To Learn Painting from Formica, or: In Praise of Staring
A few details about Avi Sabah: He has been painting since he was a child. He grew up in the northern development town of Ma'alot. In his youth, he used to go to Tel Aviv to see exhibitions. During his military service, he decided he would be a painter.
A few details about Avi Sabah's painting mode: He paints mainly on paper, sometimes on round metal plates. He uses thick oil pastels, dragging the paint along the surface by means of wooden combs which he constructs especially for this purpose. The dragging on the paper creates a mechanical gesture, resulting in a basic type of reproduction or print. He calls them "wooden combs", but in fact, they are square wooden blocks, awkward objects saturated with paint and very beautiful in their own right; painting aids with the presence of little totems. Akin to painterly crutches, a type of ex-voto, objects shaped like diseased bodily organs which the sick who wanted to be cured used to bring to the church in hope of a miracle. Sabah leaves the wooden combs outside the painting once they have fulfilled their part. The miracle had already happened.
He does not paint with brushes, nor with oil paints from tubes. As part of the painterly drive motivating him, the use of brushes is perceived as an all-too-mediating means that might distance him from the surface on which he is working, whereas he is interested in a direct, unmediated proximity to the paper, as physical as possible. By the same token: he places the paper sheets on which he works on a table or on the floor, rather than on an easel. As aforesaid: the painting and the act of painting, as well as the aura and mystery engulfing them, are luring, but at the same time-they are something of which to be wary. Coming to create the conditions and modus which will make his painting possible, Sabah tries to keep away from anything that might be associated with the mystification of painting-a painter standing in front of an easel, with a brush in hand.
What else? He believes in Israeli painting. And he is a fan of Japanese animation. And he paints imaginary, non-specific landscapes-bare trees, tree trunks, sky, sea. At times, he is aided by photographs of trees only to observe how branches break forth from the trunk. Usually he paints from memory or the imagination. And he also paints portraits; mostly self-portraits which evolve in different directions, assuming diverse identities. In fact-through his painting, Sabah endeavors to preserve the memory of situations or feelings.
Now let's move on, inward. To the north. A Ride North emerges as one of the principal, fundamental works of the recent period, a work which encapsulates Sabah's painterly and emotional world. It is a quartet of paintings framed together, two of them green and the other two red. Each features a boy's head, tree trunks, and a sun. The varying locations of the sun and the child's head, against the static quality of the landscape, surrender a basic dimension of time and motion. The arrangement of the framed quartet calls to mind the structure of a comic book page. The four papers are enclosed by a painted frame which imitates a wooden frame.
Like many of Sabah's paintings, the surface simulates the appearance of Formica, with wooden "knots." In the short history of Israeli painting, wood of all types, and certainly Formica too, has a place of honor, usually as a readymade. For an Israeli art viewer, the visual associations emerge by themselves: Raffi Lavie's bare plywood surfaces; the wooden boards and broken furniture which Yudith Levin used to gather on the street to construct her paintings-objects; and of course, the wood and Formica boards on which Ido Bar-El paints. While Bar-El, who was Sabah's teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, takes the cast-off substance and elevates it to the status of art, Sabah does the very opposite: he takes art papers, and with discernible painterly effort transforms them into wood or Formica simulations. He puts layer upon layer of paint, dragging the wooden block on the paper, so that it gradually acquires a Formica look, and in so doing annexes the Israeli "want of matter" from an unexpected direction: as an elaborate painterly process which carries genetic baggage "not-from-here"-German woodcuts, Rothkoesque color stains, the schematic quality of Japanese prints. Everything is fused together on a sheet of paper which projects outward a Formica surface-Surrealism, dream and fantasy, sun and moon; Rothko and Japan.
For Sabah, however, before being an art material, Formica is associated with childhood memories, and in fact, with his initial encounter with an artistic experience, still without art itself. The Formica furniture in his parents' home formed a highly present material setting as well as a focal point for staring-as a child he used to stare lengthily at Formica or marble worktops, porcelain tiles, wallpaper. The act of staring at these materials isolated them from their context-a piece of furniture, kitchen, house, Ma'alot-and transformed them into formal, abstract patterns, so abstract that any image, any story, anything at all could be projected onto them; meditative like abstract color stains a-la Rothko, like a monochromatic canvas by Ad Reinhardt. Needless to say, Sabah the child was aware of neither art nor the specific names of artists at the time.
