| An Exhibition
by LARRY ABRAMSON
- Angela Levine
Lessons in seeing
- Smadar Sheffi
Only beauty can console
Lessons in seeing
There is plenty to look at and think about in "Shalom, Shalom," a captivating new painting series by Larry Abramson, a veteran teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Arts, and chairman of its Fine Arts Department since 1992.
The eight fairly large (120 cm. square or 120 x 40 cm.) oil and acrylic canvases in this series have a uniform appearance. Each has been primed with a layer of pearl-gray paint on top of which Abramson has painted branches and flowering shoots, and the double shadows formed when the "real" objects he was about to paint were laid onto this gray background in the full glare of studio lighting.
These are not subjective paintings of fragments of Nature, but life-size, trompe-l'oeil renderings which are so effective that one is reminded of the story concerning the fabled Greek painter Zeuxis who depicted a bunch of grapes so realistically that birds swooped down to feast on it.
Abramson's own replicas of Nature have been arranged together so that each painting spells out a single letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the contours completed in some cases by the addition of a painted line resembling a strip of wood. Together, the eight units spell out the words "Shalom, Shalom," a phrase frequently used by Israelis as an offhand form of greeting or leave-taking.
The beauty of these paintings lies in the fact that they can be read or viewed on several levels. Abramson actually proffers a clue in this direction. On a wall at the entrance to the gallery, he has placed a set of rudimentary sketches of a face on which the only constant feature is a pair of buttoneyes with an unfocused gaze.
By means of these eyes, existing but unseeing, Abramson appears to be sending out a message which might read tike this: the possession of eyes does not automatically endow its owner with the gift of sight or with the understanding of what he sees.
Looking at these paintings as works of art, pure and simple, one can admire their elegance, and Abramson's skill in combining a crisp, minimalistic touch with a trompe l'oeil style of painting which is centuries old. This is an illustration of his intention to be an artist of his times, but also to pursue a dialogue with painters and schools of the past. Just as significant, and in a certain sense humbling, is the way that Abramson, a mature and well-known artist, continues to research the basics of his craft, starting for instance, with the correct positioning of an object in a space limited by finite borders.
Another specific problem that Abramson readdresses here (which he first tackled in his "Artificial Light Gardening" series shown at the Israel Museum in 1989) concerns the whole subject of studio representations of plants and bushes displaced from their natural outdoor habitat.
To "see" Abramson's paintings on another level, one might question why he has chosen to focus on the phrase "Shalom, Shalom" in this new series, and why he does so by writing with "dead" pieces of wood.
Answers to this question lie with earlier paintings that Abramson made of branches and flowering sprigs. They were part of a landscape series shown in 1995 at the Kibbutz Gallery, Tel Aviv (and which were also included at the recently closed exhibition of Israeli Orientalism at the Israel Museum).
These landscapes were based on closeup photographs of the ruins of Tzuba, an Arab village which was abandoned during the War of Independence.
"New Horizons" guru Zaritsky frequently painted these ruins during summers spent between 1970 and 1985 at a nearby kibbutz. However, he ignored the historical-tragic aspect of this site, "seeing" it simply as a picturesque starting point for his lyrical abstractions.
Ten years later, Abramson "saw" the site quite differently. Without making any political statement, he chose to give expression to the human tragedy that lay behind the image. First he painted the site realistically from close-up photographs, and then tampered with the paintwork by blotting its surface with newspapers.
In addition, he collected "relics" at Tzuba in the form of dead branches and other fragments of Nature, which he brought into his studio and painted.
Knowing this story, one may well conclude that there is a definite connection between the Tzuba series and and these new paintings, which are incidentally the first in which Abramson employs a form of text. By using dead wood, like that which he plucked from the ruins of a dead village, to pick out the phrase "Shalom, Shalom," Abramson is implying that the words have become moribund, drained of all meaning by casual repetition. Perhaps, in a timely lesson, Abramson is asking his public to look again at the word "Shalom" and consider what it really means. (Noga Gallery, Tel Aviv)
The Entertainment Guide of THE JERUSALEM POST, November 6, 1998
Only beauty can console
ShalomShalom, Larry Abramson. Noga Art Gallery, Tel Aviv.
