Darkness made visible
At the core of Khen Shish's somber, passionate paintings is a meager yet magical childhood in Safed. She is featured in a new exhibition in Ashdod, alongside the late Lea Nikel
Even an exhibition in which she is praised as one of Israel's foremost artists gives little comfort to Khen Shish, and may actually heighten her anxieties. "I paint and rub out, paint and rub out," she says, describing her creative work. Her anxieties lace through any discussion with her - she says something, then corrects it, and then says something else and suddenly becomes quiet. In her white, ascetic apartment on Tel Aviv's Ibn Gvirol Street she is wearing a black dress and gold earrings, but frequently is clothed in silence. It is as though she tries forcibly to conceal the great passion she discovered within herself, almost accidentally, to create, to make a statement and to make her presence felt. In this respect, a pose she often strikes in self-portraits is revealing: Her mouth is covered by masking tape. Her yearning, however, overcomes the compulsion to remain silent.
"I am gripped by anxiety before each exhibition. I feel exposed, as though my internal organs are exposed for all the world to see - and then the critics will come and rummage around in my soul," she says. "The worst thing is that I have invited them to be privy to my secrets. There is satisfaction and excitement, but also terrible fear" before each exhibition, she says.
Perhaps it was one of her fears that compelled her to study the color black in depth. Black is the subject of her new exhibition, "In the Black Distance," which opened two weeks ago at the Ashdod Museum of Art. At the entrance is a large work, with numerous eyes against a black background. In the center of the painting is a crown, and on the side, a smeared, teary face. It is Shish's way of looking back at the spectators who invade her inner world.
"For all people," she says, "the first encounter with black stirs fear, darkness, grief. Who hasn't experienced blackness in their life? We've all been through grief, mourning, bereavement. But very slowly you begin to see that there is no end to this color, black. I don't move on to other colors until I understand the first. Black rips the page; it seems to be endlessly the same, but then suddenly you discover a variety of enthralling shades of black." Shish's black is indeed deep and multilayered, full of black holes and black fears.
The exhibition features Shish's works alongside those of the late Lea Nikel, "the first lady of Israeli abstract art." Both are considered action painters, for whom the act of painting itself expresses their souls no less that the images and subjects on the canvas. Nikel, who was awarded the Israel Prize in painting in 1995, and who died in 2005, was "the great mother," according to the art critic and curator Ruti Direktor, who paved the way for female Israeli painters. Khen Shish is one of Nikel's successors, Direktor says. In her work, as in that of Michal Na'aman, Tamar Getter and Yocheved Weinfeld, one can feel "the difficulties and the price she paid in order to be a fully-committed artist in Israel."
Nikel was two years old when her family immigrated to Israel, in 1920. She began painting at a young age and worked with some of the finest artists of the time, including Avigdor Stematsky and Yehezkel Streichman. She spent long periods abroad, in Paris, New York and Rome, before returning to Israel. Nikel continued to be a prolific artist late in life; her later work focused on color and abstract composition. What exactly does a "colorful" modernist like Nikel have in common with a postmodern artist like Shish, who was born half a century later, and who is obsessed with black in this new exhibition? Naomi Aviv, the curator of the Ashdod exhibition, says the two artists are linked by their engagingly creative method, in which a "painting documents the composite of drawing processes." The two artists, Aviv says, produce works "fraught with poetic spirit - this is the type of art that has a lot of impulsiveness, lustfulness and libido."
In the exhibition catalog, Aviv writes that both painters exhibit "a temperament that pays no regard to age or fashion, one that is fresh and playful; both display the same foundation of expressionism and romanticism, the same light-footed movement that passes through cities, countries, homes and experiences." Shish is flattered by the description.
"It is always exciting to exhibit with an artist who was a pioneer and a trailblazer. She was a woman with incredible power, which was seen in her strongest works." Shish adds: "There is no comparison here between the two of us. The exhibition displays two artists and a large body of work, and places one artist alongside the other. A strong connection between the works is revealed in the exhibition, and it never stops surprising me."