In retrospect, it is interesting to consider the birth of an artistic experience from staring. Boredom and total emptying of the mind, which give way to the zenith of imagination: anything can happen in-between the wooden "knots" of the Formica surface, in the wallpaper patterns on the wall. The traces of that formative experience, of staring and dream through the wood, may also be pinpointed in Talpiot Dreams-a painting containing an inscription which strives to weld a dream to the Talpiot Industrial Zone. The inscription appears on a Formica-like surface, creating a link with the furniture shops in Talpiot, the area in which Sabah's studio is located. Formica and particleboard furniture tell the story of relatively inexpensive materials which strive to masquerade as prestigious, reminding Sabah of the aesthetics of his parents' home, which involved, as aforesaid, a state of fancy as well. The unexpected combination between the wooden surface and the atmosphere of dream and fantasy represents a hybrid state fundamental to his painting-both concrete and dream-like, rooted in a certain reality and yet swathed in Surrealism and anchored in no place and no time.
The words themselves-"Talpiot Dreams"-are written in white letters within a moonlike circle, like chalk letters on a classroom blackboard. The contours of the surrounding mountainous landscape are also white, white and snowy. Something about the pointed peaks calls to mind the icy summits in Jacob Mishori's 1990s paintings, which were immersed in abstract painting, and ironically represented the pathos of the high, the sublime, the unattainable. Similarly, in Sabah's work too, every painterly gesture is at once the thing itself, with the utmost intention-a forest, a mountaintop, a sunset-and the recognition that it cannot be but a distant echo of the thing itself, once incarnated as a German romantic or an American abstract painting.
The next time the words "Talpiot Dreams" appear on a painting, they are obliterated and blurred, like words erased from a blackboard. The lucid romanticism from the previous painting fades into a letter mash. It is hard to dream in the Talpiot industrial zone. The icy summits have melted away.
A typical composition of a Sabah painting would be a row of branches (usually red, entirely uncommitted to any natural truth whatsoever), and behind them-a surface of processed wood. Deconstructing it into its constituent elements yields an ostensibly natural wood which conceals its synthetic, processed incarnation, two layers of not-quite-nature. Such is Midnight-a painting of red tree trunks, with black and white trunks behind them, on a brown Formica backdrop. Lingering in front of the painting will lead to staring; another minute and the howl of a distant fox will be heard from the painting. It is clear, however, that Sabah is not depicting a forest or nature, only their distant reverberation through branches and trunks, and through their incarnation into the most synthetic of inferior wood products. But also, nevertheless, the yearning for them.
In the same vein, PVC at Twilight: a landscape with trees, a cross on a hilltop at its center. The image may call to mind Caspar David Friedrich's sublime religious landscapes; the PVC in the title eliminates any possibility for takeoff. The white chalky line appears this time as a sketch of a spectral landscape, a burial mound within which images of bones and relics are outlined.
Sea of Love is painted on a backdrop of a pencil-drawn wooden surface. Sky blue clouds above, azure waves below. Red lines mark the earth. The cloud shapes are schematic. Sabah also has azure cloud-shaped paper cutouts which he occasionally lays over this or that unfinished painting. The sense of primitive animation is enhanced: art as an animated film of the simplest kind, yet highly effective. And the landscape itself as a collection of modular organs, ready to be assembled, as in drawing books for children: Make a landscape yourself. Make a painting.
Sabah's engagement with the tree as an image and with woody surfaces from which the painting breaks forth conjures up a series of paintings by Nurit David from the early 1990s entitled "To Learn Writing from Trees." If I may borrow David's title I would say that Avi Sabah learns painting from trees. David painted a brown and green thicket of trees, from, or next to, which figurative images emerged, based on family photographs. Notebook lined pages, letters, and curled lines became entangled in one another, like a cumulating attempt to dub the painting, to speak through it. Her next paintings too were rife with images of thick vegetation, representing the thicket itself as well as some latent desire for nature, and the constant struggle between culture and nature, between language and forest. The dense forest is revealed as the dark, sensuous, vibrating and throbbing place entirely vanquished by its representation in culture. Sabah learned painting from trees. From the Formica coverings in his parents' home he learned to stare and dream; from the simulation of a wooden surface he learned the prolonged process of painting; the images of trees and branches which he paints represent an attraction with an essentially unattainable nature. Likewise, Sabah maintains a relationship of attraction-rejection with the cultural world which has violated, domesticated, and appropriated nature. Like Nurit David, his preoccupation with the tree, its various elements and incarnations, involves an attempt to compose a word, to speak.
Many of the paintings contain letters painted as tree branches-Z, V, or N; and there is a modular option to connect three papers bearing the letter V (the letter's arms are branches painted as woodcuts). Any attempt to read the letters, or through the letters, comes up against a stammer. The letters remain akin to crutches without a body, woody consonants which vainly seek a meaning to cling to. In other instances, the tree branches make up structures: windmill-like constructions, building frames. The tree branches emerge as building blocks, as the foundations of painting-and the foundations of speech. Several paintings make up the name EVA from the same leafless-branch-like letters. A distant Eve bursts forth through Eva; the Tree of Knowledge infiltrates the raw branches, and with them, once again-the recognition of the tragic aspect of a nature lost for good. Nurit David's forest thicket is replaced in Sabah's work by its processed residues in the form of branches, bare trunks, and the incarnation of the forest as Formica and imprints of the wood's knots onto furniture surfaces.
