The Israeli Exhibition That Puts the Oomph Back in Wall Art

When contemporary artists are drafted to propose new possibilities for a seemingly passé medium – public wall art – the results are most impressive

'Cultural scenery' by Itai Raveh, combining old pieces of wall art with pictures of birds, 'Murals' exhibition in Holon
Itai Raveh

It may sound strange to proclaim that the year’s most interesting, exciting and fun art exhibition is about public wall art, with a historical overview playing a big part. It’s quite understandable that many people may find the subject not particularly cool or sexy. Yet the “Murals” exhibition at the Israeli Center for Digital Art is so excellent that even its placement in a political context – the question of public wall art’s relation to “a visual landscape almost completely controlled by neo-capitalist economics,” as curator Udi Edelman writes in the accompanying text – doesn’t detract from the experience conveyed by the works.

This is above all thanks to the nature of the works on display, but also because of the extraordinary integral continuity flowing from the aesthetic to the historical function of public wall art and concrete (no pun intended) questions such as “what effect did it once have on us and what does it or could it do to us today?” The seamless integration of sound, aesthetic, emotion and message achieved by (decent) political punk bands is nearly mirrored in the beauty of wall art. The focus remains aesthetic, unlike in political art exhibitions, where there often seems to be no understanding of the power of the work itself.

The contemporary pieces of wall art are naturally displayed outdoors. By the entrance to the Israeli Center for Digital Art in Tel Aviv suburb Holon is a work by Shachar Freddy Kislev made of white ceramic tiles with a dynamic geometric pattern composed of blue semicircles. The pattern was created with a computerized algorithm (displayed on a screen inside), and the result is an almost futuristic reincarnation that holds a pleasing dialogue with works of wall art we know from past eras.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a fixed object on a nearby pillar; it looked like the abandoned remnant of one of those small rows of signs you see at the entrance to office buildings, the ones that say something like “Molotov & Ribbentrop, attys.” Wait a minute, I didn’t remember seeing this the last time I was here … And there was something familiar about the combination of colors and materials … Aha! It’s a work by Hilla Toony Navok, of course!

Next to it is a more sculptural version of the same thing, utilizing similar materials and colors but relinquishing the mundane and functional association. Following Navok’s unspectacular collaboration with David Adika in a recent show at Artport in Tel Aviv, it’s wonderful to be reminded of her genius. She’s like a magician who shows you the naked and empty form of the routine, and then does some hocus pocus and transforms it into a retro-modernist sculptural homage.

Retro aesthetic

Alona Rodeh designed the word “Jesse” as a neon logo on the upper right corner of the Center for Digital Art’s outer wall. Some might interpret it as an allusion to the logos of high-tech companies, but the festive retro aesthetic calls to mind an old movie theater logo (and indeed there once was a movie theater in Holon’s Jesse Cohen neighborhood where the center is located). The display is extremely moving because the extinction of movie theaters is still happening here and now, and because, even if economically justified, the demolition of places like the Tel Aviv Cinema and the Allenby Cinema is akin to the destruction of archaeological sites by the Islamic State.

The neon logo 'Jesse' on the upper right corner of the Center for Digital Art’s outer wall designed by Alona Rodeh.
Tal Nissim

If I were mayor, I would have these treasures rebuilt with the forced labor of all the developers of whatever was supposed to replace them. This bright “Jesse” sign also refers to the Gat logo that stands like a memorial to a former cinema that’s now home to a branch of Super-Pharm, to the Pe’er logo that currently adorns a fitness center (at least they didn’t raze the building), not to mention the Esther Cinema in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, which thankfully has only been turned into a boutique hotel with an appreciation for preservation.

Ra’anan Harlap’s geometric wooden work is hidden on a side wall and manages to look like something that was always there and just happened to be revealed, as if we mistakenly slipped into a parallel dimension and found art from an alternative past.

Elad Larom’s mural is based on the aesthetic of murals from the bloody times in Northern Ireland, except that Larom paints life in the Holon neighborhood with some added psychedelic twists: people from the neighborhood and scenes from local life past and present (youths being arrested, a legendary motorcyclist, a Lazarus Holon FC soccer game, the Ron Cinema and Bollywood stars from the movies that were shown there). This is framed by hands forming a triangle, within which the menacing Freemason symbol of the eye in the pyramid is visible. In the corner, a UFO can be seen. In the center, hovering above us, is the modern God of the local youth: rapper Tupac Shakur.

A touch of Dada

A mural depicting life in the Holon neighborhood with some added psychedelic twists, by Elad Larom.
Dafna Gazit

Other works are on display inside the center: A wall collage by Itai Raveh made of Xerox clippings is simultaneously amusing and impressive, combining in Dadaist fashion photographs of old pieces of wall art (the old facade of a Bank Leumi branch, the entrance to a kibbutz dining hall), with pictures of birds, Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower, Charlton Heston as Moses, soldiers at the Suez Canal and more. It’s a cross between a parody and a salute to the old wall art, but from a distance the collage maintains the form of this art and looks deceptively like a bit of historical documentation.

A slide projector screens the treated reconstruction by Meir Tati of the paintings of the Ten Commandments of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement that were created by the kibbutz artist Shraga Weil (1918-2009). (Tati also painted them on the walls of the Hashomer Hatzair clubhouse in Holon together with kids from the youth movement.) The result: thrilling pathos of socialist realism. Full disclosure, I was a member of Hashomer Hatzair and my mother was born in Slovakia – like Weil! – so it’s no wonder I’m foaming at the mouth.

But my fetishism for this aesthetic predates my joining the youth movement when I was in middle school. It echoes its ongoing presence in my childhood, the sense of confidence, continuity and home that it gave me, not in any mysterious or mystical way, but because it observed me with a soothing calm in the places I enjoyed visiting, like museums or academic institutions.

In other words, it’s not just nostalgia for a world where the publicness of art truly spoke to and with the public, it’s part of my DNA and that of millions of other people. And it has been in a dormant state, waiting for the trigger that would bring it back to life – like the trigger provided by this exhibition.

I can’t conclude without mentioning the stunning historical documentation of the work by Gershon Knispel, Avraham Ofek and Pinchas Eshet. Their works – which range from heroic socialist realism (Knispel) to mystical monumentalism (Ofek) to geometric modernism (Eshet) – adorn sites like the Haifa sports arena, Dimona City Hall, Jerusalem’s central post office and Tel Aviv’s Asia House.

Gershon Knispel, heroic socialist realism adorns Dimona City Hall.
Liat Albling

Edelman highlights the oppositionist elements in these artists’ works (for example, Knispel created the monument commemorating Land Day in the Arab town of Sakhnin) in order to distance himself from their patriotic Zionist element. This is interesting but not essential. The fact that aesthetic awe was once used to rally sympathy for something the curator doesn’t endorse doesn’t hinder its inherent potential in the least.

“Murals.” Curator: Udi Edelman. The Israeli Center for Digital Art (4 Ha’amoraim Street, Holon). Tuesday 4 P.M. to 8 P.M., Wednesday and Thursday 2 P.M. to 6 P.M., Saturday 11 A.M. to 3 P.M. through November 2.