Very Graphic: London-based Israeli Artist Has Developed His Own Form of Sign Language

Noma Bar works regularly for the world's most prestigious publications and brands.

LONDON - In Highgate Wood, the vestiges of a primeval forest in north London, there is a well-dressed man, armed with a notebook, pen and computer, who sees things differently. This man, Noma (Avinoam) Bar, notices a tree trunk that looks like an elephant's head; another tree that looks like a man hiding his head in the mud; and part of a sidewalk that looks like a particularly graphic sexual organ. He is perhaps the only person who can see the lyrical side of a drooling drunk illuminated by a fluorescent light on the last train from Brighton to London, or of the way one dog's head blends into another dog's posterior upon meeting for a get-acquainted sniffing session in the park.

Bar, an artist, illustrator and graphic designer, sits almost every day in the cafe in the middle of Highgate - now in its full autumn glory - looking at the world in his unique way, and translating sights and ideas into brilliant images. Highgate Wood reminds him of the forests in northern Israel where he spent time with his father during his childhood. On his way from the wood to his studio in the city, there is a reasonable chance that he will encounter some of his creations.

Bar works regularly for The Guardian newspaper, The New York Times, Time Out magazine, and other prestigious publications around the world. In the Underground one can occasionally see posters that he designed for corporations such as Nike, Adidas, Google and IBM. Local bookstores carry books by Haruki Murakami and Don DeLillo whose jackets were designed by Bar, as well as two books featuring his work. His prints are sold at art fairs, and exhibitions of his works are displayed in design museums.

It's impossible to mistake Bar's works, despite their tremendous variety. They are elegant and sparing, but provide powerful visual and intellectual stimulation. They are funny, smart, sharp and clever, and frequently evidence a real touch of genius.

Bar can capture a personality in a few lines, with one brilliant idea. In his work, the late Libyan President Muammar Gadhafi turns into a dazed clown with a tank instead of a face, while the class-based neuroticism of Basil Fawlty, as portrayed by John Cleese, is captured in a minimalist way - with a certain angle of the head and shoulders, and a bell from a reception desk instead of a mustache. For his part, former U.S. President George W. Bush is rendered as occupying a central place among the greatest dictators, with the figure of a tortured Iraqi detainee from the Abu Ghraib prison instead of facial features, if anyone needs a reminder of the legacy he left behind.

Noma Bar was born in 1973 in Afula, to a father who worked as a forester for the Jewish National Fund and a mother who was employed in the tax bureau. Life in his hometown was an incentive to develop a creative career.

"It's a place in which I knew I didn't want to stay," he says, interviewed at the Highgate Woods Cafe. "But I still like the tension between Afula and London. My artistic leanings were repressed, and maybe that was the beauty. Afula was a warm place, not extremist and without class tensions. But there was nobody to develop my talent."

Yet Bar does recall someone he learned from in his hometown: "When the husband of the social studies teacher retired, he became a sculptor - and all of Afula became full of sculptures that he made from tractor parts. I learned from that, too. That's how I learned about ready-made [art]. I was amazed that you could take something from a certain place and give it new life somewhere else.

"Suddenly you would see a tower of tractor wheels and chains soldered to one another, becoming sheaves with a lot of pieces of iron around them, everything sprayed in black, and an Israeli flag at the edge," he adds. "I ask myself whether my hunger stems from my childhood in Afula, and whether the fact that my daughters feel at home at the Tate Modern is good for them - and I still have no answer.

"In school, I was the artist who didn't play soccer," he recalls. "There are things I did at the age of 8 that are similar to things I'm doing now. My parents wanted me to be an electrical engineer, or something like that, because we have artists in the family who came from Eastern Europe, couldn't make a living from it and worked at the Haifa port."

Bar spent his military service at the Ashdod port and the naval officers' training school in Haifa, while at the same time preparing his portfolio for the Bezalel - Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem.

"I experienced a tremendous boom at Bezalel," he says, referring to the school and to life in the capital in the mid-1990s. "It was a culture shock and it was simply marvelous - a formative experience. I came from a melting-pot [part of the] country, to a place that was less a melting pot and [had] more people like [me]. After all the places I had been, I didn't think these places existed - people who are serious about what you've loved all your life, but which wasn't considered serious. And they're living it and talking about it.

