Israeli Painter Shatters Cultural Heroes' Image

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Boyan's 'Pirate Bride.'
Boyan's 'Pirate Bride.'

“The Balloon Catcher,” the Tel Aviv exhibition of the Bulgarian-born Israeli artist known as Boyan, features about 50 oil paintings on small pieces of plywood, hung in a gallery space with walls painted a bold bazooka pink. Most of the paintings depict archaic, commonplace, familiar scenes from European paintings of various periods, or from fringe museums, nave or folk art galleries and fictional adventure books or illustrated popular tales.

Some of the paintings appear to be reproductions of themselves, as if they were later versions, or regressions based on familiar paintings. The show therefore relates to a kind of dressed-up painting, depicting borrowed story lines via borrowed artistic mannerisms. What is important is its multiple character.

Boyan provides a lexicon of options, as if he were giving the viewer a database about the paintings. Despite their meticulously small size, as if they belonged to the field of nave or folk souvenir paintings, these are intelligent works reflecting a lot of insight. They are full of desire and humor. They spark the viewers’ imagination and challenge the breadth of their knowledge and memory.

The bold theatrical color of the walls runs counter to the various roles the artist ascribes to the color white in the exhibition, beginning with flesh color and including ceremonial or fancy dress, painting in milky shades and the masked ball in which white women wear black masks. It is also featured in the names of the paintings: “Mister White,” “The Albino” – and “White Room,” in which fencers are seen competing with one another.

The exhibition at RawArt Gallery also includes a painting of “The Messiah” as a faceless man wrapped in white with a donkey next to him, and “The Savior,” in which white clothing turns out to be the white robe of a Ku Klux Klansman. With its suggestions of a frightening pieta scene, the priest who wears it is holding a black body with a crowd in the background.

Boyan's 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.'Credit: Lena Gumon

“Black Wedding” and “Ghost Ship” also include archetypal elements from folk tales, along with scenes of the battle between good and evil, the sons of light and the sons of darkness, depicted in medieval style; and sailing ships with dragon heads breaking through the waves, similar in style to illustrations in books of fables. With a metamorphosis of names and painting style, they become versions of Theodore Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa,” a much-admired painting that has appeared in various versions in recent art, prompted by contemporary scenes of refugees arriving in Europe by sea.

In some of the paintings, there is a heavy iron gate in front of the façade of a palace or mansion (“The House of the Hanged Man,” “The Synagogue” and “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”), along with castles on mountaintops or at the end of a path. The works reflect a dominant theatricality, with paintings of ballrooms, screens and intricate floors, and more and more rich and overly ornate elements.

Among such richness, men on horseback stand out – cavalrymen, knights, cowboys, Napoleon, the Count of Monte Cristo, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Zorro and a Native American, subjects of lost heroism or that have become cause for ridicule, whose wars have subsided and whose figures have become logos indicating “painting.” Women are presented in “The Devil Wears Prada,” the one-eyed woman in “Pirate Bride” and "Lady D.”

“The Hunter” depicts a kind of aristocrat with a wide-brimmed hat and a rifle slung across his waist. As he looks ahead, a deer with large antlers is seen on the mountaintop behind him. He is wearing a red clown’s nose. Together they create a surreal and happy ensemble. In addition to Pablo Picasso’s famous Don Quixote painting, Richard Prince’s Marlboro horses and the many paintings of warriors on horseback in the history of art, Boyan’s work also suggests Italo Calvino’s novel “The Nonexistent Knight,” which tells of the adventures of Agilulf. This nonexistent, highly motivated, chattering knight of hollow armor and trapped air is asked by Charlemagne how he can serve in an army if he doesn’t exist. It is with the help of goodwill and faith in the holy cause, Agilulf replies. Like Agilulf, many of Boyan’s protagonists are mythical.

Baseless heroics

Boyan's 'Medieval History of Violence.'Credit: Efrat Lozanov

Boyan’s exhibition is seemingly made up of unpretentious little book illustrations; actually, it is an impressive essay on figurative painting, or at least of a certain chapter in its history. “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” which directly relates to a painting by Jean-Louis David, is a schematic illustration of a cartoon military leader riding on a donkey and waving his hand in the vacuum of a white canvas, looking like a copy made by a young person. On the other hand, “Bride of Dracula” is of an entirely different style, both rich and serious.In addition, however, Boyan creates his own show of unusual human forms. Among these are “The Midget” (in tribute to Diego Velazquez) and “A Man with 3 Legs” (based on the photo by Francesco Lentini, who was considered “king of the freaks” until his death in 1966); “The Albino” and the collection of figures with magical powers; Dracula, the magician who electrifies a hypnotized woman suspended in midair, and the angel of death. They are each identified with specific roles based on their garb, their attributes and the acts they perform, as archetypes who don their artistic identities and set out for work, loitering around artistic space without a narrative or time context.

There are also the inconsistencies in status. “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” for example, which is based on the film by Luis Buñuel, or “King and Queen of America,” who are rather like Kim Kardashian and Kanye West dressed in white, he in a suit and she in furs, seen striding to an opulent ballroom. In another painting, K & K are seen kissing while sitting in a gold ornate carriage, as if in a fairy tale.

“The Peeping Man” is a kind of virtuous British lord in stockings and a wig bending over to peer through a modernistic slit in the painting. “The Art Collector” is dressed very like Napoleon, pointing upward in a similarly heroic pose (this time toward huge paintings). He is short, as was the French leader, and is pictured under a fancy chandelier.

Boyan employs more and more anachronisms, piling one on top of the other – paintings from different periods, both artistically and iconographically, in addition to the accessories and attire, along with cinematic and literary references from a different order and universe, plus song titles and story lines from the comics. All of this comes together to create the effect of a painting in costume, which at first glance appears to be like the jester in a capricious act. But it leaves behind criticism of the baselessness of heroics and the illusion of superior powers.

Boyan, “The Balloon Catcher” Curator: Leah Abir. RawArt Gallery, 3 Shvil Hameretz, Tel Aviv. Friday and Saturday from 11 A.M. to 2 P.M; Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 6 P.M. Through January 23.

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