Top Model

Eran Shakine's new exhibition features giant, colorful portraits of fashion models, but the artist known for his provocative work says he has not succumbed to kitsch.

The exhibition is confusing. At first glance it's "too pretty" for an artist with a history of exhibitions with clear social statements. On the face of it, it says nothing new and is unsophisticated. Maybe it's a sign of a midlife crisis for an artist who is nearing 50?

shakine - Reli Avrahami - October 29 2010
Reli Avrahami

Shakine's attraction to models was unconscious at first. Suddenly they began appearing on his canvases. "If there was an orderly thought process behind it, I could have found a logical reason for it," he says. "I paint and ask questions: What am I doing? Where does this come from? Why do I like or dislike this? In this series, especially, there is a lot of love/hate. All these women, with the frozen expression and odd gait, the perky nose, blonde hair and blue eyes, are supposed to represent femininity, and I'm attracted to this, and then I ask myself: 'Why should I be attracted to this?'"

There's something infantile about men who are attracted to this superficiality.

"Slender, fair-haired - these are social conventions that are entrenched in us, and women are attracted to this too. I see it in my daughters, and it's not really completely to my taste."

So why did you paint models?

"I didn't create an exhibition about models, I created an exhibition about social conventions. It may not be understood right away, but as soon as a model suddenly becomes two meters tall, she becomes a modern Madonna, an archetypal figure, like the way the ancient figurines of women found in archaeological digs express the cultural aspects of the period."

Shakine believes he has the power to rebel against conventions, and that art has the power to make his models undergo a transformation, to turn a bus stop advertising poster into a Renaissance Madonna, even if the audience doesn't quite understand the implications. "I can never guess what the audience comprehends. All good art is a trigger for some kind of dialogue and discussion. I can't direct people's thoughts, but if I made people stop for a moment and think, then I've succeeded."

The artist as fashion designer

Shakine's father, the author Simon Schakhine, was a well-known figure on the Tel Aviv bohemian scene of the 1960s and '70s whose many occupations included being a fashion show director. As a boy, Eran Shakine often played a role, such as sitting on the edge of the stage dressed as a fisherman and catching Styrofoam fish. "I remember all the behind-the-scenes tension, and the way there was no shame at all about the body. For me, this exhibition is a kind of definition of the place of beauty."

Your models are so beautiful. Aren't you afraid people will say you're painting kitsch?

"Very afraid. I'm always walking on the edge with my art. I think art should always challenge and push the edge. Sometimes I cross the line and the painting suddenly looks too pretty to me, and it's almost a shame to make something too pretty. So I'm very careful with my work. I'm always taking one step forward and two steps back. Dancing a tango. One day I can look at a painting and really love it and then not love it a few hours later."

painting - Reli Avrahami - October 29 2010
Reli Avrahami

In the exhibition catalog, curator Tali Tamir writes that Shakine attempts to reflect and to provoke discussion of social gaps in contemporary society while at the same time "aiming his arrows at art itself, which surrenders to tycoons and bows down to their power." To this end he employs striking symbols of art. He poured bronze onto stretched canvases and coated them with commercial automotive paint used on luxury cars, such as the gold of Mercedes. It makes the canvas heavy and like iron while preserving its original texture. Shakine also poured bronze over a small sheet of cardboard once used by a homeless man on Tel Aviv's King George Street.

"I bought the sign from a homeless beggar on the street," says Shakine. "We passed him, my daughter and I, and I said I wanted to give him money but not just for nothing. I asked him for his piece of cardboard. There was a message written on it for passersby, something like 'Please help me, I'm sick and crippled.' To me this is a work of art. I gave him 400 shekels, I took the cardboard and turned around for a moment and then my daughter said: 'Look, he's gone.' It was like he just went 'poof.' Afterward I was told there is someone who organizes them and that he may have run off to avoid paying him part of the money.

"I donate a lot of my works. Almost all the time. Anyone who comes and asks, I give. To all kinds of organizations. Hospitals, cancer patients, the Yitzhak Rabin Center, animal shelters. I've even had calls from artists who were mad at me for giving away so much. They said you can't just do that. That I need to ask for at least 50 percent. I told them it was none of their business."

Shakine, 48, was born in the "old north" of Tel Aviv. His father was born in Paris to a family that fled Russia after the Revolution, and he immigrated to Israel before the War of Independence. His mother, Esther, came to Israel from Hungary, on the illegal immigrant ship Exodus. Her graphic novel about the experience, "Hamasa shel Tika" ("Tika's Journey," Schocken Publishing House ), was published two years ago.

His parents met while studying at Tel Aviv's Avni Institute of Art and Design. His father also wrote screenplays. His grandfather, Ben-Zion Shakine, who followed his children to Israel a few years later, had a film production company in Paris. The family tried to get into the business in Israel but had to settle for making commercials and PR films.