It seems that strong passion is the connection between the iconic artist born in Russia at the start of the 20th century and Shish, who was born in Israel in 1970, to parents of Tunisian descent who immigrated to Israel in 1954 and were 18 when they married. They settled in Safed and had six children. Khen was the only girl. She was raised in a hard-working, pious and scenic milieu.
"We lived near a very steep wadi, in the southern part of Safed, walking distance from the graves of the tzaddikim. As a child I would wander alone for hours in the wadis, daydreaming. At that time Safed had something wild about it. The Amud River would overflow in the hilly landscape, surrounded by the sages' graves and a tremendous kabbalistic energy. It wasn't odd roaming around alone because the city is full of all sorts of loners, who draw strength from the natural setting. We would spend hours outdoors and then run home in the evening with our treasures - leaves and figs and all kinds of surprises offered to us by the wadi that we carried home in the turned-up bottom of our shirts, like a kangaroo."
As with many immigrant families it was Shish's mother, Zehava, who was the main breadwinner, cooking for hotels and private individuals. "I would watch her work, and helped fill the trays with homemade cookies and pastries. My mother was the miracle of the oil jar," Shish says, in a reference to the Hanukkah story in which a quantity of oil sufficient for a single day kept a lamp lit for eight days.
"I think immigrants have this in common, that the mother becomes the anchor of the family, like the heroine of Ronit Matalon's novel 'The Sound of Our Steps.' The entire burden of the family was on her shoulders - a strong woman who in moving to Israel supported us all. She knew that if she didn't do it no one else would."
Shish describes how her art grew out of her childhood and her family, which struggled for survival. "All of those hours I spent with my mother stayed with me. They infuse my work. [In my art] I felt that I was 'cooking' collages - cutting, pasting, pinning, covering and drawing with masking tape. The first collage I saw, as a child, was in a family album that had a lot of black holes. There was a picture of my father, and next to him was a headless female body. She was a former girlfriend, and my mother, who didn't have the heart to tear up the photograph of the man of her dreams, simply cut off her head. Perhaps that inspired me to cut and paste and make holes all over the place in my paintings."
Shish's father, Yosef, who died a few years ago, also plays a role in her art. "My father was soft-spoken," she says. "When he spoke, it was in Arabic. Before I went to sleep he would tell me the same story, 'Once upon a time there was a king who had no money'; that was the beginning and the end of the story. It seems to me that he wanted me to imagine the rest of the story, and I continue to look for it in my work."
Religious songs, poetry and belief, along with her religiously observant siblings, are also important components of Shish's work. "In my soul I am a religious person," she confesses.
"I worship beauty. I am its slave and lover," she says when asked about her religious beliefs. "With me, everything blends together: beauty, belief, love, longing. I don't know how to interpret my work fully, but I can say that it emerges from this mixture. What I see around me is God's song, the wonderful things he creates. We create faded imitations of what He makes. When you look at the landscape in Safed, something makes the world stop. Safed has the world's most strikingly beautiful cemetery, a chaos of gravestones and the tomb of Rabbi Isaac Luria, with a blue dome like a crown, and all this against the backdrop of a heart-stopping hillside."
Out of the woods
After doing national service as a court stenographer, Shish decided to study art and art education. "A friend was taking an evening class. I liked the idea. I thought being an art teacher could be a good profession. It seemed like a comfortable profession, with vacations and a pension plan, orderly." She enrolled at Oranim Academic College, but the encounter with the art world propelled her in unexpected directions. "Suddenly a new world was right before my eyes," Shish recalls. "This was a world of wonderful knowledge, and suddenly I was filled with curiosity. It was an awakening. Art conquered me by storm. I grasped that beyond the Safed forests there was a great, expansive world that I wanted to be a part of."
In 1994, in her second year, Shish's distinctive talents and vision became evident. A creative work focusing on ritual slaughter attracted rare attention to the northern college.
"I had the gallery for two weeks," Shish relates, "and I showed an installation featuring two stainless-steel tubs into which water flowed. There were three boards on the floor, onto which I put bags of coarse salt. The wall was covered in feathers ... In retrospect I can see the guiding idea was to create an installation that made minimal use of materials to depict the visual excess I experienced in childhood," Shish says.
