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Last update - 12:07 26/03/2009
Deceptive multiplicity
By Eli Armon Azulai
Avner Ben-Gal wants his art to work on people like a virus,
"whose effect you feel only some time after you've caught it." A
solo show by Ben-Gal, a leading member of the intermediate
generation of Israeli art, has just opened at the Tel Aviv
Museum of Art. Ben-Gal is an artist of deception. He hankers
after strangeness and investigates the tension of
maliciousness. The current show was made possible when he
won the 2008 Rappaport Prize for an Established Israeli
Painter, which awards $35,000 for the artist and $35,000 to
finance an exhibition of his work. This is Ben-Gal's first solo
show in Israel in eight years (though his work has appeared in
several group exhibitions).
"I am delighted and excited by this opportunity," he says. "I am
interested in seeing what my work will look like here, and also
in the reactions of people whose opinions interest me." Forty of
Ben-Gal's works from the last decade are on view in the
extensive exhibition. The curator is Philipp Kaiser, chief curator
of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, who also
curated Ben-Gal's large exhibition at the Museum fur
Gegenwartskunst in Basel last year.
Ben-Gal, 43, graduated from Bezalel Academy of Art and
Design in Jerusalem in 1993. Several of his classmates have
gone on to become prominent artists - including Sigalit Landau,
Ohad Meromi and Gil Marco Shani. Some of them are still part
of Ben-Gal's milieu. He and artists such as Adam Rabinowitz,
Ruti Nemet, Michal Helfman and Uri Dessau are a generation
that differ from their predecessors. One major element that sets
them apart is their ability to make the leap abroad, a faculty
that stems in large measure from their awareness of the
relations between the field of art and the art market. If eminent
Israeli artists such as Rafi Lavie and Arie Aroch did not achieve
international status, the same cannot be said of the leading
members of the new generation.
Since his first solo show, "Ethiopian Birthday Party," held at the
Ramat Gan Museum of Art a year after his graduation (curator:
Nahum Tevet), Ben-Gal has had more than 10 solo shows in
Israel and abroad and has taken part in about 20 group
exhibitions. The latter include the Armory Show in New York in
2001 and the Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2001 he received a
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one-year scholarship from a U.S. foundation to spend a year in
New York. He stayed two more years, during which he
exhibited in several group shows.
Ben-Gal prefers not to work with Israeli galleries - because of
the limitations of the local market, he says. He works instead
with Sadie Coles HQ, a gallery of contemporary art in London,
and with the Bortolami Gallery in New York, and had solo
shows there in 2005 and 2006. His first museum show,
"Sudden Poverty," was held in 2007 in the Aspen Art Museum
in Colorado.
In addition to the sheer quality of Ben-Gal's work, his
international recognition is also due to the fact that his style
suits the zeitgeist in Western art. Although he has ties to a local
tradition of expressive drawing, personified by Aviva Uri, Rafi
Lavie and others, he invokes it in order to trash it and to
sabotage more polished painting. Ben-Gal is fully in control of
the secrets of painting and plays with them as he pleases. In
addition, the local images that appear in many of his works
have become universalized owing to the worldwide
preoccupation with terrorism since the beginning of this
His major shows in Israel include "Curly Drugs," at the Tel Aviv
Artists House in 1998, and "New Army," in 1999, at the
now-defunct Mary Fauzi Gallery, in Jaffa.
Shaky status
Ben-Gal was born in Ashkelon and grew up in Ramat
Hasharon. His parents are Esther and Avigdor ("Yanush")
Ben-Gal, the latter a well-known retired major general.
