Reflecting on the State of Israeli Painting, Parisian Salon-style

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Hacubia Gallery for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem, Israel.
Hacubia Gallery for Contemporary Art, Jerusalem, Israel.Credit: Yam Vignola

One of the finest exhibitions I’ve seen for a long time is currently on view at Hacubia (The Cube) Gallery for Contemporary Art, located in the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem. Curated by Dan Orimian and Ella Cohen Vansover, the show, titled “Salon Hacubia,” consists of paintings by no fewer than 150 artists. It’s an exhibition “in the spirit of the 19th-century Parisian salon,” the curators note. “Featuring works of renowned and emerging Israeli painters, without hierarchy or thematic and stylistic guidelines, the exhibition examines current approaches to painting,” the curators write. The show is “a status report, a celebration of painting, and a tour de force of artists and their works.” Indeed, the intensive experience of the exhibition prompts viewers to consider it a reliable sample of the contemporary Israeli painting scene. At the same time, it invites one to happily cast aside all such instant insights and revel in an alluring, charismatic bazaar of art.

Dozens of densely hung paintings confront the visitor in the foyer of Hacubia, an art school. The bottom third of the wall has been painted red, the upper part is covered with a diverse mélange of paintings, large and small. Some are by artists at the outset of their career, such as the excellent Ofra Ohana, and others by established painters, among them Tsibi Geva and Zvi Tolkovsky. There’s a plethora of styles, techniques and subjects.

The exhibition seems to flood over the viewer. It includes hyper-realistic painting, works that imitate textiles and 50 shades of figurative-expressive painting. There are intense oils alongside lighter works that are almost sketches, thick brushwork is juxtaposed to lean lines, complex and richly detailed compositions are offset by simplicity and directness of theme, there is academicism and kitsch. It’s impossible to list all the paintings and artists, all the approaches and concepts and all the thoughts-about-painting that arise from the crossword-like installation.

Image of a painting in the show “Salon Hacubia".Credit: Yam Vignola

The painterly abundance is arranged alphabetically by artist, a strategy that flies in the face of all curatorial logic and defies every principle of dividing an artistic space. Yet it’s precisely this arbitrary, almost bureaucratic index that allows the flourishing of the richness and weirdness, the comparativeness, the different languages and styles, the multitude of forms of expression and the range of levels. The decision to arrange the exhibition alphabetically faithfully reflects the light curatorial spirit, though not at the expense of expertise and an equal respect that is paid to all the works. With the addition of the paintings’ qualities, a salon atmosphere is definitely created.

What is the “salon?” A mode of organization that semi-denies the selections it makes and presents semi-democratically, thereby producing a quite reliable cross-section of the state of the art (of painting) in Israel, but also creating it. The 19th-century Paris salon was a national culture agent that shaped the face of the cultural universe in the West. In Paris, the rules underlying the choice of works and their installation were clear, the curators point out. Artists (all males) brought portfolios, and judges (all males) made their way among the works and indicated their selections by pointing with their walking sticks. Works that received a majority entered the salon, and works that obtained an absolute majority were presented “on the line” (à la ligne), meaning that they were hung along an eye-level line that extended across the length of the wall.

The curators, Orimian and Cohen Vansover, treat the current exhibition as an intellectual exercise. Can one gather from it anything about contemporary Israeli style and taste? Or is it their own taste that decided what works would be shown?

Image of a painting in the show “Salon Hacubia".Credit: Yam Vignola

No uniform message

The exhibition, they say, originated as a “humoristic look at the abyssal seriousness of the Israeli art world,” with its rivalries between artistic schools and schools of art, and continued in the establishment of “a salon of our own,” which would nod at the tradition of the Academy of Fine Arts salon in Paris. They issued a call for artists to participate and a committee of judges was set up. Under the radar of the archival order, numerous moments of grace are engendered through comparisons of neighboring works, and poetic harmonies emerge.

On the face of it, nothing happens in the exhibition that is foreign to the bourgeois order of restrained politesse. The celebration occurs on two opposing planes that are related to viewing the show: sailing visually across the non-hierarchical, densely packed walls, and diving into the nuances of the individual works. The greedy eye darts back and forth, in and out, across the walls. At first it seems as though the whole dominates the parts, but that is not the case. The curators have sensibly chosen quality works, most of them valid even separate from the general melee and not only in reference to it. The abundance generates a good mood, the feeling of transcendence of a bargain shop, which is simultaneously the enthusiasm fomented by leveraging the talent, the imagination and the multiplicity of worlds conveyed in one fell swoop, without prestige and without arrogance.

Image of a painting in the show “Salon Hacubia".Credit: Yam Vignola

The exhibition declares little about itself, but offers a great deal. Above all, it is an act suited to its scale, which is very uncommon in these parts. It’s obvious that time, thought, the joy of playing and imagining, the pleasure of assembling a jigsaw puzzle and expertise in the medium have gone into the show.

It’s hard not to think about the concepts of the salon and the “salon of rejects” in connection with the exhibition’s participants. Are those categories still valid, and if so, in reference to what? To an acquired canonical taste? To commercial success? To a position that believes in the act of painting so long after its death and return? These are open, productive questions that linger in the mind long after one leaves the exhibition, as part of its intellectual value. And that too is part of the show’s success.

Salon Hacubia, 13 Yehoshua Yevin Street, Jerusalem, Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs at 9 A.M. - 3 P.M., Tues 3-6 P.M.; until Dec. 31

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