American Dreams


‘American Princess’
a review by Michael Sgan-Cohen
Jerusalem Newspaper, April 22nd, 1988

The basis of Bar-Lev’s paintings is written fragments of memories,  a few sentances which confront and intertwine with geometric patterns,  tending to symmetry, and with coloring which varies from soft to hard. The origin of the stories is in dreams, fragments of memory and sophisticated visions, recorded carefully and exactly, but with a talent for creating ambivalence. I asked her about her connection to literature and she said that as a young girl she wrote poetry.  She still takes the verbal aspectvery seriously, making much use of the thesaurus. She therefore has a deep connection to words and knows how to choose them well, which is important in these works which one reads and sees as geometric painting, connected to Language Art, Hard-Edge and Pattern-Painting.

Bar Lev’s began to make art after she left fashion design.  I present it this way so as to clarify the fact that her art did not grow out of fashion design, because that is how she sees it, not as a development from fashion design but as a change of profession.
When she worked designing clothes in Israel she started out with a Zionist approach, committed, perhaps a little romantic.  She only worked with locally made fabrics, mainly the simple ATA cottons, and examined locality. She developed a kind of modest uniform-like fashion, like worker’s clothing.  But, according to her, she had not read the country correctly, because women here were no longer interested in the values of early Zionism, but were looking for the expensive silks of  the developed countries.
She continued making ‘Israeli fashion’, using fabric painting, but by then she had more understanding of Israel, and therefore more success. I am referring to this because her designs were an interesting chapter in itself,  and also, as she said, she learned something important from fashion, something about the connection between fashion and the Western dynamic of constant change, and its limits, and the mechanism of those processes.  When she turned to making art, she found much of that dynamic there,  and said to herself, that’s not what I was looking for, so she turned inwards, to herself.  “An artist is someone who is in communication with herself”, she said.

The works in this exhibition are from the American series, as she calls them. Many of them have to do with cars.  There is no need to explain the place of the automobile in American culture.  The direct delivery of the sentances describes  the world in simple concepts, ‘without philosophy’, she says.
The mechanical stencil writing is purposely alienating. Like the world of an outside observer, described patiently and in detail, one must read the lines in order to read what is between them.  One of the works states:  ‘At First It Looked A Lot Like Mexico’, a kind of Dadaist, Pop-Arty commentary about the cliche of American tourists who, when they go abroad, would compare everyplace to Mexico.  And perhaps ‘Mexico’ refers to Israel. This is of course ironic.
As to the geometric arrangements in the paintings, she says they ‘express emotion through geometry’.
And about the texts, she says that they are her ‘ flowers in a vase’, a sophisticated reference to her subject matter as a kind of still-life.
It is also important to note the ‘sane’ feminist context  from within which she works.  She speaks of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger and Mary Kelly as artists with whom she feels an affinity.
She refers to them, and herself, as ‘graphomaniacs’:  ‘Women are finding their voice, which  perhaps contains, at this point, an element of graphomania’.

Before she undertook the text-works, Bar Lev made a kind of painterly textile art,  which she sewed on the sewing machine, resembling quilts, painted, unique, different. The geometry was already there, as well as the meditative patience which the works demanded in their making and which they awakened in the viewer.  She sat at her sewing maching with these works for almost five years. In this way, she ‘cleared her head’, she said.  Of course the feminist voice was already part of her then, patient and sensitive.  It contained a searching for some kind of social involvement, though she sounds much less Zionist today than once upon a time.  But she says she is here to stay, not going anywhere. And ‘here’ is the Middle East.
In her words:  ‘tribes and tribes of dark-skinned madmen with knives in their teeth, pursuing vengeance’.  And though she is not convinced of the principle that man can undergo a ‘tikkun’ (redeption), she prefers to act as if it is so. Out of humanistic faith, partly derived from the ancient ‘mystery cults’ in which she is interested, she learned that there is a basic contention as to the one nature of man, unique to each, united in all, a spiritual nature which can be uncovered and which is, in its essence, good.  And about what she is doing, meanwhile, she says that she would be pleased if her paintings helped someone, gave some service to mind or emotion.  It is worth a try.