Portrait of the Artist as a Portrait

Meticulously done, comprehensive and wide-ranging, this catalog of the work of artist Yair Garbuz is an obligatory addition to one's library, even if it lacks clear chronological divisions.

Naomi Siman-Tov
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Naomi Siman-Tov

Garbuz: mivhar avodot 1957-2006 (Garbuz: Selected Works, 1957-2006), edited by Ruthie Ofek and Amon Yariv, a publication of the Open Museums of Tefen and Omer and the Gordon Gallery, 363 pages, price not marked.

The name and character of Yair Garbuz are hardly unknown. He is a multi-talented, multi-creative individual; a media figure; a witty satirist; the author of several books; director of Midrasha, the School of Art at Beit Berl, an institution that some see not only as a school to train artists, but as a unique local facility in itself, of which Garbuz is undoubtedly considered one of the chief fomenters. He is a charismatic, influential teacher who has trained generations of artists; and - a perhaps less well-known side - a gifted and inspired writer about art. Finally, although this is the source of all the rest, Garbuz is an artist who has held many exhibitions, who is nearing the stage of "senior artist."

Garbuz is one of the pillars of Israeli art, a crucial link in the real or fictitious chain of Israeli modernism, which has been moving, since the state's establishment, toward an imagined horizon: Western, universal, contemporary and, some would add, secular. This local modernism interacts with the abstract, with American pop art in its early version, and with the conceptual art of the 1970s. Garbuz's work reflects this. It is versatile, restless, brimming and rich; some call it multidisciplinary, multi-medial. He has made films in which he appears, created installations and installed sculptural environments, published pamphlets and books that are themselves works of art, has pasted, created collages and assemblages, and above all painted.

"Garbuz" - thus, simply, is the title declared on the hard cover - is a thick, almost square tome, a bit modest in its dimensions, and it is also, surprisingly, the first serious monograph about the artist. It attempts to provide a representative picture of the totality of his work, from his beginnings as a very young artist, at age 18 (it is rare in the world of art in general, and even more so in the world of art today, in which artists undergo a long training apprenticeship, to find artists who started to exhibit professionally at such a young age), until the past year.

The book was published concurrently with the artist's solo exhibition "Yair Garbuz: A Life of Rattle," which was on display earlier this year at the Tefen Open Museum of Israeli Art, located in the Galilee and in the Open Museum in Omer, a Be'er Sheva suburb. It was a large show, monumental and visually spectacular, though not a retrospective (it consisted of works from the past five years). At the same time, it was screwball-funny, pungent and ironic, and despite its title was a bubbling exhibition, overflowing with vitality, pleasure and delightfulness - a powerful demonstration of a certain type of virtuosity, abundant with all things good. A pity that it was not perpetuated in a catalog.

"Garbuz," which has been published in Hebrew and English, and was edited by Ruthie Ofek, curator of the Tefen museum, and Amon Yariv, co-owner of the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv, focuses on the artist's painting. In addition to an article by the curator, there are three additional and excellent articles by Sarit Shapira and Tali Tamir - curators and art researchers - and Doron Rabina, an artist and curator. Also included are excerpts from Garbuz's autobiography, a new text by him about the last series "Europe Will Not Teach Us / A True to Original Copy," and, of course, a short biography of the artist.

The monograph contains about 200 reproductions, presented chronologically: from a drawing done by the artist at the age of 12, and drawings on paper from the 1960s, simultaneously expressive and delicate, to the early collages, the splendid works on plywood, which in some cases became assemblages; to works with texts, long and short, poetic and distinctive in the Garbuz style; to mixed-technique paintings on cloth - creations that can be described as "painterly," wordless, more lyrical in character, done mainly in the 1980s; and works from recent years, in which words reappear. There are figurative, carnival-like, riotous paintings in which Garbuz mainly copies or imitates works by deceased Israeli artists, some well known, others less so.

Surprising approach

This series, in which some of the works are called "Israeli Art Ihud / Israeli Art Meuhad" - a play on the 1950s split in the kibbutz movement (the titles of the works are a story in themselves) - includes copies of paintings in which the imitation surpasses the original. As an artist who lived within the past of Israeli art, Garbuz develops intimacy toward it and becomes the host of these painters (some of his "guests," for example, are Streichman, Yohanan Simon, Shalom Sebba and Kupferman). He claims possession of them, creates a salon for them, a universe that is entirely interior, gives them a better place of residence, almost paradisaical, and creates for their work a present that is healthy and liberated from the burden of historical continuity. This is in addition to quotations from erotic caricatures, violent illustrations of weird and wonderful catastrophes from children's books, and other "candies and sweets."

I will begin with what is actually the concluding article, "Rustles of Suspicion and Matters of Guilt," by Doron Rabina, a brilliant and surprising approach to Garbuz's work. The insights and illuminations are engraved in stone with a clean, elegant chisel. Rabina dives in, takes everything that was perceived, and sometimes also said, about Garbuz's work in the form of negative criticism and condemnation - and uses it. Like a homeopathic healer who cures "like with like," he mixes the materials of the illness and uses them to generate restorative, rehabilitative processes. In fact, he articulates an aesthetic-ethical framework for reading and interpreting Garbuz.

