Tel Aviv Museum of Art
June – August 2011
Eran Reshef's works are almost exclusively concerned with inert objects that seem to have been set in place for the purpose of being scrutinized and studied: situated at the center of the composition, dangling on a string, or positioned on the floor, and always properly lit. These objects are all represented in a direct, highly precise, realistic manner, which combines an external gaze at the object with an ontological understanding of it that amounts to a sort of internal gaze – a combination of gazes that defines the final work. In contrast to the classical tradition of still-life painting and to the works of the great medieval, renaissance and baroque masters, which presented complex allegorical compositions suffused with symbolic and religious meanings, Reshef's works each feature a single element that is indisputably quotidian, local, and earthly; they do not center on metaphysical, seemingly a-temporal symbols, but rather on indexical signifiers of a concrete, clearly identifiable reality.
Indeed, the term "still life," as it pertains to Reshef's works, has little to do with nature. Most of the objects featured in his paintings are everyday, manmade artifacts that belong to a specific cultural context, place, and time: an enamel tub, an old medicine cabinet, a small ironing board, a block of coarse soap, and so forth. Both the objects and their surroundings seem out dated and are covered by the yellow patina of age and neglect – appearing, at times, to be almost dirty. Reshef's paintings do not conceal their palpable materiality. Quite on the contrary, the tactile, sensory dimension of these works enhances their concrete quality, and the illusion of three-dimensionality to which they give rise.
The titles of these compositions provide a direct and impartial verbal description of their contents that echoes the directness of Reshef's painterly language: Switches and Socket. Nesher. Neka 7. This laconic tone, however, is in fact a tactic of camouflage; for despite the sense of documentary directness communicated by the works, nothing in them is arbitrary. The objects are all carefully chosen, and the backgrounds are selected or produced with equal care in order to enhance their presence. The floor tiles that appear in many of these works, for instance, are sometimes especially commissioned by Reshef. Indeed, one may argue that the background, the support and the object itself are all of equal importance in terms of the construction of the works, and all receive similar painterly attention. And yet these works seem to be imbued with something that extends beyond the remarkable skill that defines Reshef's realistic style and enables him to represent the world in such a precise, faithful, and self-assured manner, beyond the richness and complexity characteristic of the surfaces of these works; something that attempts to be defined from with, that is waiting to be pronounced out loud.
The choice of the objects featured in these works is inextricably tied to the artist's personal biography, as well as to a collective, local biography. The metal bowl, the cooking-gas canister, the cooler, the hot-water bottle, and the many other objects captured by Reshef are engraved in his personal memory, as well as in the memory of so many others, to the point of becoming part of the local collective memory. The contents of this collective memory accumulated over time out of a unique combination of East and West, old and new, religious faith and political ideology. In this context, Reshef's work may be seen as part of a cultural mechanism of preservation; the process of observing and reading it thus inevitably brings together a range of different historical, sociological and cultural discourses and interpretive models.
Reshef's works are suffused with nostalgia and longing, and predicated upon a search for points of reference in which one may anchor oneself, and to which one can hold on. They seem to describe the passage of time, the natural process of negation to which it is related, and a poignant sense of loss.In this context, the uniqueness of Reshef's work stems from his search for specific, local elements that touch upon the biographical, thus defining his paintings not simply as a collection of images in the still-life tradition, but as a contemporary body of works whose visual and thematic meaning accrues over time.
Several years ago, an additional painterly dimension began to develop in Reshef's works. This dimension was first given expression in the transition from the depiction of isolated objects and their immediate surroundings, which were presented as the components of a self-enclosed world, to a more expansive point of view that included the larger environment; later on, Reshef shifted to the depiction of this environment without the presence of a single object that defines or anchors it. The first work that pointed to this shift, Entrance (1995–1998), was painted while Reshef was still living in New York. This process, which continued following his return to Israel, was deeply related to his perception and understanding of the time and place in which he works, and above all to his sense of emotional connection to them.