"This week I met Haim Topol," says Shakine, "and he told me he made his first money in the movies from my father and his brother, for a movie that he and Uri Zohar acted in but was never released. Another movie they made was called 'Eran at the Zoo,' a children's movie that I starred in. Later my father wrote books and his brother and my grandfather continued making the commercials and propaganda films."

Shimon Schakhine writes novels, under the name Shakin Nir, that are published in France. "Au premier jour de l'hiver" was translated into Hebrew ("Yom Rishon shel Horef," Yedioth Ahronoth ).

"I have childhood memories of hearing my father's typewriter clacking late into the night, and of the smell of his pipe. When he wasn't writing, he was directing fashion shows and helping my mother in the studio."

Esther Shakin, who a year ago was awarded a prize from the Education Ministry for "Tika's Journey," also wrote and illustrated a series of Bible stories for children. Her main focus, however, is her textile design studio, once one of Israel's most prominent. It was important in shaping Eran Shakine's artistic taste. "I can remember sitting next to her on a round chair and falling asleep on her table."

That was more fun than soccer?

painting - Reli Avrahami - October 29 2010
Reli Avrahami

"Those were different times. Back then, by six everyone was home. There was no television and Mom was working and Dad was writing, so what could I do? Sometimes I sat beside her and drew what she was doing. At 13 I started working with her in the studio, at first on a very low level, doing the technical work of color separations. At its height, there were at least 20 people working in the studio. I worked during school vacations and often when I came home from school my parents would be at the studio, so I would go there and do my homework and then do all sorts of other things. I had a need to feel that I belonged. I began at the bottom and worked my way up."

Up to where?

"I designed entire collections for Honigman, Gideon Oberson, Gottex, Niba - once there was a company by that name. I did most of it."

Did anyone know that behind the collections was a 13-year-old boy?

"No one ever knew. For example, they did a series of T-shirts, and I designed the prints. I remember going with my mother to meetings with Oberson at his studio, and I'd look at him waiting to see how he reacted to my collections."

How did he react?

"They came to us year after year, indicating they were satisfied. My expertise was geometric prints - shirts with a big eye, or an eagle that spread out to the sleeves. Things that were more for young people, designs influenced by comics, graffiti and pop art."

Were you paid?

"In our family the whole money thing was a little problematic. My father was a communist. But I got my foundation in art from my parents' home, where I was exposed to art books and to classical music. The other thing that helped was that you couldn't go out to play between two and four in the afternoon [the traditional time of rest], so I would sit and draw, and then at four I would burst outside with all the other kids from the neighborhood, except for one boy who hardly ever went out, even at four. That was Daniel Oren [the conductor]. He was a good friend, we used to play together all the time."

Drawing in the streets

painting - Reli Avrahami - October 29 2010
Reli Avrahami

Shakine is married to actress Maya Kadishman, whose father is the artist Menashe Kadishman. They live in central Tel Aviv with their children: Adam (14 ), Mika (12 ) and Zoe (5 ). They do not own a television set. "One day I heard my son proudly telling a friend, 'We don't have a TV,' and then I knew that I hadn't done anything too terrible to him," he says.

Shakine was not a grind in elementary school. "I was a lousy student," he admits. "At Yehuda Hamaccabi, where I went, the motto was that everyone went on to Gymnasia Herzliya and then to the military boarding school. That didn't really suit me, it was a constant war against the establishment and convention. I even got a bad grade in painting. No high school wanted to accept me. One miserable day, I trudged with my father from one school to another. It was awful. I told my father, 'It's okay, I'll just work in the studio,' and he almost slapped me.

"The WIZO-France High School in Tel Aviv only agreed to admit me on the basis of a drawing test. It was paradise. I got such positive feedback in my art classes that I wanted to excel in every subject. I became much more conscientious and really applied myself. I took two tracks: sculpting, and drawing and graphics. I would sleep at school just to finish things. It was an incredible experience. The teachers were classically trained, at art academies in Leningrad and Romania. I was completely drawn in, and my paintings were always hung in the corridors. The teachers would argue among themselves over whether I was more of a sculptor or a painter. I just feel like an artist, no matter what the medium.

"A year ago I got a call from someone who was with me in elementary school. She wanted to buy one of my works, and said she'd kept all the drawings I did in class back then. Even then someone had noticed me, before I had any appreciation for my abilities."

Shakine was tapped for pilot's training by the army. He passed the initial tests but wasn't sure it was what he wanted. "My father suggested that I talk it over with my grandfather, who said, 'There are plenty of good pilots, but not many good artists.' So I gave a pass to the pilot's course.

