Jewish Franciscan Aram Gershuni Pays Homage to the Lemon

In the act of painting, Gershuni reduces his entire being to an eye and a soul.

Aram Gershuni’s still lifes appear to follow the path of the early Velasquez “bodegónes” paintings: kitchen scenes that blend the prosaic with the sublime (“Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary”). Except that Aram Gershuni does not depict the kitchen interior, nor those preparing the meal. Only the victuals. We should also stress the difference between his paintings of foodstuffs and the kitchen scenes in 17th-century Dutch painting, known for the denseness of meats, fish, poultry and other abominations. Whereas the latter portrayed preparations for the feast, Aram Gershuni’s paintings represent the modest sustenance of the individual, presumably the meal of the artist. In this regard, his paintings are close to the 18th century kitchen still-life paintings of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin.

However, as much as Gershuni’s paintings are indebted in their “proletarian” realism and “religiousness” to the Spanish bodegónes, his still lifes are devoid of the awareness of eating and the pleasure taken in it (in that respect, they follow in the path of Cézanne’s apple paintings, known for the lack of gastronomical effect). For these are the subjects of nature morte – “dead nature,” still representations that hold in their recesses the skull and candlestick with a snuffed candle, representations of death in Baroque still lifes.

Still-life painting has always been linked with a religious, moral message and the reminder of death (vanitas). However, in Aram Gershuni’s case, it is not proud self-adornment through the ownership of objects (the foil of the Krembo in his painting is not precious metal, but just the wrapper of a sweet treat), nor the false charms and transient illusions of coveted objects (appetizing meats, pearls, etc.) that are the subject matter. Quite the opposite: It is the simplicity and mundane poverty of objects, and particularly groceries lacking any aura, the dwellers in “a land of beauty and poverty,” whose radiant meagerness is recounted by the painter.

“Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat” (Matthew 10: 9-10). These are the words that shaped the life and path of Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. A more ancient and Jewish association will take us back to the poverty of the Messiah according to the prophet Zechariah (“humble and mounted on a donkey”), Rabbi Akiva’s praise of poverty (“Poverty is as fitting to the Jews as a red bridle on a white horse” – Leviticus Rabbah, 35), or the Mishnah tale about Rabbi Yehoshua, who points to earthen vessels as superior to gold and silver ones in the preservation of wine.

Whatever the religious association, Aram Gershuni offers us “ascetic” pictures and a unifying gaze and ethos, while he “invites” us to the meager meal on his table: a loaf of bread, or bread and onion, or bread and water (or should we say “the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction” [Isaiah 30: 20]?), or cauliflower, or fish, or beet root, or kohlrabi, or a lemon, or lettuce, plates of fruit, tomatoes, etc. Always every dish in itself, mostly in its raw state. A bunch of hotdogs? A Krembo? Little gastronomical comforts from the kitchen of a monk.

This Jewish -Franciscan ethos contains a refusal of sensual addiction and even a rejection of notions of beauty that border on Eros. See the painting “Clementine and Venus”: The Hellenistic marble statue stands proud on its base, and below it a tiny Clementine, brazenly defiant. It is clear which side Aram Gershuni aligns with. Most likely, he would have told us what Rabban Gamliel said about the statue of Aphrodite at the bathhouse where he washed himself in Acre: “I did not enter her domain, but she entered mine” (Mishna: Avodah Zarah 3:4). The Hellenistic beauty entered the domain of the history of art, yes, but a highly prosaic object such as a miniature random citrus is enough to serve the painter’s act of observation, Aram Gershuni tells us.

A type of material, even conceptual, minimalism lies at the root of the artist’s “observational painting”: One single object (even when comprised of several items), surrounded by a void on all sides. Gershuni demands from us a complete and uncompromising focus on the material “one.”

Aspiring to the serenity of the “one” is exacerbated in the series of paintings marked by the “two” – two onions, two beet roots, two kohlrabi roots, two lemons, two cans of peaches, two fish and more. Here, the movement of the eye and the consciousness between two similar objects is guided by the cognitive faculty of analogy, the faculty that is supposed to draw meaning from comparison.