"She was different from other students, who naturally imitate their teachers. Even the most intelligent students learn how to quote most proficiently, but come without any individual stance," says Yaakov Hefetz, an artist and teacher at the Haifa Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, who taught sculpture at Oranim when Shish was a student. "Khen was different. She brought her own authentic creative materials and put on one of the most fascinating, gripping exhibits I have ever seen displayed by a student. I still remember her clearly. She created visual metaphors of sparseness in an extremely direct fashion ... Everyone entered the gallery and said 'wow.' Nobody's work up to that time had stirred such responses; seeing the power evoked by the feathers on the wall, and the salt, was amazing," Hefetz says.
He believes the salt offered an interesting exploration of the idea of "salt of the earth," as he explains. "The term always relates to heroic achievers who must lead the ordinary people around them. They are people who embody an extremely rich culture and who project the internal truth of a particular place. Shish did not serve in the Palmach [the elite, pre-state strike force] or the paratroops. Her artwork does not resemble anything else; it focuses on the idea of lacking, of poverty ... It is extremely difficult to represent poverty in painting and sculpture. Her work did not show a trace of imitation. Her authenticity, her pain, her joy, were extreme. What we saw in that exhibit could never grow out of well-sated Tel Aviv," says Hefetz.
Shish says her installation "created a mess at Oranim. Some were very enthusiastic. Others were thinking, 'Who does she think she is,' and declared that 'this is not art.'
According to Hefetz, "Khen's work created confusion and friction among teachers and students, due to its power. A whole group of teachers showed disdain for the work; they couldn't deal with the fact that a student had come and displayed such a creative work, one that was extremely creative and total."
The exhibit's effect lingered. An artist was born at Oranim. "I often view works by artists who know their craft, who know the technique and the reference points, and yet who lack an internal fire, a flame within that can never be taught," says Direktor. For the first time in Oranim's history, a work by a second-year student won an America-Israel Cultural Foundation award.
"I realized that a teacher's pension was beyond my reach," Shish says, smiling.
Shish is afraid to reveal very much about her past. She doesn't want to be cataloged. "What I care about is that the line is precise, the color correct. My fear is that a glance may stray from the line that I draw, and I fall into existing patterns." Recoil from these restricting, established molds is what occasionally compels Shish to destroy some of her unfinished works; it is as though she keeps erasing her past and seeking rebirth as an artist.
Djamila in London
Leaping forward into the art world, Shish began graduate studies at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, in Jerusalem. "Going to Bezalel, after Oranim, after Safed, was absolutely terrifying," recalls Shish. "This was the real thing, art! Not art education, but art. I was given a studio in the old Bezalel campus, the place where Israeli art began. Awed by the place, in the middle of my first year I burned all the pieces I had brought with me. Looking back, I realize that you can't burn your past, that it always stays with you. It includes fears, anxieties, wounds. Friends helped me throw those works into the fire. It was a necessary purifying ritual. I wanted to turn over a new leaf. Reducing what I had was a good thing to do. From time to time, I repeat the ritual."
After completing her graduate studies in 1999, Shish began exhibiting at both established and alternative galleries; collectors bought her work and she started to make her way in the Israeli art world. Helping to put her on the map was "Mother Tongue," a group exhibition by about 20 Jewish artists of Middle Eastern descent, held in 2002 at the Ein Harod Museum of Art.
"It was almost the first of its kind," recalls Direktor. "The exhibition displayed the dark side in treatments of ethnic ancestry. The curator, Tal Ben-Zvi, directed attention to the artists' ethnic origins, a subject that had not been discussed before then." Shish's contribution to "Mother Tongue" was a work called "Khen-Djamila" that reflected a long journey back to her origins.
"It comprised photographs, letters and objects that I collected during a trip to London," Shish says. "While working on the project, I lived in neighborhoods of Arab immigrants. I created a fictional identity. I introduced myself as 'Djamila.' There, in those neighborhoods, far from home, I discovered components in my identity that connect to the Middle East. They connect in a vague, indirect way to my parents' cultural heritage, to their Arab identity. I displayed the result in London and at Ein Harod."