"My grandfather was a very colorful character. In temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius, he would go around in a three-piece suit and hat. He understood art. He knew artists such as Emmanuel Mane-Katz, Pablo Picasso and Chaim Soutine personally. He was a textile manufacturer and a pioneer of French cinema. Artists would come to him to eat on Saturday when they were hungry, and he would buy their paintings and support them.

"He had a very large art collection at home. When the Nazis entered Paris, the family fled to southern France, where they owned land. And then my grandfather crossed back into occupied Paris to try to sell his fabric stock. He succeeded, and then hid all the money in an inside pants pocket, secured with a safety pin. On the train back south some of the money disappeared. The art collection remained in the Paris apartment. It too disappeared when the apartment was seized by the Nazis. Just two years ago, my father and his brother received a tiny sum from the French government in exchange for part of the textile factory.

"There's a family story about a movie my grandfather made in Paris. At the premiere everyone was waiting for the film to come straight from development. Grandfather was slightly drunk and he went into the darkroom, turned on the light and ruined the entire movie. I think that experience really cost him."

Shakine's army service was in the Nahal. He taught painting in the community center in Ma'alot, in the north. "I would wait, and hardly anyone came. Near the end of my year there I began going to the main square, next to the center, and sketching people, and that's how I connected with them." He continued his service at Nahal headquarters in Jaffa, when he also rented a studio and started to paint. One day, he and a friend went to the gallery of Naomi Givon, who asked to see his work.

"It was in the early 1980s," Shakine relates. "There was a major shift from conceptual art to painting then. I was very cut off from the trends and influences of the art world. I just painted. Givon came to my studio and selected several works for a group exhibition at her gallery. She hung my paintings next to paintings by Yair Garbuz, Rafi Lavie and Gabi Klezmer, names I didn't know at the time. Her father, Shmuel Givon, had one of the country's first art galleries, and he sat there and all of the artists from his gallery came and said: 'What is this painting?' And he looked and asked Naomi, 'Why is this in your gallery?' and took me to his gallery. He didn't remember that a few years before I'd brought him my portfolio and he threw me out. That's how I began my career, at a very young age. He paid me a monthly salary for several years and in return took all of my works and gave me a big solo show."

Shakine went to Paris after his military service. He wanted to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts with Christian Boltanski, the famed conceptual artist, but the school would only admit him as a first-year student and he thought he was ready to begin with the third year. He stayed in Paris for a few months, wandering the streets, going to art exhibitions, before heading to Germany, to an art fair in Cologne. "On the overnight train, the guy sitting across from me told me that all his money was stolen in Spain and he didn't even have enough for the train ticket. I bought him a ticket and the whole way he tried to persuade me not to go on to Cologne but to get off with him in Dusseldorf and come to his mother's house so he could repay me. Since I was in no rush I went with him and ended up staying for four months.

"At some point, his mother threw us out. At the height of the snowy winter, we wandered the streets. We stayed for a few weeks with a forest ranger friend of his. We helped him clear fallen trees. We slept in movie theaters that showed porn 24 hours a day, or with girls who invited us over. I got to the point where I didn't know where I was when I woke up in the morning. Then his mother, who did PR for the Dusseldorf Philharmonic and also worked in a gallery, sent me to Galerie Hans Mayer, which represented Kadishman. My father sent me works and I hoped he'd buy something so I could eat. A week went by and then another and I didn't hear anything, so I went to him, and I must have offended him a little because he said: 'You know what? Take it all and leave.' If it hadn't been for that, I might have had a thriving international career a long time ago."

Goats and sheep

Shakine returned to Israel, and the show at the Givon Gallery was a success. "There were tons of people," he says. "And the funny thing is that no one came up to me. Everyone went to shake my father's hand. They thought he was the artist. The paintings sold very well, but they didn't belong to me anymore. Givon said that an art critic from England bought a painting; he was thrilled but it didn't faze me. There was an article on the front page of Ha'ir - It was a very big sensation that Givon took someone who hadn't studied at Bezalel or Hamidrasha."

Why didn't you go to study at one of the art schools in Israel?

"Rafi Lavie used to invite me over, and tell me I had to study at Hamidrasha. Bezalel used to lobby me too, tell me they would help me, but the more they tried to convince me the more I kept my distance. I was afraid they would influence me, change me. It depends at what stage you show a work of yours and are exposed to criticism. When it's still too unfinished, it can be affected and ruined. I prefer to make my own mistakes, in my own way, until I'm entirely certain. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I should have gone to art school."

While in Germany, Shakine met a New York gallery owner who provided his next destination. "After the show I told Givon I wanted to go to America and he said: 'No, maybe after a few more shows.' But I was done with the army and I wanted to travel. Givon took it very hard and hasn't spoken to me since.

"I rented an apartment in SoHo and worked on a show I was supposed to have with the gallery owner I'd met. He gave me a little money. It was 1987, the stock market crashed and the gallery closed. Suddenly I had nothing and was out on the street, so I decided to find my own way.

