Art Review

With Words, Guy Zagursky Limits the Possibilities for Interpreting His Sculptures

A new exhibition by an Israeli sculptor displays intriguing variations on great moments in the history of the avant-garde, often involving a maritime theme. However, the accompanying text serves to limit his work.

The new exhibition by Guy Zagursky at Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery is all about collections. A collection of sculptures; a collection of sculpting formulae; a collection of languages and styles, perhaps even an ethnographic collection in the spirit of Sigmund Freud’s “Totem and Taboo.” The show abounds with pseudo-modernist sculpture, mainly vertical abstract geometrical structures on bases, with a few deviations in the form of biomorphic and figurative works and floor sculptures.

The collection addresses the fundamental values of sculpture as they were challenged anew in the early 20th century by reflexive sculpture: spatial relations, form, structure, material, proportion, scale, equilibrium, static and dynamic.

Zagursky was born in Israel in 1972, and divides his time between Tel Aviv and Berlin. In this exhibition he conjures up the beginnings of modernism, the great moments of the avant-garde, sculptural heroism. The gallery space is crowded with the works: a large number of stylized columns in a fusion of forms and materials are laid out diagonally, the viewer making his way among them via a narrow, winding route. The exhibition exudes colorfulness, abundance and a heightened sense of history.

Superbly crafted

There’s a column made of elements of rusty iron, a cube, a rhombus and a triangle welded on top of one another, recalling the works of U.S. artist David Smith (1906-1965); a version of Alberto Giacometti’s “The Dog” (1951), but with two copulating dogs; a twisting metal pipe on a checkered iron base that evokes floor sculptures by the U.S. minimalist artist Carl Andre (born 1935); a type of “Endless Column” of the kind associated with the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brncusi (1876-1957), albeit in a charred version; a superbly carved wood sculpture that looks like a large guitar pick, or a fin that’s perched on a wooden pedestal from which paint is leaking, as though bleeding; a cast of an inflatable sex doll, mouth gaping wide, recalling the sculptures of contemporary British visual artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, or a decadent variation on Caravaggio’s “Medusa”; a blue-and-white porcelain pitcher standing on a massive, perforated wooden block, a red cable snaking in and out of the perforations; a black crucifix, atop of which a green lantern flickers like a road sign or a lighthouse; another crucifix on which a cormorant of black iron spreads its wings; various stools (without bicycle wheels); and, in general, many quotes and an overall Brncusian look.

Zagursky, 'Untitled.'

Amid this eclectic abundance, there is also plenty of Israeli art: a general resemblance to Gabi Klezmer’s 2014 exhibition in the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv; a wooden, mannequin-like human head, its nose the length of an elephant’s trunk, exactly like Erez Israeli’s “Self-Portrait with a Nose” (2011), though in this case the nose is a pistol butt carved in wood. A large painting by Yaakov Mishori is imported into the exhibition as a ready-made on loan, resting on coulisses, as a colorful backdrop.

What is the meaning of this collection of totems? Are all these phalli a parody of modernist art? The impression left by all the quotations and references, specific and suggestive alike, is not so much a comment on the history of art but rather a great joy in creation, the pleasures of variation, of becoming part of a constructivist dynasty.

The evocation of great names in art is related to the title of the exhibition, “Nostos” – Greek for “homecoming” after a long journey, and a major theme of Homer’s “Odyssey.” It’s through the prism of nostos, which constitutes the root of the word “nostalgia,” that all the maritime images in the exhibition – lighthouses, life belts, sails, propellers, fins and wind vanes, ropes, maps on the wall – can be perceived. All these and other items suggest that the course being followed by the artist himself in a sailboat – which he talks about in the accompanying text – is of Odyssean proportions.

Zagursky, 'Untitled.'

That text describes a trip undertaken by Zagursky and his family in a sailboat he renovated. He calls his wife “the crew” – she is told only that the general direction is “westward.” On a remote Greek island, they meet an old fisherman (his eyes were “happy, undefeated,” we’re told) who is also an amateur artist, chiseling figures of a naked woman and a dog’s head, among others, from stone. The encounter thrills Zagursky.

It’s here that the Achilles’ heel of the exhibition emerges. The encyclopedic knowledge required of the viewer to identify and decipher even some of the references turns out to be unnecessary. They were evoked by the artist not to say something about art, but to create through them a symbolic picture of a different order, of maritime sculpture.

Verging on self-parody

His text is inferior to the exhibition. Its tone – Hemingway-esque in curtness and sentimental as “Zorba the Greek” – lapses into seriousness that verges on self-parody. Zagursky writes of “a memory that goes back years.” A summer afternoon. Grass on the banks of the Yarkon” and the crushing disappointment at losing a sailing competition against a team from Jaffa. He writes of the Nostos, an old French sailboat, “as strong as steel and stable as a house.” And so on.

Zagursky, 'Untitled.'

The upshot is that the collection is transformed from a plethora of modernist possibilities into something uniform, cloying – subjugated to sentiment, to a well-worn symbolism. Zagursky does not puncture that symbolism. It turns out he hasn’t forgone even one of the representations of masculinity in the history of the West, and without an iota of irony. There is no reconceptualization, only a reshaping through the foisting of a too-personal tone.

The end product feels muscular, the result of carving, planning and welding, as though that were enough to tell a convincing story, to self-generate a credible universe of symbols. Embarking on the journey. Returning. The line of the horizon. The sleeping child. The wise old man. The obedient woman. The ambitious sculpting. What’s fomented here is not a critical action of voiding, but traditional, even reactionary, allegory that takes itself too seriously by half.

The problem is not only that the artist doesn’t write as well as he creates art, but that, through the writing, we are exposed to an inner world of motivations that thrust the works of art into a reductive context. The ocean of examples tread water in the shallows. Does Zagursky know he is nostalgic for a “source”? And that a source (Garden of Eden, father, his scoutmaster, James Joyce) is inherently a lost figure, a fiction, a fantasy, a philosophical structure that is the original sin of the white man? The exhibition offers no clues that he knows this.

Sommer Contemporary Art Gallery, 13 Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv (03) 516-6400. Mon-Thur 10 A.M.–6 P.M., Fri. 10 A.M.–2 P.M., Sat. 11 A.M.–1 P.M.; until July 11.