Israeli Artist Paints the Ghosts of Living Rooms Past

The memories embedded in the rooms depicted in Eran Wolkowski paintings are both personal and artistic: They evoke Van Gogh and Matisse.

Eran Wolkowski, 'Iris in the Living Room.'
Ouzi Zur

A tremendous explosion of almost raw colors assails the viewer of Eran Wolkowski’s new exhibition of paintings, titled “Rooms.” The works, all done within just one year, are still on view in this final weekend of the solo show at the RawArt Gallery in Tel Aviv (curator: Leah Abir). In previous exhibitions, the color in Wolkowski’s works sprang largely from the painted subject. Here, we find thematic dissociation and an almost total yielding to the colors themselves. The elements of the painted subject become an excuse to create self-contained color that dispenses with intermediate shading, shadows and transitions.

The genesis of these works lies in an approach informed by color and shapes. Tension arises between the artist’s two-dimensional flattening of what he paints and remnants of heft and three-dimensionality. The palette is not expressionistic or impressionistic, but impinges on a certain figurative formalism that evokes local patchwork and improvisation; whereas the emotional layer is lodged in the unseemly seams and the welding together of the shapes that form the puzzle.

Only a very close examination of the paintings reveals the degree to which the figurative dissolves and recedes into the abstract, and the subject’s apartness from its rendering. Every trace of decorativeness has been expunged. Wolkowski chooses to paint on hard plywood panels so that they will resist his firm touch and not retreat into the elasticity of taut canvases. By the same token, he shuns inordinate expressiveness, which would clash with the character of this restrained and shape-driven art.

In this show, Wolkowski continues to explore interiority as a perplexity of mind-forms of the sort that constituted his previous solo show, “Minus 1” (RawArt Gallery, 2013). The interiors in that exhibition were corridors of the Haaretz building, which functioned as spaces (in contradistinction to the classic white box) for artworks on display in them – works (from the Haaretz Collection) that are themselves a fascinating cross-section in miniature of Israeli art.

In the current exhibition, the interiors approach the artist’s own intimate inner circle. For they are interiors of rooms in which Wolkowski has lived, an inventory of the spaces in which he has resided and done creative work, and of inanimate objects he has acquired, collected and made. For reproduced in these rooms, too, are reduced and perfunctory copies of works done by Wolkowski in different – in some cases very early – periods.

Yet belying their ostensible intimacy, Wolkowski’s rooms are shorn of a sort of nostalgic aura. No melancholy of remembrance suffuses them. They contain nothing of storytelling of the literary kind, only painting per se – color and form, different levels of processing and layering on the same base, such as flat, uniform color surfaces offset by partially processed textures.

Like the fraction of a moment portrayed in the Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s final film, “Afterimage,” about the last years of the painter Wladyslaw Strzeminski (1893-1952), in viewing Wolkowski’s rooms it’s interesting to think about the transition from memory to painting. It’s intriguing to try to decipher what takes place in the transition between the concrete room, which is painted from memory or on the basis of photographs, and the sliver of an ongoing and persistently repeated moment, one that is fraught in Wolkowski’s visual language.

Artistic conversations

These rooms also converse with Vincent van Gogh’s three paintings of his bedroom. It’s likely that in Van Gogh’s case the bedroom was the whole living space, whereas Wolkowski refrains from rendering the privacy of the bedroom and concentrates on the living rooms – perhaps because they are a better and more complex subject for painting. The interiors of David Hockney’s rooms also insinuate themselves, together with Matisse’s rooms with their ornamentation that has a life of its own.

The association with Van Gogh exists as well in the miniature versions of his paintings that hang above the bed, like the preparatory paintings in Wolkowski’s works, and in Van Gogh’s verbal description of the colors in a letter to his brother Theo: “The walls are of a pale violet. The floor – is of red tiles. The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow. The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green. The bedspread scarlet red. The window green. The dressing table orange, the basin blue. The doors lilac.”

“Marcus 7” is a nostalgia-voided memory room from Wolkowski’s Jerusalem period. The nonrealistic point of view, which observes the room almost from above, seems to conjure a dreamlike perspective. The painting is a modular jigsaw of routine practicality transformed into a laconic sequence of shapes, colors and textures that undergo a partial process of abstraction into the inwardness of art. In the forefront of the painting (though the point of view almost annuls front and depth, rendering them more nearly below and above) the “guilty” – the containers of industrial paint that Wolkowski uses in his contemporary paintings, too – are concentrated in a cluster, like a criminal lineup. Together with the texture of the straw chair in the depth of the painting or in its upper part, and the knife and the copy of a local Jerusalem weekly that are placed at its nub, they vivify the large surfaces of color.

In “Blue and Red Living Room,” the frontal piano, if taken in isolation and examined closely, resembles an abstract painting by Mark Rothko in the way the light of the orange contour falls away from the dark brown-purple mass of the instrument. At which point the colors and the matter become a poem. The way in which Wolkowski understands and actualizes Israeli daylight in the windows of the rooms recalls the conception of light in the paintings of Michael Gross. The painting that is closest in spirit to Matisse’s interiority is “Martha’s Living Room,” with its ornamentation in the form of the rhomboidal armchair sliding into the rhomboid carpet, the squares of the red cushions on the sofa and the ball-like blue vase on the other side. Close perusal is needed of the diagonally crossed embroidery of the white, almost transparent cushion that is immersed in the highly densified stain of the reddish armchair. In this way, Wolkowski delimits part of the bodies of color within a partial color contour that is generally the opposite and reverse of the color of the mass, a contrast between line and stain that augments the painting’s structure.

There are no fully rendered human figures other than in “Iris in the Living Room.” In it, the color is confronted slightly by a kind of quotidian lassitude. Here we should notice the white light that is trapped in the balcony doors behind the seated figure, molding her cheeks in yellow. Also noteworthy is the artist’s choice to paint the lining of the armchair in which she sits as a white mass of light, contrary to the rules of realism pertaining to light and shadow; the blue line that runs freely along her trousers; the mustard-colored table that becomes a geometrical abstract against the lilac of the sofa’s curves; and the totally black shadow that looms under it.

The image of the artist that appears in “The Rupin Street Living Room” seems to caricature the classic “portrait of the artist” theme. The image has become part of the geometrical jigsaw of the everyday made abstract. Like Og, king of Bashan, the artist is rooted behind the surface of the yellow table, which is surrounded by the blue floor, and his head is well-nigh sliced off into a space outside the picture. His limbs, dark brown from the sun of his youth, thrust from his T-shirt, glistening in its whiteness against the red of the wall behind, and from his shorts, a dark purple that is swallowed up by the blue of the floor. A man getting lost in the living room of his home.

“Rooms,” an exhibition by Eran Wolkowski, RawArt Gallery, 3 Shvil Hameretz St., building 8 (4th floor), (03) 683-2559; on view this weekend only, Fri-Sat 11.00-14.00