Sasha in Wonderland

Sasha Galitsky's new exhibition at the Israel Museum was inspired by a 20th-century Russian artist's illustrations for 'Alice in Wonderland'.

Sasha Galitsky declares that he is still a child. That assertion, made at the start of an interview with him shortly before the opening of his exhibition at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, is a bit surprising. At first glance there is something slightly off-putting about Galitsky's appearance. He is a tall man of 54, with a shiny forehead and darting eyes that seem to examine you through his red eyeglass frames. He is almost a cliche of the graphic designer - only one of the hats worn by this versatile artist, a memento from one of the careers he nurtured before dedicating himself to painting. But when a jesting smile lights up his face his visage grows softer, as though made of putty. And when he adds, in a bemused tone, that he would like to return to early childhood, there is no reason to doubt him.

His works, too, are deceptive. The large paintings hung cheek by jowl on the walls of the library of the museum's Ruth Youth Wing, in "The Wonderland Experience: Sasha Galitsky after Gennady Kalinovsky," evidence colorfulness and creative freedom. The only aspects of his work that can be definitively traced back to childhood are the explosive colors and the naive style. Galitsky's paintings are far from childlike, and their naivete is only on the surface.

Sasha Galitsky
Tomer Appelbaum

As its name suggests, the exhibition's works were created in homage to the 20th-century Russian painter, in particular to his marvelous illustrations for a Russian edition of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Some of those drawings, from the 1970s, are displayed alongside Galitsky's works.

"He was a major influence on me," Galitsky says. "That edition of 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' laid on my desk for years. I love the freedom Kalinovsky uses in creating his characters. Each one is extraordinary in its own way. He isn't afraid of blots or lines that aren't straight. The way he creates different textures, of cloth or of metal, or the representation of a constantly diminishing space, empty or full - all with a black line."

In addition to the idea at the heart of both artists' work - an imaginary world and notably the image of a caterpillar, which plays an important role in "Alice" and which Galitsky depicts in bold green - the connection between them seems very personal, the kind that can only be fully grasped through deep examination.

Sendak-Seuss hybrids

Galitsky seems to be the polar opposite of his source of inspiration. Kalinovsky's intelligent illustrations are models of delicacy that express a richly expressive world with one classic black-and-white line. Galitsky's paintings are a wildly colorful celebration, containing something that unplanned and deliberately unprocessed. The figures sometimes seem to be funny animals and sometimes wicked monsters - like a cross between Maurice Sendak's "wild things" and the characters of Dr. Seuss. They look as if they might burst from the page and embark on a journey at any moment.

When asked about this, Galitsky says that he, like Kalinovsky, began with a black line. He believes in the black line. That is the foundation, he says. The black line is indeed evident in the paper cutouts of the animals he creates. When he discovered the joy of drawing, as a toddler, he used only black, Galitsky says. Color came much later. "Drawing was my play," he recalls. "I would take the drawing to bed, and enjoyed looking at them when I woke up. "I was born in 1957," he continues. "That was long after the Second World War, but Moscow was still quite gray and depressing, and I drew a lot of war. I don't know why that, of all things, gripped me: pistols, bombs. Eventually that entire experience turned into a black sheet of paper." When he was four his mother entered his drawings into a television talent contest. "I still have the letter she sent. In their response they wrote that I had genuine talent but they couldn't do anything for me, and I should continue drawing at home until I grew up. And that is what I am doing. I am growing up."

Sasha Galitsky, bird drawing
Tomer Appelbaum

Galitsky entered art school in his teens. "That is where I got all my classical education. My teacher was like a demigod to me. To this day he is in my head and I constantly think that I haven't finished the dialogue with him." In addition to drawing he learned printing and carving in wood and stone.

But despite his fine-arts education Galitsky became a graphic artist. Refused admission to every painting academy in Moscow because he was a Jew, Galitsky says, he enrolled in an art teacher training school, where the orientation was more practical. He says he has no regrets about this. Toward the end of the Soviet era he was one of an influential group of graphic designers and, he says, gave little attention to life beyond the Iron Curtain. "We felt quite free to act. We checked out what was happening outside through magazines, but basically we weren't open to Western art. We referred exclusively to our own 'planet,' neighboring countries, Poland and Czechoslovakia."