Speaking of Nurit David, the two artists also share a fascination with Japanese culture. Sabah has a collection of Japanese comic books. He does not read the language, nor does he make any effort to understand the plots; the magic of these books lies in their very foreignness-the foreignness of their aesthetics, the surprise created by links made between different visual languages, the noise and flurry channeled into a single page. What Sabah might take from a crammed, colorful comic cover is, for example, the way in which the ends of a girls' fringe are shaped. These pointed bangs may later be found in his leaves and trunks or on the mountaintops which he paints. The modeling of the body in comics, which is the diametric opposite of anything organic, infiltrates the flora in Sabah's paintings, which is, of course, likewise entirely nonorganic, but rather angular and stylized.
The comic books also serve as a point of departure for some of his portraits. Other portraits start out as self-portraits, which keep evolving; some will eventually incarnate as women's faces.
A word about the female names bursting from or forming titles for the paintings: Eva, Jeannette, Perla, Marcelle. The women's names have a French flavor; all of them are names of women from Ma'alot. The source of attraction, as well as the jolt, which the names generate for Sabah lies in the violent gap between the French name-the scent of perfume, boulevards, grayness, "there"-and the aura-free everyday life in Ma'alot.
Jeannette is a painting of trunks; Perla's Dream began as a self-portrait which transformed into a woman's face. I am Perla, it implies carefully, indirectly, and the affinity with Talpiot Dreams surrenders the identification between the woman's name and the Formica, as representatives of a material and mental aesthetic culture which, up to a certain point, was the one and only. Up until he encountered the representatives of the other, hegemonic culture-in Tel Aviv, at Bezalel, in New York-Jeannette and Perla and Marcelle were the real thing, the only thing. Formica furniture and sunset paintings were perceived as a natural, self-evident aesthetics. He had not yet become conscious of the possibility of their being cheap imitations. The shock of the encounter that would expose their inferiority, and the need to be ashamed of them, or pity them, had not yet occurred. Only today, as they infiltrate his art, they serve as the conductors of a yearning, a double yearning: for the unknowing naivety of the past, and for the longed-for "there", which represents an iconic femininity, as well as iconic nature and culture.
The round paintings are executed on hubcaps cut into perfect circles the size of car wheels, with a characteristic Japanese sun sphere. Sabah colors the copper with diluted paint until the surface simulates copper's natural corrosion, with flashes of gold. No trace is left of the hard physical labor involved in rubbing the paint on the metal, and these medallions may now be given poetic names: "Pearl in a Waterfall", "Moon Harbor"; or, in fact, the names of fashion brands, or items in New Age stores. Naivety is clearly the trap awaiting kitsch. Moon Harbor, for example, depicts a landscape familiar in other paintings by Sabah-brown earth and red trees. Due to the round format and the wave-like modeling of the earth, however, the bottom part is reminiscent of a rocking ship's hull, and the trunks appear like masts and sails. It is a terrestrial landscape transformed into a seascape, conveying a yearning for another place, for a mythical "overseas". The round format invokes early works by Diti Almog which were partly executed on rounded plywood boards, containing images of ships, pearls and exotic landscapes, and bearing titles such as Pearl Port or 'Queen Elisabeth' and a Negro. Despite their differences, the works share a yearning for another place, and the very idea of another place as a realm of yearning, much like the ideal, non-specific yearning also implied by Joshua Borkovsky's sailboat paintings.
Sabah's is a contemporary Israeli painting, which draws on reality materials, while infused with a yearning for another reality, another type of painting. The fantastical landscape paintings are nourished-with mixed feelings-by the unpretentious paintings which were hung in his parents' home; at the same time, they are oriented toward the grand romanticism of the sublime. Hard-edge mannerism or rather-that of free painting, or paper tearing, are employed in the painting concurrently, challenging the boundaries of kitsch and poor taste. The mannerism and his touching upon the non-artistic seem to serve Sabah as protective aids when he comes to painting. Equipped with knowledge, sobriety, and understanding, as well as compassion, he manages to bring his personal world into the painting. True emotion infiltrates the unexpected associations between different artistic languages, different cultural strata, and the struggle for the very possibility to make a painting.