And so, as if undermining the painterly tradition out of which they grew, the works he created in recent years are imbued not only by concrete local references, but also by clearly legible sociopolitical meanings. Ranging from a view of a small bathroom to the grayish cityscape of south Tel Aviv as seen through his studio window, the subjects of these recent works touch upon the here and now with a sober gaze devoid of nostalgic longing. At the same time, it is worth noting that the logic underlying the gaze activated in these works is more clearly related to contemporary photography than to traditional still-life painting – even though the works are never based on photographs, and always build on the direct observation of reality. In the course of this gradual process of change, Reshef has taken care to preserve the direct 1:1 relationship between painting and reality; it is this principle that has determined the unusually large dimensions of his recent works, and to the unique power with which they are imbued.
The work Second Home (2009–2011), for instance, depicts part of Reshef's studio, including the peeling wall, floor tiles and gas canister already familiar from his earlier works. In this case, however, the wide window located at the center of the composition looks out over southern Tel Aviv, whose old industrial buildings bespeak the cultural and political logic that shaped their construction in the mid-20th century, as well as over some trees and business towers that rise up further north, closer to the center of the city. In contrast to the somewhat dark space of the studio and to the dull, grayish color of the buildings, the sky is a typically bright Mediterranean blue. This work presents the heterogeneity of urban life, and the combination of industry and living quarters, of decorative elements (a planter, a sun umbrella) and practical elements (air-conditioners, a surveillance camera, etc.). In contrast to the laconic quality typical of Reshef's works, the title of this painting embodies several interpretive possibilities. For although the term "second home" implies the existence of a first home, it remains unclear whether it is being used to refer to the artist's studio, to a national homeland, or perhaps even to a religious home – i.e., to the Second Temple.
In this context, it is worth considering the work of the established Spanish artist Antonio López García (b. 1936 ), a realist painter whose body of works includes, in additional to traditional still-life paintings, interiors of his studio and cityscapes of Madrid. López's attention to prosaic subjects, which is related to an attempt to reexamine the presence of everyday, quotidian elements, and his ability to work on an unusually large scale over a period of many years have given rise to works such as Madrid desde Torres Blancas (Madrid from the White Towers), which was created between 1976 and 1982. This work presents a breathtaking panorama of Madrid, in which the gaze is suspended above one of the city's busiest streets. Garcia's manner of painting extends beyond the limits of a particular time and place to create an atmospheric and emotionally charged image that is never static. In a certain sense, one could say that Garcia conscripts reality into the service of his painting, choosing details that will enable him to create its emotional equivalent, while Reshef conscripts painting into the service of reality, insisting on its precise depiction while searching for that split second in which it can be transformed.
Moreover, whereas the essence of Garcia's work lies in its emotional power, in Reshef's work one may repeatedly identify an insistence on a direct, seemingly laconic tone. So, for instance, in the work Gates (2003–2007), two open doors lead into a bathroom. Here too, the internal space seems rather dark, and most of the light that makes the representation of this image possible comes through an invisible window. The power of this work lies in its almost crude, direct quality – not only in terms of its subject matter, but also in terms of Reshef's treatment of the materiality of the walls, ceramic tiles, sink, and light switches. This work is no longer a nostalgic homage to a vanished world, but rather a real and painful elegy to a contemporary world in the process of dissolution and destruction.
Like the title of other works by Reshef, the tile of this works is imbued with a meaningful subtext, which exceeds the local gaze discussed above. An examination of the subjects treated in paintings such as The Second Home, Gates, or Ana Bekoach (2010), whose titles clearly allude to the Jewish tradition, make evident Reshef's familiarity with both the obvious and the concealed meanings of these words, as well as his disillusioned, and perhaps even subversive, attitude towards them. The coupling of an urban, secular, everyday landscape with a title that alludes to the Second Temple; the coupling of a toilet and sink with the title Gates, which is also related to the (First or Second) Temple; and the coupling of a partially consumed sausage with the words "Ana Bekoach," the opening words of a liturgical poem recited during the section of the morning prayer that evokes the sacrifices at the temple, are all related to a sense of alienation, emptiness, and disappointment in relation to this world of virtual concepts.
It seems that Reshef's fusion between the tradition of realist painting and a specific, local narrative dimension that is gradually defined over time have led, in his most recent works, to what may be defined as contemporary realism, which is suffused with a sense of both cultural disillusionment and self-criticism.
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