Art in Haifa: Thinking Outside the Box

Artists who come from 'other places' reflect the University of Haifa's flexibility.

So flexible is the graduate program in creative arts at the University of Haifa that its students do not share a background in the same discipline. Sharon Poliakine, who heads the Fine Arts Department, says that nine of the 10 graduates this year previously studied at other schools and in different faculties, including graphic design, film studies, computers, philosophy, etc.

This openness, says Poliakine, first and foremost, is thanks to Uri Katzenstein, the multidisciplinary artist who chairs the master's degree studies committee. Katzenstein insisted on expanding the standard discipline and creating "a place where to be an artist ... can come from other places."

Danielle Itzhaki

The diversity of the mentors helps in understanding the wealth and great variety in the graduates' exhibitions this year. There are many contexts, many associations. Poliakine's presence, as an artist and the department chair, restored the glory of things related to prints and etchings, which had become marginalized.

Max Epstein, "Transition"

Max Epstein, 36, presents a three-part installation with a uniform program and visual context. Epstein studied photography at the Open Photography Seminar in Ramat Gan, and completed his undergraduate studies in ceramic sculpture at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. His piece "Transition" consists of three nearly identical black-and-white photographs printed on a mirror, and each shows a self-portrait of Epstein standing in front of a mirror that distorts his image. On another wall, hangs a colorful photo he took near his home, in Jerusalem's Ein Kerem neighborhood. A group of young people are hanging out in nature and seen from a distance, sitting and talking. On the floor of the space are his amazing sculptures of scorched and sooty furniture, such as a table, chair and stool. They are scattered, some intact and some broken. They are topped by small human images made of charcoal. The proportions here and the connection between the small images and the furniture is a statement about the structures that contain us and organize our space.

"The work recreates a certain local Jerusalem scene in a post-traumatic state, following a fire. The construction establishes the presence of the experience of foreignness as a defining moment within it," explains Epstein in a phone conversation. Epstein says that in addition to the classic media of photography and sculpture, the work moves between fields of expression and activity traditionally considered marginal in contemporary art - theatrical dramaturgy and sculpting materials perceived as archaic and bordering on the grotesque. The work, he says, "creates a real space with its own laws."

Epstein has had solo exhibitions at the Jerusalem Artists House and at the Hebrew University and been in group shows (including the second Ceramic Biennale at the new Dweck Gallery in Jerusalem ). He belongs to the art collective called Leviathan and after studying at Sapir College in Sderot set up a studio where he and his friends teach animation to children.

He chose to do the graduate course in Haifa though he lives in Jerusalem, he says, for "the three names." Uri Katzenstein, Philip Ranzer and Sharon Poliakine.

"The first two are sculptors of the highest order, and I have what to learn from them, and Sharon is a print artist on a level unmatched in Israel," says Epstein.

Apart from the two concentrated days of the program of study, he would travel north another day each week for Poliakine's etching and print workshop.

He says: "The University of Haifa space is one of the most satisfying spaces in terms of what is needed from an art school, more than the space of the continuing education program at Bezalel in Tel Aviv - in many respects: architecturally, approach to landscape and nature, proximity to the sea and flow of air between the spaces and even the pianos positioned on each floor, which I played during every break."

Danielle Itzhaki, "Haya"

The exhibition of Danielle Itzhaki, 29, is a wonderful example of the challenging combination of the two-dimensional, the three-dimensional and moving images. The power of her work lies in the rethinking of the possibilities inherent in etching and even the creation of new ones. Poliakine, who mentored Itzhaki, stresses that the act of etching means working in layers and always contains its history.

The installation "Haya" consists of two sections presented in different rooms. One room features side-by-side three models to scale on little tables. Each model is one room in the home of Haya, Itzhaki's grandmother, where the artist has been living. The walls of the rooms are basically engravings full of layers and material that Yitzhaki worked on for the project. The emphasis on the material aspect and the color gives the rooms an outdated mothball look typical of grandmothers' apartments. She focuses on the typical details - old furniture, a rug on the floor, the pictures on the wall.

In the second room, there is a video piece of the same name, "Haya," where the grandmother is seen at home. Itzhaki screened the grandmother's photo into the space of the models and she reshot them, and that is the film that appears. The result is deceptive, strange, somewhat morbid. The grandmother's image roams around the space as if it were hers - familiar to her and yet transparent and turbulent. There is a ghost effect of a fleeting memory.

Itzhaki says engraving and etching appealed to her since the age of 14, when she was a student at the Thelma Yellin School of the Arts in Givatayim and she has not stopped engaging in it. This project's engravings were made with a dry needle and were combined with an independent technique she had developed. The connection between the mediums of engraving and the moving images created "an experience of a slightly transparent image. She enters and disappears in the space...."

Itzhaki studied for a year in the animation department at Bezalel but did not feel she was in the right place. She left for undergraduate studies in art at the Garrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, where she experimented in various mediums and continued to develop her growing interest in engraving. When she returned to Israel, registration for graduate studies had all closed. The University of Haifa agreed to test her and she was accepted.

She studied in Haifa even though she lives in Tel Aviv, close to the Bezalel continuing education program, because she knew of Poliakine's reputation as a master of engraving and etching. Itzhaki says the variety of the students in Haifa makes this program very different from other frameworks in Israel. "People come from all sorts of backgrounds, and there are also Druze and Arab students, which makes the population less homogeneous and more representative of the different segments of society." It reminds her of her studies in Holland, where there are students from all over the world and "no one thinks there's anything wrong with that."

Itzhaki also mentions Ranzer and Katzenstein. Apparently, they are to the students dominant and charismatic figures.