Following his army service, the young Ben-Gal moved to
London and worked for El Al for a short time. Upon his return to
Israel, his friend Ohad Meromi persuaded him to register for art
studies at the Bezalel Academy, from which he graduated cum
laude. Since 2003, when he returned from New York, he has
lived in Tel Aviv with his partner, Yael Bergstein, formerly the
editor of the art magazine Studio. Bergstein compiled the
catalogue that accompanies his show at the Tel Aviv Museum
of Art. Ben-Gal works in a large studio in an industrial building
in eastern Tel Aviv, above the Ayalon bridge. His pace of work
varies, he says, with relaxed periods giving way to bursts of
The new show occupies the museum's large space. Because
of its size and also because of the exhibitions held there
previously, his desire, he says, was to generate a challenging
experience, created by degrees, with considerable space
between the works. In regard to the great importance he
attaches to the presentation - from the names of the works to
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the way they are hung and the dialogue that ensues from the
moment they are on display - he explains that his status as an
artist today, both in Israel and internationally, is not
"You have to be really good," he says. "Many artists are too
addicted to the medium and get into a rut. Interesting art talks
about something that is beyond the object itself."
Ben-Gal feels that he has reached the end of his participation
in group shows, whether multi-participatory or small such as
"Helena," in 2001, a show at the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for
Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, with Gil Marco and Ohad
Meromi, which drew favorable reviews. "The viewers, the
culture consumers, are limited in their means of absorption,
and it is very difficult to take in multi-participatory shows," he
explains. "They work more like art-tasting exhibitions and
accordingly are better suited to amateur viewers. My strength
lies in solo shows; for me, that is the optimal way to exhibit."
Painting as dirt
In the Tel Aviv Museum show he tries to create several viewing
tracks, none of which forms a distinct chronology or a linear
story. He abhors a didactic approach and wants to leave loose
ends, free himself from automatization and leave question
His works are characterized by a range of themes and
techniques, from expressive paintings featuring large, dark
stains or abstract forms reflecting a sense of liberation, to
works containing figurative elements that evoke landscapes
and figures. The drawings are graphic and meticulously done,
whereas the collages are eclectic in appearance, neither
orderly nor smooth. He himself avoids verbal commitment: "It's
a decade's worth of works - it's hard for me to categorize the
The style, as viewers of the show will find, has changed over
the years. Lately, Ben-Gal's drawings have become dense and
crowded, in both image and line. In both the paintings and the
drawings, a change is apparent in the typology of the human
figures, in the appearance of the animals and in the identity of
the landscapes. For example, the figures of bearded men
recurring in his works have undergone abstraction. If in earlier
works, such as those in the show "Eve of Destruction" (2001),
they looked like religious-fundamentalist Middle Eastern
figures, as in "Public Telephone" and other works, since 2006 a
less distinctive figure has appeared, neglected, who lives in
darkness on the edge of society and culture.
"I am interested in the strangeness and in the effect of
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deception that arises from the works and is meant to
undermine previous assumptions," Ben-Gal says. Indeed, quite
a few of his works possess a seemingly tranquil surface
appearance but are actually fraught with tension. Ben-Gal does
not want to make things the least bit easier for the viewers. He
does his thing, is not accountable and takes care to keep
himself and his work from being categorized. "A type of
survivability," as he puts it.
Because Ben-Gal is loath to interpret his work, we can draw on
the aid of his friend Uri Dessau, an artist, curator and writer
who curated many of the group exhibitions in which Ben-Gal
took part. According to Dessau, Ben-Gal creates a space that
is a kind of living organism, human and conscious. "Fog
becomes sand, gas, smoke. The landscape becomes a pulp
that contains every possible state of being. The painting
undergoes a certain inbuilt deconstruction, which gives rise to
images that one moment look like stains and the next moment
acquire a more dramatic tone."
Ben-Gal: "The space in my works has lost its definition, due to
a natural disaster or by human actions. It contains
self-destruction but is devoid of self-pity. My work is driven by a
sense of urgency, immediacy. There is no arrogance or calm.
Those who wish to can look for symbolism. I personally do not
get into that."
Another concept Ben-Gal investigates in his work is
maliciousness. "Ostensibly familiar characters and objects
receive malicious treatment," the artist says. The choice of this
word is not accidental: it is elusive and not absolute, like "evil,"
for example. The maliciousness can find expression in the look
in the eyes of a particular figure, as in "Bank #3" (2007), in
representations of nudity and sexuality, as in "Surrogate"
(2001), or in objects such as a match, which, when connected
to a battery-like mechanism becomes a mysterious animal, a
hybrid. Figures of a malicious character receive treatment in
kind: thrown paint, a careless line, no tight finishes. Ben-Gal
does this even though he knows that some people will call the
works "bad paintings." He sees nothing bad in that.
