Two years ago, Kibbutz Gallery in Tel Aviv held an exhibit of drawings by Irena Luski, mother of artist and curator Haim Deuelle Luski. The exhibit aroused a great deal of anger in the art world, and many claimed that had she not been his mother, she would never have merited an exhibit. Irena Luski began to paint at the age of 72, and painted intensively for a few years, until her death, about a year after that exhibit. She displayed colorful, naive, childish paintings, which dealt with her childhood memories in the days before the World War II.
The anger increased after Sarit Shapira, the curator for Israeli art at the Israel Museum, displayed Luski's paintings in the group exhibit "Temunot Mekomiyot" [Local Pictures]. A year has passed, and it seems that painters like Irena Luski, formerly on the margins of the art world, have become regular participants in museum exhibits, and displaying them no longer arouses opposition or amazement.
Two exhibits currently in the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum testify to the great change in recent years in the attitude of the elitist art establishment toward anonymous artists. In "Hagova Shel Ha'Amami" [The Height of the Popular], curated by Ellen Ginton at the Tel Aviv Museum, well-known artists such as Meira Shemesh, Phillip Rantzer, Michael Sgan Cohen and Meir Franco are displayed alongside unknown artists such as Shimshon Lemberger, Moshe Elnatan and Mimi Sgan Cohen. The works - both those done in the spirit of modern discourse, and those that broadcast almost childish naivete - display hard, Sisyphean work, that tells a story.
In addition, the exhibit displays private collections of artists Larry Abramson, Zivi Geva and Arieh Aroch, with popular, folkloristic details, which are not considered art. On one of the walls there is a display of Aroch's ceramics; Abramson displays wooden books and ties; Geva displays signs, objects and a tapestry. All were collected according to the personal taste of the artists.
In the exhibit "Mar'ot Mi'Khan" [Views from Here], curated by Timna Seligman and Amitai Mendelsohn in the Israel Museum, there is a display of works that express the relationship of the artist to a place. Among the works are a painting of a truck by Debby Campbell, a resident of the territories, and a landscape painting by Tirza Freund. These are displayed next to Yitzhak Danziger's important statue "Nimrod," and next to the well-known painting by Arieh Aroch, "Agrippas Street." This exhibit is a continuation of "Temunot Mekomiyot" [Local Pictures] displayed at the museum about two years ago. Both dealt with the local landscape, and in both, works from the museum's collection were displayed alongside works of unknown older artists: Moti Cohen, Motta Brim, Mordechai Gumpel, et al.
The combination of high art and popular art exists mainly at topical exhibits, whose aim is to enrich the spectator with varied points of view. Usually, these are exhibits that deal with local subjects, such as a view of the landscape, or relations between East and West (for example, the exhibit: "Kadima: The East in Israeli Art," which was displayed about four years ago in the Israel Museum), but sometimes they deal with very general subjects, like "Rishum Akhshav" [Drawing Now], an exhibit curated by Ilan Wizgan several months ago in the Jerusalem Artists' House, or "Besiman Tziyur" [In the Sign of Painting], now on display at the Haifa Museum.
The exhibit "Namel" [Port], at the Tel Aviv Museum, points out to some degree or other the new pluralism of the museums. In this exhibit, artist Eliezer Sonnenschein hosts four young, unknown artists, who were not lucky enough to enter the fast track to stardom upon completing their studies. It is doubtful whether such a step would have been accepted at the museum two years ago, or even less. When Zohar Kaniel showed his and Moshe Gershuni's intimate nude photographs about three years ago at the Israel Museum, the art world was shocked. Not only because the museum tried to censor the exhibit for its homosexual content, but also because of the invasion of a young, unknown artist into the prestigious space.
These exhibits are surprising. A substantial percentage of the works of the lesser known artists draw their inspiration from the sources, from legends, from childhood memories. Many of them are landscapes, portraits and still lifes. The result of placing them alongside art accepted by the establishment is an interesting combination of the enigmatic and the narrative, the sophisticated and the naive, the intellectual and the emotional. This combination arouses questions in the spectators about the way in which they dismiss or accept a work of art.
Many of the anonymous artists began to paint at a late age, without academic training, and their works are defined as "naive art." Usually, these are people who were involved in various professions all their lives, and began to paint out of strong internal need. Shimshon Lemberger, for example, who exhibits in the show "Hagova Shel Ha'amami," was an accountant for Solel Boneh. Other participants in the exhibit are Moshe Elnatan, who owned a felafel restaurant on Nevi'im Street in Jerusalem; Natan Heber, who was a shochet [ritual slaughterer], began to paint at the age of 60 in order to commemorate his family murdered in the Holocaust; and Gabriel Cohen, who was discovered by gallery owner Ruth Debel in 1972, when he was selling his paintings on the street. He had a solo exhibit recently at the Jerusalem Artists House.