Sasha Galitsky
Tomer Appelbaum
Psychedelic mythology

Then, in the late 1980s, the winds of perestroika began to blow. "Everything turned upside down, I felt that chaos was starting and I had to get out," Galitsky says. In 1990 his family immigrated to Israel: his wife, Yana Galitsky, who teaches group art classes in the couple's studio in Hod Hasharon; and their son, Gosha Galitsky, an industrial designer who is currently working in Sweden. Their daughter Naomi, 15, was born in Israel. Father and daughter often draw together.

Sasha Galitsky began working at the Center for Educational Technology immediately after moving to Israel, and in short order became the firm's chief designer. After years of designing textbooks there, he says, he felt a pressing need for self-expression. "I began to draw during meetings," he recalls.

His unique characters, the same ones that run around in his head, began appearing in the margins of the firm's letterhead and in his desk diaries, and eventually took control of the space. These characters are also the protagonists of the new exhibition: fantastical creatures, monsters and also cartoon self-portraits with protruding, astonished, bewildered or terrified eyes.

"The artist in me needs to come out," he says. "These images started on the margins of my life and finally took over the whole page and my whole life. I was tired of the pyramid of management levels and wanted to create myself on my own," he explains.

"I always aspired to more freedom, and I searched for my own style. I wanted to be more of a child. To forget everything I had learned and return to the time before knowledge and maturity. But you can't really go back to being three. So you take all the baggage and go back to the technique of a young child. These are themes of an adult, but completely intuitive.

"There always needs to be one person who understands what you are painting. Sometimes it is you yourself, and when you create your art and present it to the public it is like sending a letter. I find it strange to hear interpretations of my art, because I was thinking of completely different things."

For Galitsky, art is movement that follows "the music of the line and the blot," in his words. "I see a blot and I improve it a little and it becomes a character or a form. The color is less crucial."

The works in the exhibition were created in a dialogue with the show's curator, Nurit Shilo-Cohen, he relates. For example, she persuaded him to use a large format. The size makes the creatures look even more wild, as though they had stepped out of some nightmare- or hallucinogen-induced visions. One is a long-legged creature against a sweet pink background. Another work features a man - only his neck and head, terror in his wide-open eyes, are visible - hiding behind some bizarre creature. Another notable piece is of a vicious, hairy fish in red and yellow. And that's just a sample.

Invoice book of the soul

As an artist, Galitsky is also interested in old age. His works on this theme are a bit more restrained, though here, too, the presentation of the images is cartoon-like and full of humor.

The themes of childhood and old age are also evident in a short animated film that is part of the exhibition. Its stars are figures from early-20th-century photographs, each depicting a different stage of life (a crawling baby, a child, an adult, a stooped old man ). Using animation, they are shown climbing the ladder of a playground slide and sliding down again. The repetitiveness could be interpreted as the cycle of life.

Another project, which Galitsky exhibited in Russia, began with wood-carving classes he held at nursing homes in the area surrounding Ramat Hasharon, where he and his family lives. He and his students became very close; he began drawing them, later adding texts with the stories of their lives.

"I have a student who is nearly 99 years old. For me, drawing her is also a way of looking at life, in another 20 or 30 years. To stop fearing death, to realize they are people like you and me, with feelings and emotions."

He is currently working on a book of art he calls a "book of spiritual invoices," that began life as a carbon-copy invoice-receipt book and whose subjects are his elderly students. When it is finished, he says, he will remove the original pages - the ones he drew on - and crumple up each one and place them all into cracks in the Western Wall. "That is my way to say goodbye to these people, who sometimes disappear from my life," he says. One of the main figures in the book is a woman named Frieda, who has since died. In one drawing she is sitting, drinking tea. Her nose, in the center of the drawing, is a huge parrot's beak.

"I am always afraid of the large, clean, beautiful sheet of paper," Galitsky says. "But I take the liberty of drawing on it and damaging it. Sometimes, when it doesn't work, I accept that and continue the drawing, or flip the paper and draw on the back. I feel I have reached the place I have been searching for since childhood."