Heddy Abramowitz
Artist Living in the Eye of the Storm

Will the Real Me Stand Up? Tannhauser and Drori at Barbur Gallery

Nomi Tannhauser and Adva Drori joined forces recently to create a two-person exhibit, Cindyrella, at Jerusalem’s Barbur Gallery.

Nomi Tannhauser
Self Portrait Crying, 120 x 85 cm 2015 Nomi Tannhauser

The exhibit was a sort of homage to Cindy Sherman, the influential American photographer who dressed-up as changed personas in Film Noir-influenced self-portraits shown in her exhibit Untitled Film Stills 1977-80 (the full set acquired by MOMA).

Those photographs were ground-breaking and have since become contemporary classics. As curator Pesach Slabosky noted in the exhibit catalogue: “It is always a woman alone: she is an ordinary person caught in a drama not of her own making. …What I had not known was the extent to which the work of Cindy Sherman is iconic for women.”

The title Cindyrella makes reference both to the fairy tale which contrasts to the harsh reality of some childhoods, and refers to the art world idol that is an unseen presence in this exhibit. Artists from two generations, one Sherman’s peer, the other decades younger, both found much to draw from her work.

Tannhauser often engages in subject matter concerning women and their bodies, the covered and the revealed, and the ways formal painting concerns (e.g. flat or with brush stokes, painting thinly or in impasto) may overlap with social issues she feels they symbolize; the strong versus the weak, men compared with women. Here she showed paintings influenced by Sherman’s photography, based on a palette of intentionally-ironic pinks, creams, and golds.

Paradoxically, Sherman herself was once a painting student, and turned to photography as her preferred medium ostensibly due to frustrations she saw in the limitations of painting, saying later “[T]here was nothing more to say [through painting]. I was meticulously copying other art and then I realized I could just use a camera and put my time into an idea instead.”

Tannhauser turned the tables yet again, taking her inspiration from Sherman’s conceptual still photos, and reinterpreting them as oil paintings, in a sense reverting to the medium once rejected by Sherman. No meticulous copies were shown, the works explored her own identity. She showed herself variously as an artist at work; a woman portrayed in front of a typical shikun building with all the windows ominously barred; as a woman capriciously holding a pencil (instead of a cigarette), set in a chair over a patterned carpet and the speckled, once ubiquitous floor tiles, a stylized still portrait of her mother looking on, and so on. She let go of close observation and used a simplified graphic approach to find a pared-down and strong representation of herself, a good new direction for Tannhauser.

Installation view Barbur Gallery 2015-16 Photo: Bishko
Installation view Barbur Gallery 2015-16 Photo: Bishko

The search for the real Nomi included studies of simple kitchen towels set off against gold paint – at once glamorously raising the mundane object and also seeing it for its most basic geometric shapes, while considering the towels as emblematic of the kitchen, a room that becomes a cul-de-sac for many.

Performance artist Adva Drori took the influence of Sherman off the walls entirely in her work Doll-Woman-Doll with objects culled from flea markets and other sources, making theatrical groupings set on oriental-style carpets or mattresses. These indicated a troubled inner world despite being based on playthings and toy-sized objects. They made for tableaux that dealt with an uncomfortable confusion of memory and identity. Red yarn and embroidery embellished the adult and doll-sized dresses and served as unifying color which pulled together the mostly floor-level displays.

Tannhauser’s paintings can stand on their own, and while Drori’s installations further extend the examination of girls’ and women’s places in the world, they also fought to get one’s attention in the space. A sense of emotional clutter and unease pervaded.

Exhibiting in Jerusalem gave another context to the position of women in society. One could reflect on the times Sherman drew from and from the time her photos were first exhibited, and compare them with the world the artists’ live in, replete with fears and lack of stability. Tannhauser considers the shikun building and the limited lives of the original inhabitants, poor refugees from surrounding Arab countries, but now a building in a gentrified and trendy neighborhood, a happy ending. One could widen the comparisons to close-by Arab or haredi communities, where women continue to have limited options. All is not yet rosy.

For many women, there is room to stand up and self-identify with more surety and less contrivance and posturing than Sherman’s original subjects required, allowing Tannhauser and others to “breathe,” as she describes it, just knowing there are more out there like her.

Sherman’s legacy, in a sense, could be recognizing that it does not take a fairy godmother to make changes, one can grant oneself the permission to change identity as needed for the many stages in a life, or just for no reason at all.

A fairy-tale ending in itself.


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.