A Showcase of the Israeli Psyche at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art

The masks of unbridled racism serve artist Yair Garbuz as thematic raw material, which he terms 'immunity against racism.'

'Muf Shat' by Yair Garbuz.
Ouzi Zur

The veteran artist Yair Garbuz’s creative split personality reaches its zenith in his solo show “I Am Painters,” which is currently on display – within the framework of the 2015 Rappaport Prize for an Established Israeli Artist – at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (curator: Ellen Ginton). The world that is revealed in these works, all from the past five years, is a showcase of the Israeli psyche: a hybrid between the local “arte povera” approach (plywood, drawing, minimalism) and a certain richness of content, interiority and diasporic thrust (abundant figures, highly detailed scenes). Garbuz’s double-reverse works mask/unmask painful truths about racism and nationalism. The masks of unbridled racism itself serve the artist as thematic raw material, which he terms “immunity against racism,” making use of the germs themselves as antibodies.

The very asceticism that marks his work “Muf Shat” (“Abs Tract”) encapsulates the heart of this bounteous exhibition. A bearded man, a Jewish Charon, rows a boat that holds an abstract Mondrian. Above is the inscription “Muf Shat,” with the space between the words directly above the miniature of the painting. (Mufshat in Hebrew means “abstract”; split apart, the two words of the painting mean “Muf sailing.”) It’s a marvelous paraphrase of the death of art in an era of extreme functionality. The characteristic connection Garbuz draws between word and image also encompasses the ambivalent Jewish baggage between the two. This work reveals Garbuz’s true drawing ability: liberated from mannerism, free, sensual and sensitive, particularly in the pencil markings around the theme, like fragments of the thoughts and dreams of the bearded one, the artist.

Dipping into the Garbuzian Sambatyon, one feels released from political correctness, from self-righteousness, from good taste, from petty bourgeois aesthetics. What also wells up is a sense of intra-art freedom, in which the history of art, world and local, acts as a playground. Garbuz makes use of the styles of various artists like toys with which he, who is both child and wayward master, plays and then tosses into a blender.

The exhibition is a kind of continuous quiz in the history of art, language and culture. It’s both Garbuz in his “amulet-kissing” speech mode (he savaged people who kiss amulets and visit the graves of holy men in a speech at a Zionist Union election campaign rally two years ago) and the Garbuz who tries his own bitter medicine on himself. His works are like amulets that subvert the language of idol worshiping. They are Trojan horses in the bourgeois domicile. In these works, humor-laden Talmudic hairsplitting comes to fruition in a secular version; a constant, uncontrolled game of associations permeates them. Some see this abundance as mannerism; I think it’s a truth that’s burning within Garbuz. It posseses a logic which to observers appears to be devoid of logic.

Obsessive logic

In Garbuz’s works, the literal surface and the homiletic exegesis are composed of a written word and a drawn or painted image. Together they create a kind of “jesting wit” of distorted, obsessive logic into which the brutality of Israeli existence is injected. In the shadow of the death last month of the iconic artist Moshe Gershuni, the Jewish-diasporic aspect, or root – which nourishes both Gershuni and Garbuz in coping with their secular Israeliness – becomes more acute. But whereas Gershuni’s work connects with the mystical layer, Garbuz’s orientation is disputational, drawing on the talmudic-textual tradition out of contrarian delight.

In the past, the moment at which Garbuz completed a painting seemed to the observer to be random. No fully planned subject is perhaps discernible in the paintings on view here, but they possess a quite coherent idea, which deviates from its main theme at its pleasure.

The Garbuzian symbiosis is realized in a painting in which Garbuz seems to complete an unfinished work by the revered artist Yehezkel Streichman (1906-1993) at the initiative of the late painter’s son, Giora Streichman. Garbuz, according to the catalogue, does this “with love and with great apprehension, from a deep commitment and at the same time with a feeling of absolute freedom.”

“Not Only Life Still” is a panoramic interior of an “Ashkenazi” living room; Yemenites with beards and sidelocks, in traditional dress, infiltrate the room, goblin-like, from every direction. The Yemenites are drawn in a free, curling black line on a geometrical carpet of colors. This is Garbuz’s antibody for ethnic discrimination.

“Geranium Head, Head Geranium” is a complex homage to Raffi Lavie (1937-2007) through the prism of the early cubism of Cezanne’s “The Card Players.” The players are painted at the bottom and surrounded by Lavie’s signature objects: bearded head, geraniums, pillar of smoke curling upward like a sidelock, square-lettered inscriptions, a collage in the form of book covers hanging above.

It’s astonishing to see how Garbuz invokes so precisely not only Lavie’s artistic traits but also his spirit, and with such mindful sensitivity. Garbuz also adds a pair of folkloristic wood sculptures and heads of Yemenites with curly sidelocks, with all of them seeming to observe the card game.

In “Franz Kline,” Garbuz wildly draws a swastika on bare plywood and below it, in a more delicate mode, small figures of the Brownshirts who scrawled the murderous graffiti. Next to one is the word “Franz” and next to the other, “Kline.” Franz Kline (1910-1962) was a black-on-white abstract expressionist from the American Action Painting movement. Black humor, Garbuz style.

I wondered what some tourists who chanced upon Garbuz’s exhibition thought when I visited it a second time. The textual jesting is mostly incomprehensible to them, and they are unfamiliar with the Israeli artists to whom Garbuz alludes. Did the rest pique their curiosity? Have they ever encountered an artist like this, who is not afraid to clash with everyone, to differentiate himself from the tribe?

The exhibition, which runs until May 6, is enriched by a fine catalogue in Hebrew and English (design: Magen Halutz; photography: Elad Sarig) in which the quality of the reproductions succeed in conveying the soul of the artist’s works.