Painter Zoya Cherkassky, Israel's Eternal Dissident, Is Embraced by an Unlikely Institution

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Zoya Cherkassky, 'Friday in the neighborhood,' right, and  '1991 in Ukraine.' Both from 2015.
Zoya Cherkassky, 'Friday in the neighborhood,' right, and '1991 in Ukraine.' Both from 2015.Credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

Zoya Cherkassky is one of the pillars of contemporary Israeli art. It’s hard to imagine the local art world of the past two decades without her. More than any other artist today, she is a polarizing figure. She has many admirers, wholly committed disciples, who swear by her artistic commitment and her social courage. Several years ago she founded the New Barbizon group, which includes five female artists who create and occasionally even exhibit together, in an art world that is more individualistic and privatized than ever before.

She also has many enemies, who think she is bringing art down to the level of a social manifest that has nothing to do with art, and some who vigorously argue against the political meaning of the paintings. Cherkassky succeeds in maintaining the position of the eternal dissident: someone who criticizes society, criticizes art and criticizes critical art – in Israel, Germany and Russia. Therefore her entry into the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, in a solo exhibition that will be on display for almost an entire year, raises the question as to why this institution of all places, which is not famous for its critical stance, is embracing Cherkassky. What are the conditions that enable this embrace, and mainly, what is created by the pairing of the spiritual “museum” – with the Shrine of the Book, the synagogues and “Nimrod” – and Cherkassky’s art, which is down-to-earth, painful, lacking in majesty.

And actually, it’s strange to call her Cherkassky. She’s Zoya, just as artist Raffi Lavie is Raffi. Those are the two first names of Israeli art, which may range entirely between Raffi and Zoya, between the Yekke (German-Jewish) sabra, and the very Israeli immigrant from Ukraine. And in another sense, between Lavie from Yona Hanavi Street, who rhymed with his surroundings, to Cherkassky-Nnadi, the “Russian” immigrant who is married to a Nigerian labor migrant; and in a third sense between the modernist Lavie, behind whose paintings there is a wall for Cherkassky, who paints an entire social world.

Zoya Cherkassky, 'Fucking Hebrew,' 2012.Credit: Dubi Shiff Art Collection

We may recall how long Lavie waited for an exhibition at the Israel Museum, and what an uproar ensued when it went on show. At the other extreme, Cherkassky’s exhibition is now on display – not a large retrospective, but a contemporary process, in real time, that leads a single painting momentum.

A gloomy reality

Cherkassky displays about 20 large oil paintings and a number of sketches, drawings and early works, all of them representations of the lives of immigrants to Israel from the countries of the former Soviet Union. The name of the exhibition, “Pravda,” (Truth) points to the demand that art bear true witness in an era of post-truth. This is not the “official truth,” propaganda or public relations of the party and the state, the kind published in the past in the Soviet newspaper Pravda and written today in other newspapers, nor the non-truth of the marketplace of merchandise and images and ostentatious media display. The truth in “Pravda” is a truth of the hardship, oppression, humiliation and disappointment of an entire community.

Zoya Cherkassky, 'The circumcision of Uncle Yasha,' 2013.Credit: Emil Salman

At the entrance to the exhibition we see a family of immigrants from the Soviet Union – Cherkassky’s family upon their arrival in Israel. They descend from the plane in single file, dressed in winter clothes, some joylessly, strangers to the place, “new immigrants” who descend and become “New Victims,” as the painting is called. The downward movement will continue throughout the exhibition: harassment by the religious establishment and government authorities; the difficulty of social integration and the many stereotypes with which they are labeled; interpersonal and political hooliganism directed at them, which they later direct at others in a cycle of deliberate cruelty.

Zoya Cherkassky.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

On the other hand, there is no nostalgia here for the world they left behind. On the contrary: Cherkassky places Soviet and Israeli existence opposite each other as mirror images, in a diptych structure where the historical development of oppression is presented in a fateful and tragic manner. One work depicts snow-covered Ukraine in 1991, shown alongside a Friday scene in a desert neighborhood in 2015. In another, a Jewish child is humiliated in a Soviet school, alongside a Russian child humiliated in an Israeli school.

That is the diptych principle of the entire exhibition: duplicated, lacking in development – a harsh world full of suffering and lacking lovingkindness. There are rare moments of a different type of activity, not oppressive or forced, but autonomous and creative: A pair of young female anarchists dance, their hands and hair flying, and in the painting next to them a wide-bodied young man practices in front of a mirror, lifting an arm in a similar movement. The diptych portrays non-violent strength, an exception in this exhibition.

Cherkassky paints the social truth sharply and clearly; one sees it and is immediately convinced of it. Every painting portrays a scene that is subject to a full narrative interpretation, without ambiguity, entirely understandable. The reality is gloomy, but there are no dark corners in a painting by Cherkassky. The painting does not reveal itself slowly to the eyes of the spectators, and doesn’t demand concentration and lingering. It hits the viewers like a bolt of lightning.

Sometimes it really is sensational – like the painting of the bloody circumcision that was performed on an uncle of the artist in adulthood. That is Cherkassky’s artistic ethos: a cartoon-like, schematic realism, not preoccupied with details. Formational, sometimes careless. It is fundamentally a penetrating observation of the social situation and a decisive statement about it. It has to be passed on easily and quickly, to as many spectators as possible – to the oppressed, to the people, to the masses. Its form serves its content.

Zoya Cherkassky, 'Jaffa D,' 2012.Credit: Private collection

Why so big?

These works are actually cartoons that have been enlarged into paintings. Their almost uniform format emphasizes that. The exhibition raises a question of dimensions: Why are the paintings so big, and what happens from the moment social satire and grotesqueness are depicted on such a large scale? The exhibition itself presents the act of enlargement by dedicating an entire room to small sketches of the paintings, along with childhood drawings and paintings on paper drawn from memories of the artist’s childhood. This is the most interesting room in the exhibition, in which the combination of concrete situations, anecdotal content, hasty artistic expression, the clarity of the statement, the small format and the large number of works hanging on one wall, seems so right.

The main movement of the exhibition is based on leaving and abandoning this room: the stretching and exaggeration in the dimensions of the paintings, the violation of the balance between expression and format, the gap between the clean museum presentation and the dirty content.

Zoya Cherkassky, 'New Victims,' 2016.Credit: Reproduction by Emil Salman / Rosenfeld Gallery

That, rather than the social materials of the paintings, expresses Cherkassky’s defiant attitude: She spurns, with joy and anger, the modernism that is still etched into Israeli painting – its tendency to the minor, the deflated, to soft lyricism, its congruence between an act of painting and the dimensions of the platform, the meticulous artistic values it places at the forefront, its demand for autonomy (even when the painting is “political”). In the face of an art scene entangled in modernism, Cherkassky’s painting will continue to be dissident, even after being displayed in the national museum.

But in a broader context, which goes beyond the art world to the visual world of contemporary dissemination of images on the internet and on social networks, the clarity and distinctness of Cherkassky’s painting is not dissident at all. Almost a comme- il-faut, it provides quick access to the painting’s meaning, a short, clear conceptualization, and an obligatory social world view derived from within it. And at the same time it reveals a lack of belief in ambivalence, hesitation and dialectic.

Cherkassky manages to operate in the virtual space because she responds to these values. Her works are also, perhaps primarily, duplicated digital images that are disseminated in all directions, competing with millions of other images, which are therefore colorful, sharp, clear. They are made for a visual world that has abandoned high art as a criterion. Hanging them as large paintings in an elegant museum space therefore comes only after their social happening, and is secondary to it.

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