grew the Kambucha mushroom — commonly cultivated in the East as a health potion — in her kitchen. The “starter,” the fungal spores she got more than a decade ago from a chemist friend, had been left in jars in her garden for years, apparently moribund, until she began experimenting with macro lenses. The watery, embryonic world these lenses revealed somehow reminded her of the Kambuchas, and in the darkroom of her mind she envisioned the long-dormant mushrooms, resuscitated. With an infusion of tea and sugar, they came back to life. The glass jars, now filled with slimy fungal membranes floating in a brew of bacteria and yeast, inspired a new series of photographs, with Mendes-Flohr’s macro lens peering into their murky depths.

“If you just look superficially at something with the naked eye,” she explains, “you don’t see what the camera can see with a long exposure, even in the dark. Things that aren’t visible, but they’re there. Latent images. It’s magical, like witchcraft or an alchemist’s experiments.”

Lit by natural light or a cool LED lamp set beneath their containers, Mendes-Flohr’s Kambuchas grow, swirl, weave gauzy wet webs and veils of layered color beneath her camera. “These things evoke something primal,” she notes, “beyond our usual definitions of the erotic.” The photographs that emerged, almost literally, from these jars (which are also beautifully displayed in the gallery) are greatly enlarged, their colors unabashedly enhanced by the digital alchemy of Photoshop.

Though somewhat reminiscent of Roman Vishniac‘s renowned color prints of microorganisms and biological phenomena, facilitated by his innovative use of polarized light and high magnification in the pre-digital age, Mendes-Flohr’s photographs achieve another quality altogether. Unlike Vishniac the scientist, Mendes-Flohr the artist seeks abstraction and ambiguity.

These works, counterpointed by the very real and unaesthetic Kambuchas set among them, indeed evoke intimate, at points disturbing manifestations of human and non-human physicality. Sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes almost threatening, the intentionally delicate shades and indeterminate shapes of these “latent images” — large-scale pictures of very small-scale natural events — draw the viewer into the enigma, sensuality, and otherworldliness Rita Mendes-Flohr finds hidden in — simply put — a jar of mushrooms. These images straddle the fine line between reality and imagination, challenging us to share the photographer’s flight into the beyond.

—Barbara Gingold bgingold@gmail.com, Jerusalem

view of Mendes-Flohr light table and Kombuchas, Agripas Gallery (photo: Doron Adar)

Closing: Shabbat 24.2.18

Mon-Thurs: 4:30pm-7:30pm,
Fri and Sat: 11am-2 pm.

Agripas 12 Gallery

12 Agripas Street, Jerusalem, 94301
(Entrance is from the inner courtyard)
Tel.: +972-(0)77-5404897,

E-mail: agripas12gallery@gmail.com

About the Author
Heddy Abramowitz is a Jerusalem artist. Born in Brooklyn, NY to Holocaust survivors, raised in the southern Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., she shelved her career as an Israeli lawyer in favor of her first love, painting, and exhibits her art in Israel and abroad. Some say she is a lawyer in recovery, others just shake their heads. Believing that art communicates when words fail, she reviews Jerusalem art exhibits in English to broaden audiences for art made in this unique city. She also occasionally weighs in on current events. Living many years in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City significantly affected her outlook on living here, a work in progress. Good dark chocolate is her one true vice.
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