African Migrants in Tel Aviv, With a Touch of Matisse

Zoya Cherkassky's paintings feature social realism and recall famous masterpieces.

In her current exhibition, at the Rosenfeld Gallery in Tel Aviv, Zoya Cherkassky reaches the outer limits of the new form of painting she has chosen (along with her colleagues in the New Barbizon group, a group of female artists born in the former Soviet Union, who have “returned to painting from observation,” according to http://newbarbizon.wix.com). Thematically and stylistically speaking, this is the 39-year-old artist’s most cohesive show to date – perhaps because she has reduced political caricature has been reduced to a minimum and she has also abandoned the sarcastic tone that frequently informed her previous works. Yet, for these very reasons, the exhibition strikes a puzzling note and raises a number of questions.

Cherkassky visited Paris and painted the sights of the city. The exhibition, which is in large measure the result of that visit, is divided into large figurative oils and small drawings with the character of sketches, using marker pens and water colors, all of them from the past year. Next to her signature in the forefront of each work, the artist has added the date and title (in English).

The theme of the exhibition can be summed up as Nigeria in Paris, Paris as Levinsky Street (a south Tel Aviv locale inhabited by many African labor migrants), or Levinsky Street as Nigeria. Cherkassky (whose husband is Nigerian) focuses on the life of labor migrants in those places (among others). We see municipality workers in yellow reflective vests; a family at home, with a girl trying on large high-heeled shoes; women wrapped in traditional fabrics; family and community parties; chess players in the Luxembourg Garden. The Metro recurs in the paintings: the Nation station, musician panhandlers (“Non, je ne regrette rien,” from 2014), people walking past a homeless man covered with a colorful blanket, the entrance to Les Halles.

Most of the paintings recall famous masterpieces. Instead of “Still Life with Goldfish” we get interiors with Jesus (“The Widower,” for example). There’s also a version of Millet’s “The Gleaners,” in which, instead of a group of blacks there is a woman who is not just white, but positively phosphorescent, painted against a background of fertile black soil, “Colorado Beetle”). And there’s also a paraphrase of Daumier’s “The Third-Class Carriage.”

Is Cherkassky’s work class-oriented? Is it socialist art under Israel’s neoliberal regime? Iconographically, perhaps. The motivations are social realism, the style is Matisse, or on the Matisse spectrum.

The central painting (which is also on view as a drawing) is “The Tired Tailor.” The tailor woman is sleeping soundly, hands under her head, a measuring tape around her neck, colorful fabrics around her, above her a calendar with a Christian motif and an “I love Jesus” sticker. The sewing machine is off, on the sitting stool is an open fashion magazine from which the pattern for the commissioned apparel is taken.

The woman’s slumbering form brings to mind an odalisque, a concubine sprawled amid duvets, curtains and fabrics, erotic representatives of soft abundance. Here the artist’s Matissism, so to speak, which is embedded in many of her paintings – in the framed plant life in the windows and in the rich ornamentation, in the figurative joie de vivre of the subjects, who are set off with sharp contour lines and with a basic palette – is at its height. The room in which the tired tailor is lying appears in several other paintings as well, each depicting a different domestic scene. This particular painting contains a clear analogy to the work of the artist herself, who learns how to paint from models, observation and replication.

Cherkassky has indeed developed her own contemporary version of Fauvism: drawings of urban transportation in the style of Albert Marquet or Raoul Dufy, but without the anxious yet light noisiness of the line; or torrid trees like the early Kandinsky, but without the momentum; a kind of dislocated version of utopian hopes, footloose wandering and the deconstruction of a coherent reality into a psychedelic vision. But what this style most resembles is one of the plethora of technical manuals on “how to paint like Matisse,” “how to do Manet in 10 easy steps,” “how to color a landscape,” “Alexej von Jawlensky for beginners.”

What is the gaze that she directs at the urban sights? In contrast to her past work, these paintings are not so much satirical social manifestos about class conflicts as they are depictions of a community of blacks that is occupied with itself, seen up close and empathetically. These are street scrawls according to a “sensitive,” “authentic” schema, signifying love of humanity, a familiar code of impressionistic alternatives devoid of any expressionist sarcasm.

Longing for rules

The drawings resemble kitschy souvenirs, like those sold in booths on the banks of the river in Paris and at other tourist traps; dreadful reproductions alongside Edith Piaf posters, merchandise drenched in “atmosphere,” which show the people as charcoal silhouettes that are crisscrossed by straight lines (architecture) and curving lines above (branches of trees), unliberated aquarelle, lacking momentum, constrained and airless, so that even depictions of the outdoors create the impression of a stuffy interior.

It is a style of a happy bourgeois template, blue-collar folk portrayed whistling contentedly, happy with their lot, living their lives, court painting draped in humanist sensitivity. At times, one can positively imagine the artist sitting in the Louvre, wearing a beret and humming a chanson as she copies masterpieces, as amateurs who are not au courant do.

This is the crux of the matter: Cherkassky is looking for a way to transform the fact of not being au courant into a valid critical value. For her, this painting formula is pitted against the inordinate theorizing of contemporary art, as an expression of the artistic revulsion at the necessity of staying current and renewing the language, and the inner aridity that accompanies the artificial “upgrading” this entails.

Cherkassky decided some time ago to abandon what she perceived as ironic conceptual art, which is fraught with anguished self-awareness and meta-critiques of the “field of art.” She also decided to forsake social and critical art and return to what she perceived as “painting painting” – academicism of the old style. In recent years, she’s assumed the role of rehabilitator of the artist’s authority, and for some time has been promoting the traditional agenda to which she returned as a kind of new message. It’s an agenda of painting that is disconnected from the contemporary discourse about its subject matter. The thrust is a return to “dumb painting” (to paraphrase Duchamp) and to formalistic values (line, stain, composition, color, texture, balance, sparseness) as central criteria by which to examine it.

It’s unapologetic, even self-satisfied anachronism. Wishing to reestablish this grasping of dead conventions as fresh, Cherkassky also reconstitutes the image of the artist not only as autonomous but even as authentic, as wholly within and looking out, working by trial and error, as though he were not bound to conditions and in the grip of pressures; as though his subjectivity is not organized by these constraints, but by some pure and mystic path of self-learning. Or, at most, learning in a small group of like-minded others.

But is Cherkassky truly renewing a language of painting, or is she simply clinging to an outmoded charter?

One problem is that she doesn’t actually meet the standards of the academism to which she aspires: her figures are schematic, her palette flat and her perspectives predictable to the point of banality. Anatomical accuracy is nowhere to be found. In some cases a comic-book approach gets the better of realistic heft, particularly in the groin region. For example, the legs of the figures in the paintings are diagonal lines that meet in the middle of the body, an empty triangle between them. There’s no flesh, no package, no mound, no slit. The figures are depicted as scarecrows, road signs. The elbows, too, are geometric spokes, while the palms and fingers are as cumbersome as the teeth of a bulldozer.

Another problem relates to the question that hovers over this entire artistic project: Why rehabilitate the well-digested styles of the past, and does their contemporary updating involve solely a focus on migrants? And if so, what does Cherkassky have to say about the cultural economics that has made them (like the proletariat of the early 20th century) exotic objects of painting?

It’s easy to understand where the desire for painting that longs for binding rules comes from. It stems from the oppressive and wearying situation of art today: a frozen and paralyzing situation burdened by a surfeit of history, which also permits a crass anything-goes approach that strips art of every dimension of authenticity and integrity. It’s far from certain that the solution of a knowing return to naivete will produce a valid long-term answer. At the moment, it’s an interim stage of lighthearted fun for fans of the genre.