All his works contain a large element of drawing and graphic
work, with which he feels most at home. This originates in an
early repulsion, dating from his student days at Bezalel. "I was
never drawn to paint, to touch paintbrushes, colors or
canvases," he reveals. To overcome this difficulty, he
developed an approach of his own to the act of painting:
"Painting as dirt, as a place that blurs and allows the liquidity
and flow of the material, like mud."
Today, in contrast, he understands that there is no need to fear
painting or to shy away from something that looks painterly. At
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the same time, he vehemently dislikes painting that is
mannerist and predictable, painting that is imprisoned within
intra-art conventions. The art critic Uzi Tzur says, "Avner
Ben-Gal takes the technique of traditional painting even further
and uses it to kick at bourgeois art and at the rules of beauty."
Tzur has written that Ben-Gal consolidated his place at the end
of the 1990s and cannot be ignored: "He has developed into
one of the most distinctive artists we have, a kind of poisonous
nettle that makes us want to touch its thorns."
Another source of Ben-Gal's inspiration is cinema and
television. In some of his works he creates a frame that
possesses the perspective of a look and sense of time, of the
moment before a looming disaster, a possible catastrophe, a
plot twist - or the moment after. Among the directors that have
influenced the cinematic approach he applies to his works are
Stanley Kubrick, Cecil B. DeMille and Chodorovsky. These
moments create a feeling of horror and hysteria which the
viewer finds disturbing, whether the occurrence is minimal, as
in "Iguana" (2005) or in denser works, such as "Bank #2"
Multiple meanings
In contrast to the more recent works, which are characterized
by vague figures, Ben-Gal's earlier work is replete with
clear-cut figures that relate to local political, social and
economic issues. Take for example, the 1997 drawing of
Yasser Arafat entitled "Bristles," which Dessau calls "drawing
theater." Its purpose seems to be to dramatize Arafat's image,
and it can also be interpreted as a counterweight to the
discourse then prevalent among the Israeli left, which focused
on the vilification of the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
Without presenting his political views, Ben-Gal identified a
weak point in the post-Oslo discourse conducted by the Israeli
left, which was suffused with optimism and blind to the power
alignments and lies of both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict. What sets this work apart is its ability to grasp through
artistic expression a position external to the cultural-political
Another example is "Qaddafi's Hospitality Tent," which Ben-Gal
presented in his "New Army" show. The installation was an
attempt to raise political issues through basic intra-art
questions, such as appropriation, the transferal of a place to a
different site and the creation of a fictional space. Ben-Gal
appropriated the space of the Mary Fauzi Gallery in Jaffa,
made it resemble the space that belongs to the Libyan ruler
and instilled in it emotions and residues that glut the political
discourse. In addition to those two formative works, Ben-Gal
has been occupied with the figure of an Ethiopian, including
body and posture, visibility and natural or coerced environment.
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These days, in contrast, his subject-matter is quite vague,
allowing him to refer both to the Israeli canon and to
international themes. His work conducts a real-time discussion
on the nature of contemporary art. This is why he is leery of
becoming fixed in his work, he says, and why he leaves no
opening for his work to be subjected to reductionism.
In addition, and in line with Western art of the past 15 years,
particularly in painting, his work shows a tendency toward
multiplicity. If paintings crowded with details, such as
"Prosperous" (2003) represent literal multiplicity, in other works
Ben-Gal succeeds in creating this effect without a surfeit of
figures and details, but by means of a situation that evokes a
sense of multiplicity, of tension, of dense occurrence. An
example is "Who's Next" (2003), in which two dark figures are
seen, one in a dress, the other in trousers, to which multiple
meanings can be attached.
A few days before the opening of the Tel Aviv Museum show,
Ben-Gal likened the process of looking at the works on display
to a gradual exposure: "You see a little and then a little more,
until you dive in." He hopes visitors to the exhibition will be
swept up in the slow effect he is out to create, and that
afterward the images will linger in their thoughts.W
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