"In New York, the next appointment is always a few months away, some curator from some museum says he'll come to see your work ... I got stuck like that for seven years, waiting for the next meeting. It was a very tough time. I cleaned offices at night, I worked in a studio for decorative painting, we restored Louis Quatorze furniture and office ceilings. I painted a sky on the ceiling of the offices of MTV.

"Someone told me that at The Drawing Center in New York there were curators who looked at work. I went there and was given a show. It's an amazing space in SoHo. Someone from the Metropolitan Museum of Art came to the opening and loved my work and suggested that I apply for a stipend. A donor from Texas gave the money and MOMA selected the artists. I received a stipend for a year and a half for a studio and materials, and I could also afford hamburgers. I began showing more in New York and Boston and also had a few shows in Israel."

In 1990, Shakine had a solo show at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. He came to Israel for it, and that's when he met Maya. They commuted between Tel Aviv, London (where her mother lives ) and New York, and three years later decided to marry.

"I'd met Menashe in New York. We were in touch before I met his daughter," says Shakine. "I used to spend a lot of time with him. At our first meeting he took me to a Greek restaurant and then to a fortune teller, who told me I would marry and have three children. Then I saw her whisper to Menashe, but I have no idea what she told him.

"When I came to him to ask for Maya's hand he said, 'We don't need another artist in the family.' I think he hoped I'd be a banker. But we get along great. He's a wonderful grandfather. Maya is my soulmate. She knows what it is to be an artist and she is my first critic. She can tell instantly when something is not quite right. It can take me a week to realize it."

Her criticism doesn't annoy you?

"No, because she's supportive, objective and constructive, and I've learned to appreciate her eye. There are no ego games between us. When we married, people said, 'Two artists in one household, are you out of your mind?' But so far it's just fine."

Shakine, whose father-in-law is famous for painting sheep, went through what he calls his goat period. "When I was in the army I used to go into the Judean Desert to sketch, and there happened to be a lot of goats and Bedouin there so a whole series came out of that. After we married, people used to joke and say, 'The herd has grown' - Menashe's sheep and Eran's goats."

Cooking time

Shakine rises at 4:30 A.M. and goes to the beach to swim for between 40 minutes and an hour before returning home to drop the kids at school and going to his studio. By 2 P.M. he is back home to make lunch ("I'm usually the cook" ) and takes the kids to their after-school activities. He goes to sleep fairly early, often while reading a story to Zoe.

Shakine works with Gallery 39, TWIG Gallery in Brussels and Julie M. in Toronto. His work has been exhibited, in solo and group shows, at venues that include the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the American Center in Paris, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and in an exhibition of Israeli art in Germany. His sculptures are in locations around the country and his paintings are in many private and museum collections, including the British Museum and the Ludwig Museum in Aachen, Germany.

He has a studio in Ne'urim, near Netanya, where he casts sculptures. "People sometimes ask to apprentice with me in the studio, but it's hard for me to bring people in, even though I apprenticed with Karl Appel and I know how important it is."

Why is it so hard?

"I'm a perfectionist, and when apprentices come into the studio it gets too crowded for me. Why did I start to cook? Because I wanted it to come out the way I wanted. Sometimes it becomes too obsessive when you can't let someone else work alongside you in the kitchen unless he works in exactly the same way as you. But Maya is helping me to open up and relax a little."

Unlike many other artists, Shakine earns his living from his art alone. "I don't teach because I'm afraid I'd stop creating. Many of my friends from abroad who began doing renovations to support themselves stopped making art. My mother, too. When the studio and the business took over, she stopped being an artist, which was her dream. I think there's a fear that won't let me teach or do other things that will drain some of my energy, and I can't do anything halfway."

He has high regard for Israeli art, saying there are many impressive artists here with true talent, but that young artists are sometimes not that interested in art per se. "They're much more interested in the career, and I don't think that works very well," he says. "Stars are created but they quickly fade. When you take someone straight from academia to a museum exhibition, what's he going to do after that? It doesn't give him time to mature and to find his way. A few years ago, I had a show at Julie M. in Tel Aviv. A class from Hamidrasha came, and all they wanted to know was how to get to having a museum exhibition. They weren't interested by what was hanging on the walls. I was very disappointed."

Had they asked, Shakine could have told them plenty. "One of the fun things about being an artist is getting to pull the rug out from under yourself every morning, challenging yourself constantly. I like to continually change the angles and points of reference. It stimulates me and I hope it also stimulates the audience. Even though I can never tell which paintings people will like and buy. The ones I think will sell never do. Maya tells me, 'Just do it, and whatever happens, happens. It's just art. It's not like you're an engineer and if you make a mistake the building will fall down.'" W