"There were wonderful teachers there such as Avi Eisenstein and the late Milka Chizik, people who taught us basic things that I use every day. Even technical things ... That was the older generation of teachers, very absolute - 'old school' in the positive sense of the word. There was something very strict about them; only after three or four years did they 'release' the students into the world. There were people there whom I didn't find anywhere else, real personalities: Eisenstein, Yoram Rozov, Ofer Lellouche - a working artist who introduced me to Giacometti and from there to Kupferman, and to see that he does the same things every day, but differently."

On his list of sources of inspiration, Bar also cites Dutch artist M.C. Escher, his Israeli colleague Hanoch Piven, 16th-century portraitist Giuseppe Arcimboldo and graphic designer Milton Glaser, along with British wit and Eastern European Jewish humor. The most surprising inspiration is Jacky's weekly column for children in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth (now an app called "Where Is It?" ): "I really loved that column, and every week I looked for the girl and the dog. In a sense I'm still looking," he says.

New graphic language

Of his years at Bezalel, he says: "It was fascinating. And after all that I arrived in London." Bar had traveled there during the course of his studies and realized that this was where his future was.

"I fell in love with the city," he recalls. "I loved the energy and the buzz. I felt that something was happening on the graphic design scene that I hadn't seen anywhere else - like a store devoted entirely to graphic design, where I sat for an entire day. There was a scene and an industry and a potential. I lived in Camden and saw all the Goths, and started working in black and white. Those are things that you absorb, whether or not you're aware of them. In terms of work, there are more opportunities here: magazines, newspapers, companies on the crossroad between Europe and the United States."

After focusing on typographical design and designing Hebrew fonts as a student, in London Bar discovered that he would have to find a graphic language of his own. That was the origin of his trademark usage of negative space: the way in which the elements in his work are combined with each other: the moment when the moon looks at the open-mouthed drunk and merges with him; the point at which the two rabbits - one in the background and one in the foreground of a picture - come together; or where two people merge.

"My language can be created in a foreign location because my speech isn't local speech," says Bar. "It became personal speech because my English wasn't fluent and I didn't have enough tools to express myself typographically in English. I feel Hebrew letters more than foreign ones, and that has led to a wordless sign language."

Bar arrived in London in 2001 and, as it turned out, the city was waiting for someone like him. He sent his first piece of work - an illustration of Shakespeare with a question mark - to Time Out magazine, and hasn't had a day of forced idleness since.

"There's great interest in his work," says Camilla Parsons, director of the Outline Editions gallery and who manages the artistic aspect of his work. "Noma has a golden touch and the prices of his prints doubled this year. At fairs he always arouses great interest and he has a real audience of fans now."

"I work from 9 A.M. to 3 A.M., with a break for the family between 6 and 9 P.M.," says Bar, who is married with two daughters. "I shower the girls and put them to bed and then go back to the studio.

"I live like a student," he adds. "My hours are those of a student, my enthusiasm is that of a student, and only the salary is different. I try to maintain that freshness. I still travel on the London Underground and I really enjoy sitting and drawing.

"We come from a place where there isn't much variety and we believe that that's the entire world," he continues. "And suddenly we're people in black suits, entering the meat grinder via the escalators, and people with so many faces and colors appear."

His income enables Bar to engage in artistic adventures such as the "Cut It Out" installation machine that he designed. Instead of printing his work the usual way, he exploited the essence of negative space and came up with this invention: Weighing three-quarters of a ton, and in the shape of black dog with open jaws, "Cut It Out" is a die-cutting machine that produces cutouts of Noma Bar images.

"I invented a new way to come to a gallery and buy a work of art," says Bar. "We have a selection of papers and colors. You feed paper into the machine, without ink. Or you can introduce totally kitschy elements, which turn into something else the moment I enter my work. I thought: Why do I have to print on paper, if I can cut it? And then I designed the machine. It was a challenge. In the past year I've traveled a lot with this dog.

"I saw an illustration of the dog in an Israeli newspaper," he says, "but the dog there was so wicked and irritable, and the graphics in his mouth were done so carelessly and without love; it was a Doberman, so aggressive.

"My work is characterized by a restraint that exists in me; it's my DNA," he reflects. "It can be found in the abstraction, concise speech, the encounter between two shapes. Before that, they used to tell very long stories. All those things came together. Something was created of which I was unaware, and that may have resonated with the Brits."

Shaul Adar