In other exhibitions she returned to this ethnic theme, relating to Israel's Black Panther movement. "Birthday," curated by Naomi Aviv, featured a small work by Shish that was based on a reproduction of a work by Francisco Goya that centered on a likeness of the Spanish queen. Shish cut out the monarch's eyes and added the caption, "portrait of Golda Meir." The prime minister, who famously characterized the members of the Mizrahi protest organization as "not very nice," was featured in another work by Shish, in which a red-lettered caption announced "actually, she is very nice."
Shish's abstract works also convey sociopolitical messages, often by contrasting images of comfortable middle-class life with symbols of ephemeral reality and need. In "I was kidnapped by Indians," her 2006 exhibition at the University of Haifa art gallery, curated by Direktor, Shish showed large paintings alongside a cabinet filled with symbols of thrift and want, including paper plates, toothpicks and scattered papers.
"For me, Khen Shish is a soulful painter, who always longs for love or for the object of love," says Aviv. The art scholar Ketzia Alon, who has been following Shish for some time and even curated an exhibition of her work at Tel Aviv's Alon Segev Gallery in 2008, says Shish "uses black in a way that had not existed previously in Israeli art, art that was unable to look at the blackness within ourselves. Via an architecture of tears and masking tape, she creates images of corruption and ugliness alongside visions of beauty," says Alon.
"Her profile is unlike those of other artists, most of whom studied at Bezalel and who hail from the well-off parts of the country," explains Direktor. "Shish sometimes adds to her works captions such as "my beloved," or "my beautiful" that could quickly descend into banal kitsch, but that doesn't happen in her art. There is a secret that holds up her work, and it is impossible to unlock that secret."
It appears that her family's sense of estrangement in Israel has never left Shish, who moved from Safed to Tel Aviv, and then to Europe. She grew accustomed to being the "other" wherever she found herself. "You flee from your roots, cut yourself off from your family and travel to various cities in the world. I took a small suitcase with me, and I wanted to invent a new life for myself," she recalls. After a period in Rome and extended stays in London and Paris, Shish has been living sporadically in Berlin for the past seven years. Works she completed in Berlin have been exhibited at Segev.
"Berlin is everything I'm not. That's why I went, to test my boundaries," Shish explains. "It took me some time to feel connected to that impossible city, and in the end I fell in love with it. All of the world's crazy people congregate there. There is nothing like an insane asylum to encourage creativity, to think about things in a new way and to examine your own sanity. For me, it was important to become a citizen of the world. I discovered in Berlin the limitless possibilities of contemporary art," Shish says, adding, "My fate is to wander, a few years here, a few weeks there ... I have traveled for years, and now I am on my way home."
A few years ago, vultures began to appear in her work. In a 2009 exhibition at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Shish showed paintings of two huge vultures, one beside the other.
"Perhaps they were the vultures who circled high above the graves where I played as a child in Safed," Shish says.
"The Safed landscape echoes in her work. It is the foundation of her identity," says philosophy professor Yossi Yonah of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who specializes in multiculturalism. "Isaac Bashevis Singer insists that the most universal things are to be found in local life," Yonah continues. "When art forcibly attempts to make a general statement, detached from local life, it becomes provincial. In contrast, art that remains faithful to the local radiates universal truth," Yonah says.
The Ashdod exhibition represents a type of interim summary of Shish's creative work, but she fears it is premature - she recently turned 40. "At this stage you definitely look at yourself, in the middle of life. I am happy about the journey I have taken, a journey toward what is missing, one that lacks a predetermined direction and a work plan. With all their doubts and musings and crises, all unforgettable journeys are this sort of unplanned odyssey."
She ends on a kabbalistic note: "Four people entered an orchard. One changed his religion, the second went insane, the third died and only Rabbi Akiva came out sane. There is this spectrum between being content with your art and killing yourself over it. I say 'take good heed unto yourselves.' Artists have a special need to protect their inner world. If you paint without knowing the result in advance, if you are always open to surprises, you have to 'take heed' in order not to go insane, so that you can continue to create." W