Tel Aviv Art Show Challenges the Domineering Collective Taste

The roughhewn and deliberately awkward quality of Ayelet Zohar’s work, the way it shies away from the overly beautiful, imbues it with truth and power.

Ayelet Zohar, 'Personal,' 1993-1998. Ink, enamel, oil, gunshots and woodcut on plywood.
Uzi Tzur

Its capacity as a bypass route in the realm of art accords the Minus 1 gallery in Tel Aviv enhanced importance and distinctiveness. For its first solo exhibition from the Haaretz Collection of contemporary Israeli artworks, the gallery wisely chose the oeuvre of a largely unknown artist, Ayelet Zohar, who has not breached the barrier of galleries and museums. The exhibition reflects the personal taste of the collector (Amos Schocken) and the curator (Efrat Livny). By showing the work of an artist not recognized by the established institutions, they are broadening the narrow horizons of collective taste somewhat, challenging the domineering mass.

One’s memory of the experience of Zohar’s exhibition focuses largely on a repetitive attempt at healing and wounding – in that order – expressed through two “military” actions, camouflage and shooting, which are partially converted into the field of art and at the same time flow outward from it. Another equally substantial experience is imparted by Zohar’s profound and protracted personal acquaintance with the cultures of Japan and China and with their traditional and modern art. She is thus able to make a connection between the aesthetics, language and core of the Far Eastern arts and a certain local Israeli aesthetic of arte povera, roughness and an improvisatory quality, a “lack of culture.” This welding informs the deep essence of Zohar’s work. Her soldering line goes on to fuse personal and public, transmuting elements of destruction into components of creation.

The exhibition begins with “User Transparent” (1993-2001), which epitomizes the show’s soul (and is also its title). In this work, the intimate space of the bathtub becomes a kind of monument of power that betokens the engineering of its elements, while at the same time opening into the orbit of art, rife with tension between the decorative and the destructive. Pieces of a broken decorated dish tumble from above across a geometrically tiled Islamic ornament into the basin of the tub, next to which a tallit or flag-like towel hangs – a particular towel and a symbol of towels spanning human civilization. Above, in the center, Zohar has carved the words “User Transparent” (in Hebrew) in mirror script; the viewer is the mirror that deciphers the code, collaborating with the work against his will. An additional disruption is a trail of negative circles that lodge themselves in the painting, arbitrary but not coerced. And the ultimate intervention: the artist fires live bullets into the body of the work. The bullet holes puncture the bathtub, the tiles, the fringe of the towel, the ceramic fragments, the uniformly green background. The shooting, repeated time and again in other works, disturbs their relative tranquility, like fate itself. And it’s important to emphasize that the target practice takes place in the finished work: damage and destruction as an integral element of the act of creation. “Snipers and Butterflies” accurately reflects its title. It’s a large screen printing on wallpaper of repeated and continuing motifs: singing birds and nesting birds, leaves and acorns, dragonflies, butterflies and bees upon a gentle grid of branches. Only a second gaze reveals the snipers, in camouflage, kneeling to fire in the cultivated lap of nature.

Pure poetry

Indeed, the exhibition is studded with exquisite works from an extended series of camouflage patterns. These are done in black ink on pages from a calligraphy training notebook, a kind of gentle geometric grid of rationality on which the artist’s imagination is given free rein, while at the same time an element of repetition reins in the imagination. In each case, from this conflict, Zohar has created a different pattern of camouflage that is an imitation of the thing itself, but also extends into the Japanese and Chinese space, in the ancient tradition of calligraphic drawing in which a few light brush strokes capture a whole world. Their richness is pure poetry.

A contradistinction to these works is provided by elongated panoramic paintings from Zohar’s “Marun al-Ras” series. Displayed in a separate space, these are works of ink, acrylic and oil on plywood (apart from one on canvas), a rendering of night landscapes from the Galilee Panhandle that blend the realistic with the near-fantastic. Emerging from this fusion are elements of a nightmarish dream, the reality of this beautiful landscape. A touch of the naive in the mode of painting deepens the inner tension of night’s beauty on the mountainous border. In “La La Land,” another work from this series, the mountain cliff is rendered in ink, like a calligraphic drawing, while the rest of the painting is Western in its density. Lights crawl along the ridgeline beneath dappled skies, cypresses thrust upward in the valley, here’s the Tel Hai lion, white plastic chairs on the grass, security searchlights, high-tension electricity columns, a cluster of warning sirens, and betwixt and between hangs a neon sign as though from a different reality.

The visitor is led to the last wall, to “All That Remains / Organs without Body,” a painting and print executed on the gallery’s plaster wall itself. At first glance, this colorful wallpaper-like work is a celebration of imprinted and painted body organs and of lipstick kisses. But then we notice the shadows of warplanes and, between them, the names of vanished Palestinian villages written in pencil in calligraphic script. A box of mounted butterflies hangs on this wall, along with a video screen projecting an unbroken, hypnotic, disturbing loop of slanting eyes that seem to be trying to break out of the screen and understand what’s going on here, to grasp the madness, tragedy and splendor of this place.

Nearby, Zohar’s vision materializes on a vast scale, not far from the Minus 1 gallery, as part of an exhibition titled “Post-Colonialism?” curated by Wendy Gers in the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center. There, Zohar has wrapped the entire building in camouflage nets. Unlike the elegant decorum of Christo’s covering of monuments, Zohar’s version stirs fear and horror. It’s as though the building has been abducted from its natural surroundings by a violent force and transformed into the chrysalis of a secret conspiracy.

The urban texture of this area of workshops, sprinkled with graffiti and with a row of national flags flying in front of the gallery building, also undergoes alienation. But at the same time, these elements forge a connection with the psychic texture and consciousness of this place – the arbitrariness of the security situation. Camouflage, erasure, blindness. Only close-up does this second skin become a living, breathing epidermis through which a cold east wind blows. And from even closer-up it becomes a calligraphic brush stroke on the whiteness of the walls, calligraphy in constant motion.

Minus 1 gallery, 18 Schocken St., Tel Aviv, (03) 512-1732; Fri. 11:00-14:00; by appt. minus1@haaretz.co.il