The Bezalel Academy Alumni 2001 Exhibition:

A Reunion Of Emerging Israeli Artists
Peter Maltz, Aharon Ozery, Sivan Gur-Arieh, and Anat Litwin
December 12, 2004-January 16, 2005
The Makor Gallery at the 92 Street Y
35 West 67th Street, New York

Sitting stiffly on the very throne from which Pharaoh would later deny G-d and His children’s freedom, Joseph surveyed his brothers bowing before him. His first dream fulfilled, he must have missed his father terribly. He decided to finally reveal himself. “I am Joseph,” he cried abruptly, and the brothers became overwhelmed with the culmination of journeys past, reunions present, and journeys and exiles to come.

The theme of journeys sits quite prominently in the canon of Jewish literary themes – from Abraham’s journey to the Land of Israel, to Yaakov’s flight from Esau; from the exodus from Egypt, to the Babylonian exile, to our present 2,000 year old journey to every corner of the world.

Journeys have a lot to do with disorientation, with loss of identity and language, and with cleansing and bildungsroman (coming of age). The Biblical root “nsa” implies both travel and burden, suggesting a heavy trek – whether physically taxing or psychologically grueling.

Artistically, journey suggests process, and it attends to who, how and what questions more than why ones. Many times, viewers conceive of art as a set of finished pieces, framed and hung on the museum walls. But they fail to recognize that the works underwent many processes – mostly invisible to the viewer – and layers. To many artists, the how-I-got-there outweighs the final piece.

This aesthetic, which developed momentum in the mid-60’s, is called “Conceptual Art,” and it crowns “the idea or concept… the most important aspect of the work… The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” according to artist Sol LeWitt. To the Conceptualists, art effectively was about journey, an intellectual journey, and the finished product need not demonstrate remarkable brushwork to depict naturalistic, mimetic form, so much as a manifestation of conceptual meditation.

Makor, under the curatorial efforts of Anat Litwin, currently houses “Bezalel Alumni,” an exhibition that explores journey and reunion, attending specifically to six Bezalel alumni. Just approaching its 100-year anniversary, Bezalel is an academy of fine arts, design, and architecture – the most prominent one in Israel, according to its website. When I visited the academy last time I was in Israel, I remember being impressed with the works’ gustiness.

The artists at Makor have been separated for four years – they live in London, Tel-Aviv, Mizpe Abirim in the Galilee, Chicago, and New York – and the exhibit responds to their four years together, their separation and individual aesthetic trajectories, and now their reunion.

Anat Litwin’s “Strawling” features a 60-square foot sculptural network of drinking (party) straws that range in color from neon orange to lemon yellow to hot pink to yellow-green, applied with black electric tape over a skeletal structure of what appear to be hanger wires. The whole structure, hung from the ceiling in a corner of the gallery, is not unlike alfalfa sprouts dyed in highlighter ink colors.

The press release offers, “The name of the sculpture, Strawling, addresses both the material of the straws and the action and movement of wandering with no specific direction or destination.”

Neither Merriam-Webster nor the Oxford English dictionary registers “strawling,” which may have something to do with “strolling.” Anat describes it as “kind of fun, kind of goofy” – a union of “idea” and “sublime” – and the work certainly recalls Tara Donovan’s work with straws, as in “Haze, 2003.”

The notion of using disposable elements – forms that are not strong enough alone to last – and turning them into an assemblage, engages notions of kitsch and mass production as purely mechanical processes and objects. The piece, much like the art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who spreads licorice candy on the Guggenheim floor from time to time and calls it “Untitled (Public Opinion),” becomes very much about the process of assembling the parts, and implies a journey of obtaining straws and licorice.

The photographs by Peter Maltz exhibit a sardonic quality. “Chicken,” which he relates to kaparot, features a cobalt blue background with touches of pink, offsetting a very orange and yellow looking chicken that seems to be swallowing a brown royal figure, perhaps a chess king or a knight action toy. The complimentary colors produce a fiery sensation, and color and light figure prominently into the work. The photograph may suggest a replacement relation by which the chicken will atone for the king’s sins, or conversely, it seems to indicate that the atonement process itself engulfs the atoner. The elements clearly suggest a narrative into which the viewer has walked mid-story, and this mysterious element serves to disorient the viewer.

“Bread” illustrates a slice of bread stained with a blood red liquid substance, flanked by broken glass. If “Chicken” relies on light, “Bread” invokes a terminology of texture; the liquid, the sharp transparent glass shards, and the ochre bread lend the photograph a particularly compelling oomph. Maltz cites the bread and blood as elements of Christian iconography, but it is a fractured iconography in which the glass has shattered. The viewer wonders what form the glass held, pre-shattering, and how it came to break. Again, the hidden narrative makes the viewer hyper-aware of a meta-text – a story from which she/he has been intentionally cut off – which presents its own sort of journey meditation.

The two pillars in Aharon Ozery’s “Totem” involve tree branches from the Galilee forest contained within a totem of industrial artificial rings, almost like a stretched Slinky toy. Ozery introduces scale, as all good sculpture must, with “architecture (pillar)” and “ritual structure (half pillar).” Ozery’s “Guns” features ten wooden sticks, also Galilean, with what appear to be butt-stocks on the ends. The viewer wants to call them guns, only to realize they are really merely sticks arranged gun-wise, in a sense that maintains the optical illusion. They lean against a wall, immediately next to “Craves for Caves,” a contraption of wood and yellow cloth that allows the viewer to look inside a corridor at multiple vantage points and to observe a Buddha sculpture standing upside down, while spinning around and laughing.

All Ozery’s pieces have spiritual – and often religious – undertones, arriving at their spirituality through found objects, very natural and simplistic. By using a vocabulary of transformation, of turning objects into visual cognates, Ozery’s work subjects the materials to a form of voyage.

Clearly, the Makor work – which also includes more of Maltz’s photographs, two series of Litwin’s, including one of perforated marks on canvas, and Gur-Arieh’s video work – has a funkiness and energy to it. Makor’s efforts to curate a show that attends to courageous, conceptual work that is also Jewish ought to be applauded. Ultimately, though, I feel there is more room for exploration in the theme of journey.

Chassidic thought finds meditative aspects to journeys – especially individual ones – while Jewish texts are ripe with collective journeys the Jewish people assumes.

Journey suggests kinetic movement, and the works always set themselves opposite the static home. Journeys can be spatially bound or time bound, or they can be interior journeys with no limits. They might involve maps, or they may be aimless wanderings without a destination in sight along the road less traveled. Journeys can be quite nuanced, far more than the few distinctions above. Perhaps Makor lacks the gallery space to explore Journey further in depth, but the current exhibit engages the issue head on, and really scratches convincingly at a very interesting surface.

Menachem Wecker edits the Arts and Culture Section of the Yeshiva University Commentator. As an artist, he has trained at the Massachusetts College of Art. Menachem may be contacted at:

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