Israeli Artist Straddles the Line Between Fantasy and Perversion

The powerfully expressive drawings of Alexandra Zuckerman, currently on show at Tel Aviv's Noga Gallery, seek to subvert the painterly illusion.

One of the most exquisite drawings in the exhibition of works by Alexandra Zuckerman at the Noga Gallery in Tel Aviv is of a pair of lovers in a forest. Crescent moon above, dog barking at their feet they ride a horse, gazing backward. The man holds a lantern to light their way but they both face wrong direction.

We will soon either find ourselves in a Hasidic-style miracle tale or remain with this beautiful image of love, like a capsule of visual poetry about lovers in a forest who are lighting the way but looking in the wrong direction.

The design is that of a naive illustration: The horse is a dressed-up toy horse, the trees aligned like a repeating pattern. The pencil drawing fills the entire page, edge to edge, except for the blank, half-round moon in the upper middle.

The woman looks at the man, who looks at the viewer. A nocturnal grayness dominates these drawings, achieved with the tones, widths and direction of the lines as well as a unique technique that produces an engraving-like effect.

Zuckerman builds her drawings by digging deep into the paper with her pencil, creating invisible short lines she then rubs with a soft pencil to make what appear to be small stains on the paper while leaving the deep ruts white.

The use of light as a painterly vacuum is repeated in most of the drawings: Moons peep out from behind branches, light shines through an open door, a dancer at center stage is a white figure in a floodlight, light breaks through a keyhole through which bears peep, and so on.

In these works, the light is a hole in the drawing. It is the remnant of the opening point, a blank page; the opening point is left to the viewer’s eye and becomes a blinding center.

The drawings rely on a mixture of illustrations in children’s books, folk legends, animation, anonymous engravings and medieval illustrations − a nocturnal, surrealistic universe full of monsters and other creatures, as well as bizarre elements and the dangers of rural life.

There are many scenes that are on the threshold of memory − almost Hans Christian Andersen, close to Wilhelm Busch’s “Max and Moritz,” alongside an Oscar Wilde tale together with Pablo Picasso and the fantasies of Nikolai Gogol, something resembling an analysand’s dreams mixed with myths and the art of Henri Rousseau and Rene Magritte.

“Playing with Fire” depicts three young girls in braids and village dresses fleeing a burning barn or palace.

In “Girl and Arse,” a young girl leans on a tree in a forest clearing. Her dress is hiked up to her hips, revealing her buttocks to a black satyr. “Burning Girl in Horse Carriage” describes exactly what the title suggests.

Zuckerman’s thematic world is a merger of the childlike and the naive with the kind of fantasies and perversions found in the tales of the brothers Grimm, producing an unruly rural hallucination with no obvious moral. She retains the context of the principles of folk literature but distorts them somewhat, creating a picture that is fuzzy and full of dead ends. For instance, she rigidly adheres to the principle of symmetry, doubling or the conflict suggested between symmetry and doubling but at the same time explicitly severs from the situation of rivalry or intergenerational struggle.

“Initially we see what is familiar,” writes poet and editor Yaara Shehori in the accompanying text.

“We see the legend, the forest and the city, civilization, nature, a woman, a man, a little girl and a bear. However, not only do the opposite poles slide into one another, actually melting into one another, but it gradually becomes clear that there is nothing for us to see except the surface of things.”

Zuckerman retains the supernatural motifs in the tales but they do not express themselves in the magical powers of talking animals; instead, these motifs create through those magical powers relationships that are distressing and painful.

The little girl placidly sits on the bear’s lap, for example. She is not at all disturbed by the fact that her dress might have been smudged by Zuckerman’s charcoal, she has not lost her way, she is in no hurry to get home.

The dancer on the stage is not a young girl who spins without being able to stop; rather, she is a skilled performer, her audience a man and a wolf sitting in the front row of a concert hall and watching her movements closely.

The male figures in these drawings are passive, on the sidelines. They are marginal, they are voyeurs and they simply wait. Perhaps they generate the scenes in the drawings, perhaps they are members of a chorus figures, the alter ego’s eyeglasses, representatives of the viewer located deep inside the etching, which is full of joyous violence.

Repressed desires will not find an echo or a response in Zuckerman’s drawings. An Oedipal solution does not exist. No solution is provided.

Zuckerman subverts the painterly illusion. The surface tempts the viewer to plunge into the works while the entrances push out the viewer.

As in Little Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks and other fairy tales the little girl creates a narrative because of her curiosity and enters dangerous situations ‏(sometimes in an absolutely black picture full of holes‏); she saves herself through her resourcefulness and her cunning use of artistic means.

Alexandra Zuckerman, “What the Moon Saw,” Noga Gallery, 60 Ahad Ha’am St., Tel Aviv. Mon. to Thur. 11 A.M. to 6 P.M.; Fri. and Sat. 11 A.M. to 2 P.M. Until April 19.