Debel, who managed the Debel Gallery in Jerusalem for many years, says: "I saw a 50-year-old man in the street selling fascinating cardboard paintings. I couldn't keep on walking. These were not perfect paintings, but they had great power. I started to speak to him in French, and I told him that he was a great artist. He said to me: `What do you mean an artist? I'm a diamond polisher.'" Debel, who studied art at the Sorbonne in Paris, bought a few of his works and managed to sell them to several museums, including the Israel Museum. But it wasn't easy.
"The difficulty of getting him recognized stemmed from the fact that people in the art world had no confidence in themselves," she says. "I could be equally enthusiastic about Gabriel Cohen and Yocheved Weinfeld, who displayed conceptual art during the 1970s. I dared to display all of them together, in contradiction to the concept being promulgated then by Yona Fischer and Rafi Lavie, that a gallery needs one uniform line."
Debel believes that the change in attitude toward unknown artists has its source in the maturity of the curators and of the local audience, but is also the result of the fashion of accepting outsiders, which has developed in international art during the past decade. This fashion is related to the modern discourse, which favors multiculturalism, displaying the "other."
This new openness can also be attributed to the intensive activity of some curators, including Galia Bar-Or of the Ein Harod Museum of Art, Tali Tamir of the Kibbutz Gallery, Tal Ben Zvi of the Hagar Gallery, Ilan Wizgan and Ami Steinitz. These curators have revived the voice of forgotten artists, or artists who worked outside the mainstream, and also mediated between the mainstream and new groups, such as Mizrahi [Jews of Middle Eastern origin] and Arabic women. The activity of these groups, like the work of woman fiber artists who displayed crafts at several exhibits recently, has expanded the boundaries of local activity.
But it would seem that the new openness can also be attributed to fatigue with the inflexible line that characterizes modern and post-modern discourse, and with a supply of art that often looks like a photocopy of the same thing. There is something captivating in the plots woven by less sophisticated artists, who didn't study art formally, but create from the gut. "Even in works that are not innovative, there are sometimes important components of artistic expression, primarily revelations of emotion," says Sarit Shapira.
A temporary hug
These exhibits can be seen as an attempt to discuss naive rather than canonical art once again, and perhaps even as a subconscious act of protest against the regular art route, which begins in the institutions of learning, and continues with stipends, prizes and the "right" exhibit spaces.
"It gives legitimacy to the viewpoint of people who are not part of the consensus only because they didn't follow the accepted route," says curator Timna Seligman. Exhibiting a painting by Debby Campbell, for example, in the `Mar'ot MiKhan' exhibit, allows us to examine the point of view of an artist who lives in the territories, and sees the situation with different eyes. That's part of the desire to give expression to additional views, a desire that is intensifying especially nowadays. I think that the present situation is proof that Israeli art has matured, and therefore gives a place to the margins, instead of holding on to one story all the time."
Ellen Ginton says part of the change is related to the feeling that political, social and artistic ideologies are reaching an end. "I display artists to whose quality I was blind until a few years ago," she says. "Suddenly we are looking for narrative, intimate art. Culture becomes tired, and looks for life in another place."
But there are people in the art world, like Haim Luski and Ilan Wizgan, who don't see in these exhibits evidence of real change, but a result of external, almost technical, circumstances. "The museums have lost their exclusive status as arbiters of taste, because of the multiplicity of galleries and exhibit spaces, and now they are trying to become part of the game once again," says Wizgan. "One of the consequences is the adoption of artists who are outside the consensus, at a time when the consensus itself is disappearing. The decline in the number of visitors to the museums, and the fatigue of the audience with art they can't understand, are reasons for the entrance of popular art into the museums."
Another possible explanation for the phenomenon is suggested by Haim Luski. "The first symptom of pessimism is the relinquishing of elitism and of the hegemony of the elites," he says. "Nobody looks to unexpected places, unless he is forced to do so, and what has caused this is the feeling that this is the end."
Will this new situation spur curators to search for the next discovery in the streets, as Debel did? Doubtful. It would seem that the knowledge that somewhere outside there may exist a fascinating and rich art, which is not reflected in the usual spaces, can cause great confusion that will threaten the art world, which is based entirely on habits, rules, hierarchies and positions of power.
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