In her first solo exhibition, titled “We Live as We Dream – Alone,” Jennifer Abessira offers elegant photography, for the most part composed of visual quotations: re-photography of images that already exist as products (postcards, catalogs, albums) and found images from the World Wide Web. A colorful melange of art history has been fashioned in the large space of the ArtStation Gallery in Tel Aviv as a dual world: Besides being part of the building blocks of Western culture, it is also a collection of references to a private world of influences, likes and preferences compiled from a browser’s mentality. The tangle of images is inevitable, as the curator, Avi Schneebaum, writes in an accompanying text. The result, he observes, is impulsiveness in a guise of restraint, loss of control dressed up as control and beauty camouflaged as commerciality, vulgarity and sensual overflow.
Abessira copes with the assault on the senses by creating an index of cultural markers, ranging from icons that have already become clichés to ephemeral elements that are given a moment of grace through her sensitivity and her close attention to detail. Both the iconic and the transitory are yoked together or photographed anew, in a manner that casts them in a light different from what we’re accustomed to. These “culture assets,” which have already lost their power to act as markers, are wrenched from their regular context and relocated in a personal context. Their status now is comparable to pressed flowers in an album.
Many of the photographs are comparative pseudo-diptychs – two mutually alien subjects that are re-photographed together, with the basis for comparison between them – unfounded or associative, iconic or symbolic – residing in complementary forms or in deliberate contradistinctions. Together they create a magazine-type double spread that carries a surprisingly sensitive aesthetic.
An example is “New Order,” a 2012 work. Its right half is a photograph of a faceless, nude, blonde woman with daisies pasted on her nipples. The left half shows the artist’s hand holding a postcard of El Greco’s 1584 painting, “The Nobleman with His Hand on His Chest,” in which the man’s collar and sleeve furls bear a surprising resemblance to the daisies. .
Another 2014 work, “Don’t Look Back,” juxtaposes the 1875 painting “The Death of Cleoptara,” by the Viennese artist Hans Markat, and a shot of a model in a gold gown. This time the ground of the composition emphasizes the women’s hand gestures, their theatricality and sensuality, and slices their faces. The model, only her mouth and chin visible, is striding down the ramp with her arms in the deep pockets of the fabric, as though immersing herself in the material, her hands disappearing into the fabric at the center of the body. “The Death of Cleopatra” is a painting that revolves around a hand gesture. Cleopatra has one hand in her lap, the thumb stuffed into a flower; with the other she is holding a poisonous snake close to her exposed breasts. It’s a second after the bite – a drop of blood is visible on the delicate skin.
There are also redone photographs, of which the largest and most central is “Living in One Room.” It’s a scan of an almost empty page from an interior-design book of the 1970s, about getting along in a one-room flat. Only the title appears at the upper edge, while on the rest of the empty page Abessira has schematically painted the Hebrew letter het in one brushstroke. This is a kind of sketch of a house even more basic than the one in the title, a diagram of emptiness that is a world unto itself, a contemporary ironic paraphrase of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.”
“Candies on Picasso” is a scan of the artist’s 1962 painting “Seated Woman with Yellow and Green Hat,” on which sticks of chewing gum in hues of yellow, green, blue and red, identical to the painting’s colors, have been laid.
Adjacent to the gallery’s central area, where large Perspex photographs are on view, is a side space containing small photographs which Abessira retouches by means of drawing, pasting and cutting on pages from various types of textbooks and manuals. Art books, illustrations of stellar galaxies, a blueprint of a kindergarten, architectural sketches and diagrams of various kinds are subjected to her interventions. Colors and materials are superimposed on the faded black and white of the pages. This secondary space also shows the artist’s great fondness for 1960s aesthetics, for old-fashioned pagination and typography, for reworked retro.
The exhibition is less a paean to the history of art than a celebration of unhistorical abundance. The mixture of periods, styles, content and artistic searches is the heart of the matter. The “whatever comes to hand” approach underlies her magazine-driven logic of compilation. The exhibition is a “homage to the masters and to the primary colors,” Abessira says. She mobilizes history to construct a private, wide-ranging lexicon. It’s as though she is keeping a diary or compiling a photo album, filing things and then disordering them, creating a collection and organizing it according to a distinctive, at times even revealing, formula. The private world is fashioned from reproductions, which receive an official status of “memory.” Visual images engraved in the database of knowledge are dispatched back to the front as acquired data that have been assimilated into her language.
Despite the intellectual study, the different language registers, the formal meticulousness, the rigorous aesthetic logic and the profuse references to the history of art, this exhibition is not devoid of feeling. On the contrary: all these elements and additional qualities, too, render it a bubbling show, bursting with a distinctly personal approach, in which the artist is caught up in a free-for-all give and take – ranging from restrained to rampant – with the elements she conjures up for the viewer to contemplate.
The exhibition, at the ArtStation Gallery in Hatachana, near Neve Tzedek in Tel Aviv, runs until August 16. Mon-Thur 10 A.M. – 6 P.M., Fri 10 A.M. – 1 P.M., Sat 11 A.M. – 5 P.M.