Israeli Painter Aviv Benn's Works Channel Hell Frozen Over

A new exhibition by Aviv Benn in Tel Aviv features fine work of high plastic qualities, fraught with residues of American painting as it morphed from abstract to figurative

Ouzi Zur
Ouzi Zur
A detail from Aviv Benn’s 'A Day in the Yellow Sea,' 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas.
A detail from Aviv Benn’s 'A Day in the Yellow Sea,' 2017, oil and acrylic on canvas.Credit: Ouzi Zur
Ouzi Zur
Ouzi Zur

The paintings of Aviv Benn, currently on display in RawArt Gallery in Tel Aviv, seem to waken into life when the viewer turns his gaze away from them. But when looked at again, they assume an ostensibly innocent aspect – hell frozen over. The exhibition depicts horrors that have undergone partial taming processes – leaving them rife with ironic humor that is in part self-aware, and, seeping into macabre seriousness, averts a descent into the abysmal, but assumes an added grotesqueness.

It’s a treat in summer’s searing: fine work of high plastic qualities and fraught with residues of American painting as it morphed from the abstract to the figurative, like the macabre grotesqueries of Philip Guston and the graffiti-based expressivist compression of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“Gorge me, please, with this red redness,” the reviewer asks the artist, tasting her paintings, from most of which a living red radiates, both alluring and deterring. Benn seems to sear and melt the envelope of the private, mental and physical self, abandoning it to the terrors of others in the spirit of a moralizing medieval fresco. As such, she extends the spatiality of her work from the personal to the communal and deep into the history of art, in the prolonged struggle between humanity and God, the creation of man’s frightened psyche.

As a whole, the paintings bear a warm, red patina, though some works possess a colder aura but are no less nightmarish and have the effect of intensifying the overall heat. This is uninhibited painting that takes pleasure both in its physical creation and in its substantive licentiousness. As such, it is fraught with tension between the overtly untamed and the underlying calculated element in the general composition, in the formal and stylistic attributes (ostensibly free of form and style), in the colorful palette, and more.

Prolonged viewing of Benn’s paintings in the gallery reveals the cyclical rhythm that informs the exhibition from beginning to end, the range of sizes of the works and the weight of the colors, the deliberate void between the large paintings in the east, facing the pillars in the center. The way the paintings are hung, and the attention paid to the topography of the gallery, bring out the works’ singular beauty and power.

A detail from Aviv Benn’s 'Panoramic Emotions', 2017.Credit: Ouzi Zur

The work “Panoramic Emotions” encapsulates the theme of the exhibition. “Bring me the head of” (referring to the film by Sam Peckinpah), the headhuntress commands amid a continuing flow of heads and organs, as in a game, gripping and biting one another. But what grabs me is one wonderful detail: At the bottom of the panorama someone is committing suicide by thrusting fingers into his gaping nostrils, the pupils of his eyes are murky and befogged; a blue face stuck onto his reddishness reveals the madness. The horizontal panorama is divided by a broad vertical stripe, pinkish, ugly and off-center, creating tension between the parts, from which extend yam-like limbs and, contrariwise, a licking tongue. The texture here, as in all the paintings, is a complex disposition of negative and positive segments that hurtle out and cover one another in unrelenting dynamic tension. The heads seem childlike, but this is humanity that’s abstracted into the primeval existentiality of eternal anxiety, amid touches of self-humor.

Buried alive

The paintings also need to be examined abstractly – the quality and manner in which the paint is applied, the cold-hot relations – as in “I Am Boring and So Are You.” In this work, which is on the brink of the abstract, organs and face dissipate into the materiality of the flesh, in a marvelous poetic contrast between spirit and flesh. A kind of open wound bleeds at the bottom; the entire canvas is a texture of layered transparency and opaqueness.

“These Love Songs Don’t Work” evokes a common grave abounding with lusts, loves that were buried alive, tongues and hands writhing and clasping in a richness of reds with spurts of azure blue like toxic contours. In contrast, “Sometime Faces” is the exception in the show. It’s a powerfully expressive work, almost devoid of materiality. A pair of split-level stains emanate like a negative stencil from a slough of blood, the spaces within the heads urgent with contours of eyes and mouths, tongues of fire in the mouths.

In the intensive “Fade/Don’t,” my favorite painting in the exhibition, the artist compresses her whole world to bursting point. It’s rife with fructifying tension between the reds and the blues, a tension that occurs across the whole gamut of the spectacle. Wondrously, it is permeated by a Chagallian dream with the painterly qualities of James Ensor. And in “A Day in the Yellow Sea” a “foreign” yellow penetrates the color palette, partially isolating the limbs, faces, tongues. From up close you notice that Benn has scarred the sea-yellow, too, with thin uniform contours of palms of hands, like the fingers of Picasso’s “Weeping Woman.”

Benn’s paintings seem to desire to spread from the canvases onto the walls. It would be fascinating to see her paint across a whole wall, giving her inner world free rein.

Contemplating the title of the exhibition, “In the Land of No Emotions,” the viewer wonders whether it’s ironic or a genuine reflection of a world peeled of humanity, adding a topical layer of reality. Benn’s sensitivity is on a par with her talent.

There’s a Spartan catalogue for the sake of future memory.

Aviv Benn, “In the Land of No Emotions,” RawArt Gallery, 3 Shvil Hameretz St., (03) 683-2559; Fri, Sat 11.00-14.00; Tues-Thur 12.00-18.00; until August 26

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