The article does not lend itself to summary, and it is tempting to quote it at length. According to Rabina, the arena of operation of a painting, its ethos, is "murmurs and rustles, background noise, attention disorder and distractions." He describes Garbuz's painting as a "poetic display of the inability to exceed the bounds of 'self,'" painting that is always the infrastructure for the next painting, open, dynamic, unstitched, amenable to change, receptive to another offer. Or maybe the reading of the book, and this article, too, should begin with this: "When a work contains so much information, it hinders/delays any judgment ability ... thus begins the operation of avoiding the gaze, so typical of Garbuz's painting. The painting events in his works have the tragic fate of an occupied population - creating small moments of autonomy, but (forever) unable to gain sovereignty. It is impossible to remember a painting by Garbuz; there is almost never a 'strong image.' In order to describe one of his works verbally, half a page is needed."

"When a Yemenite raises a tent in a Kupferman painting," Rabina writes in reference to paintings of "Still Life Decorated with Yemenites (2005-2006)," and also actually when a Pole (joyfully) takes the racist stereotype and inserts it into an abstract by Kupferman, a Holocaust survivor, and drives the tent pegs into the purple-gray stripes, in an act that smacks of the outrageous - he is actually sloughing off his exilic nature, exiling himself from exiles. "Garbuz painting, adept in the poetics of loneliness," he writes, "constantly lights fires that signal from one mountaintop to the next an ironic wish to belong."

Similarly, Tali Tamir, in her article, which is studded with beautiful elements ("Necrophilia of Still Life"), seemingly concentrates on the "Still Life Decorated with Yemenites" series and on the classic genre of still-life painting, through the prism of the artist's approach. Tamir offers interpretative keys to the artist's worldview, together with a model for an intriguing reading of Israeli art.

Garbuz, she writes, chose a "third way": neither Paris-style modernism, which erases consciousness of place, nor "social realism," which insists on a local reality - but precisely the space between them. According to Tamir, the objects that artists conventionally paint - bowls, vases, fruits and pipes (for smoking), for example - are rendered by Garbuz in loose form, attenuated, scattered, hovering in the air, without a table or other base, mutually detached, bereft of volume and concreteness, like ghosts. Garbuz, like an "obsessive necrophiliac," collects, compiles, reorganizes.

Tamir's article, too, provides a dimension of observation and constructs a classical context and depth for the works. Thus, through the biography of the artist, the son of immigrant parents, she identifies in him a "survival practice" of a "genre of 'painting that never stops'" similar in its structure and syntax to the one used by writer Yaakov Shabtai, especially in his novel "Past Continous."

Cultural contexts

Three different articles by writers coming from different places in art, yet they complement one another. Sarit Shapira, in the article that opens the catalog, begins by sketching a modernist chronicle of Israeli art, which defines itself in juxtaposition to the different stages of Western modernism. She views the chronicle of inevitable loss, non-realization and want, as a type of new horizon, a new meaning. In her characteristic style - intellectual, onrushing, dense and serpentine, not letting go of the reader (in a manner that sometimes recalls the artist's work) - she casts a broad net of cultural contexts for reading Garbuz's work. She invokes his materials and his iconography, and they respond to the summons.

Shapira writes: "Garbuz has always been among those Israeli artists most determined to create, over and over again, representations of what art in Israel could have been (contextual, associated with politics, society, economics, culture), what it cannot be ('contemporary'), and what it would have liked to be (contemporary through its very variance from 'contemporary art'). Over the years, obssesively, he keeps returning to art forms perceived as contemporary, postmodern, political, interdisciplinary - as to an offer that cannot be refused."

This is an important book, by which I mean it is obligatory to have it in the house. It is a meticulously done, comprehensive and wide-ranging catalog of Yair Garbuz, a solo retrospective in a mobile exhibition space. Nevertheless, Garbuz's work apparently still awaits the type of systematic scholarly study known as a catalogue raisonne - a comprehensive, reasoned catalog that will accompany a serious and worthy retrospective in one of Israel's two major museums. What the book lacks is a separation between the periods, accompanied by an interpretation of the works. The book cries out for a clear division into chapters that will organize the periods of the artist's work - or for some other systematic division - into themes or techniques. The succession of reproductions is too long and too uniform: They do not compel the reader or the browser to stop, they blur one's vision. The graphic design also seems to flatten the works. I would also be happy to see more photographs of works in a space, on a wall, a general view of an exhibition that would generate distance, three-dimensionality, and inject a dimension of plasticity into the works. Very much lacking, too, is a bibliography that directs the reader to other texts about the artist.

There is something about a catalog that by its nature undercuts Garbuz's work, because inherently it sums up, seals and closes - but in the present case it can be said that it actually opens up new directions.

Naomi Siman-Tov is an artist and an art teacher.