Yet the longer the pendulum movement, the more it depletes of meaning the pairing of objects, condemning the gaze to a spiritual super-conscious observation. And thus, in a rather paradoxical manner, Aram Gershuni’s paintings of objects supposedly do what Gabriel Orozco’s ready-made objects wish to bring about on the level of post conceptual art: knowing nothingness.

The observationality of Gershuni approaches that which exists in order to arrive at the one which is everything and nothing. We may say: Gershuni’s nothing is transcendental and religious in its sensibility. In an interview with Dror Burstein in 2006, Aram Gershuni spoke of “a lost gaze that I am trying to regain,” some primal, fragile and fading experience, which perhaps will be reclaimed in the act of painting. Plato would have attributed this to “anamnesis” – the attempt to recall the recognition of the essence, the lost idea of things. And what is the Idea of ideas if not the “one”?

At the same time, an utterly prosaic casualness characterizes the objects of Gershuni, which were isolated from any process-temporal context: no smudges of dirt, no leftovers, no cooking utensils, etc.: These are frozen, atemporal paintings that impose a slow pace on a rushing society, and whose uppermost mission, it would seem, is timelessness. In the affluent society of Tel Aviv, hungry for the gratification of body and matter, Aram Gershuni’s objects appear as icons of matter and body depreciation. His objects challenge us further due to the mystery shrouding their presence. Each object in his paintings is like a defiant puzzle demanding its impossible deciphering from us. For the enigma of the solo act of the plain and casual is essentially the enigma of each mere object that refuses to divulge to us the secret of its self-latency, what Martin Heidegger referred to as “Earth”: “...The earth […] continually self-closing, and in that way, self-sheltering.”

For Heidegger, art is the space of struggle between “Earth” and “World” (which is the aim of revealing the truth). In the paintings of Aram Gershuni, “Earth” prevails, the secret remains hidden in the depth of its latency, forever undeciphered. Only, as mentioned, it is not the object in itself that interests the painter, but rather the act of looking at it, literally. And miraculously, what looked like a complete response to the outside world, eventually affirms a pure cognitive autonomy. Gershuni: “It took me a while to realize that I almost don’t look at the model. That I dream in front of the painting.”

In the act of painting, Aram Gershuni reduces his entire being to an eye and a soul. His continued lingering on the object, his intensifying focus on the object and it alone, conveys self-effacement, self-denial, in favor of an eye and nothing else. In this long process toward pure gaze, pure consciousness, we are transported to a different space-time: no longer the practical and stressful time of demanding everyday life, but rather impractical observation for its own sake, at the climax of which time becomes timelessness, and then, the observation is already contemplation. What starts with a material object in the world, ends as pure spirituality above and beyond man and world.

Death visits Aram Gershuni’s paintings on wood. Tantamount to “dead” objects, his foodstuffs are devoid of any signs of movement, planted frozen at the center, surrounded by void, emanating morbidity. The melancholy that shrouds them alludes to objects of mourning. Not only are the fish dead: Everybody dies. Thus, more than energies of life, the dishes are presented as icons of themselves, as tombstones on their own graves. Their infinite solitude is the solitude of the dead.

And therefore, more than “food,” these are “things.” The emptied egg remains as an empty vessel of insignificant life (the chick that will not be born) in the company of a sealed container of oil (essential liquid). Both are deprived of life. Symmetry. Just like another symmetrical pairing of a container of oil (this time a jar) and a sugar bowl (another energetic material). One and the other are both like reliquaries on a church shelf.

Things that are no-things and are mega-things. Things without man, which are the challenge of man’s consciousness. Sealed things, locked inside themselves, which are an excuse for the materialization of endless spirit and freedom.

Excerpts from “(No) things” by Gideon Ofrat, from the catalog of the recent exhibition “Just Looking,” by Aram Gershuni, curated by Lior Yahel Ohad, at Zemack Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv

Courtesy Zemack Gallery