"ShalomShalom" is one of the most beautiful exhibits of the past year. Abramson offers spectacular art, but avoids total virtuosity, and presents precise paintings with a bitter message. The show consists of two series. One has with eight pieces, each of which includes a Hebrew letter formed by a realistic painting of branches and masking tape. Together, the letters form the word "shalom" twice. Simple pencil sketches of small heads, purposefully drawn in a clumsy manner, comprise the second series.
The first series, still-life paintings, are a clear continuation of the artistic process Abramson began at the start of the decade with the series "Coincidences." In those works, presented in 1993, Abramson repeated the motifs of a black square, a blooming branch, a thick branch, half a sickle, and a planed board. These were enigmatic works, with a scope of meaning that ranged from the suprematism of Russian abstract painter Kasimir Malevich to views of the Land of Israel as we like to remember it.
Two years later, Abramson presented "Tsuba," a declared political exhibit. Here, along with natural landscapes done on newsprint, he also showed a series of paintings of branches and dried blossoms, done in the tradition of still-life nature drawings for botanical study.
The "ShalomShalom" series is a formal and conceptual continuation of the two earlier ones. The masking tape relates directly to the planed board from the beginning of the 1990s, and the branches done with painstaking precision are a continuation of the paintings of branches in the "Tsuba" exhibit. Then, the paintings were of branches brought from a deserted Arab village in
the area of Tsuba. They were used by Abramson to express Israeli blindness to the suffering of the Palestinians on the one hand, and as an example of the blind spots in art and culture in general, on the other. This time as well, Abramson paints the branches under studio lighting, which leaves a double shadow on the canvas and creates the illusion of clear three-dimensionality.
The big difference between the still life in the "Tsuba" exhibit and the present paintings is that now, the branches are not an end in themselves. They form parts of letters and lines in a new, private typography Abramson has created. This typography, which forms letters from different objects, often growing things (like the representation of the names of cities in bushes and flowers) brings to mind a folk aesthetic. But this is excellent painting. The construction of a level of meaning and its repeated contradiction, in an impossible weave, forms the heart of Abramson's statement.
The branches (the great attention given to their realistic representation is demonstrated in every stroke of the brush) are set in empty space. This cuts them off from the term "nature." They are combined in a representation, pregnant with sadness, of culture in masking tape. Masking tape, which since the Gulf War has symbolized the dread of war, and helplessness in the face of it, is also connected to covering, transporting and moving on, because it) is used to close packing cartons.: Abramson renders the tape with great precision, at times creased and grayish, as if it were taped on paint, and at other times clear and straight. He leaves the pencil marks that indicate the exact rectangle for drawing the tape, as if to make sure the viewer is at all times aware that this is only an illusion. To emphasize the dimension of illusion he makes small "errors" in drawing the branches - a discrepancy between the shading of the branch or the flowers.
The fact that a letter appears in each of the paintings is not necessarily clear at first glance, even if the viewer knows he should look for it, since the image falls apart on close inspection. Abramson experiences the nature of peace in a not particularly optimistic fashion; as a word that has been eroded more and more over the years.
The almost tangible fragility, vulnerability and frailty of the branches he draws, along with the threatening suggestion in the masking tape, radiates uncertainty. Only the enormous beauty of the works, of the art, is consoling,
In the second series, faces sketched in pencil in a simple childish fashion speak mainly of bewilderment. The small black eyes, the pupils wide open, are set far from each other. The mouth, when it appears, is drawn as a thin, balanced line, and sometimes disappears completely, the expression falling silent.
The similarity here to the "rosh deshe" (grass head) - the amusing figure made from a nylon stocking with grass growing out of it (another meeting between nature and culture) - is a kind of childish prank, reminding one of the fact that court jesters, like blind prophets, have traditionally been used by playwrights and storytellers to express truth.
HA'ARETZ GUIDE November 6, 1998