To conclude, I would like to draw away: In 1958 the acclaimed Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert embarked on a journey through Europe with a hundred-dollar grant in his pocket. The next two years of his travels, between the cultural treasures of Italy and France-cathedrals, museums, the caves of prehistoric man, and libraries-were gathered in a book of essays entitled Barbarian in the Garden. In the epilogue of the Hebrew translation of the book,* David Weinfeld suggests several readings of the identity of the barbarian and the garden. According to one, the garden is introduced as the opposite of the forest, as a place of orderly culture. The barbarian may be construed in different ways; in each of them his identity will be defined through facing and confrontation of culture. Thus it would not be far-fetched to maintain that the barbarian is each and every one of us, anyone born into the modern era, maintaining a relationship of closeness-foreignness with the grand culture of the past. I regard Avi Sabah's painting as a sensitive local manifestation of a collective state of barbarians in the garden: culture is at arm's length, yet forever evasive. We will never feel at home within culture, and will forever strive to be a part of it.
- David Weinfeld, "Epilogue," in Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden (Jerusalem: Carmel, 2004) [Hebrew]; see also: Zbigniew Herbert, Barbarian in the Garden, trans. Michael March and Jaroslaw Anders (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1986).
Avi Sabah: Night Shift
The works by Avi Sabah featured in the exhibition "Night Shift" are concerned with liminal spheres and with the blurring of metaphorical, formal and material boundaries. These works are representations of nocturnal landscapes that entertain a dialogue with 19th century German Romanticism, as well as with "kitschy" representations of imaginary landscapes. The materials and techniques employed by the artist similarly create an intentional kind of confusion between "high" and "low". His oil paintings are partially executed using a unique technique of imprinting, which alludes to the conception of the artist as "master"; yet what appears from a distance to be a forested landscape is revealed up close as an imitation of textured Formica - a cheap, industrially produced material. This process is also employed in an inverse manner, when Sabah paints on processed, synthetic furs that have been torn and scorched - thus transforming them from cheap supports into unique objects. Much like German Romantic painting, Sabah's works create encounters between the human and natural worlds - that is, between the viewer's gaze and an uninhabited landscape. This type of encounter may lead to a positive process of transformation, yet may also result in self-destruction, since these nocturnal landscapes are simultaneously depicted as seductive, inviting sites and as threatening environments filled with premonitions of disaster. In the work Loot, Sabah created copper knives, buried them until they acquired a thick patina, and then used them to scorch the synthetic fur and imprint their form upon it. The character and style of this work alludes to an archaic, imaginary world dominated by unbridled urges, and expresses the artist's interest in the idea of looting and booty. This work showcases the unique aesthetic language used to display looted objects - ranging from archeological artifacts set out on display tables to booty presented in a criminal or war-related context (such as the cache of Palestinian arms caught on the ship Karine A in 2002). Sabah draws a parallel between these exhibits and between the artwork - which is perceived not as an end in itself, but rather as a vestige of the creative process, which is frequently related to a violent internal struggle. Another central theme in Sabah's work is his concern with the idea of the artist as an alchemist craftsman, in the almost medieval sense of these terms. The choice of painting on different supports such as copper, fur and paper functions as a kind of lab, a framework in which he studies different materials and textures. His colors are always bold, almost primal, and he lays on the paint with crude, generously loaded brushstrokes. Sabah tends to work simultaneously on several different paintings, since the oil paint takes a long time to dry. This work method endows the works with a multilayered appearance and a sense of depth, and inevitably results in a serial dynamic as certain themes and techniques recur, gravitating freely from one work to another. In Sabah's works on paper, such as Bolder in the Summer, for instance, the foreground of the painting is covered with branches, which hide what appears in the depth of the compositional space and create a deceptive relationship between foreground and background and between texture and form. This work presents several visual "obstacles" before enabling us to register the entire image, thus causing the viewer to focus self-reflexively on his own gaze. The work's insistence on not exposing itself immediately causes the viewer to slowly study its different layers, and thus familiarize himself with the techniques of creation and destruction that form the basis of this exhibition.
Avi Sabah was born in Ma'alot, Israel (1977). He is a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem (2004), and one of the founders of Barbur, an artists collective and contemporary art gallery in Jerusalem (2005). He is the recipient of the Osnat Mozes Prize for Painting (2008). Solo exhibitions include: "Avi Sabah, Works 2005-2008", Artists House, Jerusalem (2008). Group exhibitions include: "The Box", Mani House, Tel Aviv (2010); "No Soul for Sale", Tate Modern, London (2010); "Rio", Hafenrand Gallery, Hamburg, Germany (2009); "Badad" Apter Barrer Arts Center, Ma'alot (2009); "Marking Space", Linda Gallery, Hamburg, Germany (2007); and "Polygraph", Traces III Drawing Biennale, Jerusalem (2007). He lives and works in Tel Aviv.