As if to mirror her move from the United States to Israel, back to the United States and back again to Israel, and despite her long-time Israeli citizenship, Jenifer Bar Lev finds herself examining and re-examining the Jewish-Israeli narrative from both private and public, personal and political points of view. The dialog she conducts with this narrative is direct, simplistic and devoid of idealization. It allows her to show us, through her work, a different view of it, as someone who was not born in Israel but arrived here as an adult.
Consciously choosing a conceptual artistic style which deals with the relationship between image and text, the meaning of words, mysticism and Jewish symbols, Bar Lev illustrates the existence of a new type of modern-Jewish art, an art whose Jewish content is an integral part of the illustrative text, an art that enables figures to shake off their familiar meaning and take on a new meaning.
This choice has led Bar Lev to focus in her recent works on two primary images: the empty chair and the Star of David.
The empty chair is perceived as a vessel of containment, defining the imprint of the physical body and the “absence-presence” that occupies it. There is a degree of loaded tension between the present and the absent, the abstract and the conceptual. Bar Lev’s empty chair can be seen as a warm home accessory, an intimate item imbued with personal memories, an existential and metaphorical basis, and also as a bridge between the illusory and the concrete.
When the chair is delineated by her within a grid that divides the format into “rooms”, it also represents an emotional state beyond her private plane, reflecting an existential sense, a state of tension, discomfiture, loneliness or anxiety. When the chair is surrounded by an abstract background, flat, cold and exposed, lacking any trace of humanity, it inspires a feeling of disconnection, non-belonging and a need for self-protection from external reality by creating a picturesque world of introversion.
Where her works display an interaction with the empty chair, it is only with an image of a single girl. In the painting Say What, a girl painted black is dressed in pants decorated with the stars of the United States’ flag, adopting a confrontational pose atop two chairs. The position of one of the chair legs, perched on the point of a Star of David, hints at the girl’s imminent and inevitable fall. In another work, Bograshov Pinsker, the chair is trapped in a “room” with a highly ornamental background within an entangled labyrinth. The black-colored girl, who visits this painting too, can be seen break-dancing inside a slipknot in a room next to the one containing the empty chair. One of her legs, pointing upwards, proudly holds up the point of a Star of David.
The girl’s all-but-acrobatic stance on the chair, as well as the characteristic African-American dance she performs with her eyes closed, provide a direct association with the artist’s zealously preserved personal story. At the same time, according to Bar Lev, these depictions of a young woman express a “real life” that is directed by the body’s natural instinct – more walking “on the edge” and taking risks than rational thought.
In How Do You Get to the Sea From Here? The black girl is replaced with a white one. This time she is seen leaping over the Star of David ( perhaps a metaphor for Bar Lev’s own immigration to Israel? Next to the girl, in one of the rooms of the maze, another empty chair awaits. A solar sphere, symbolizing the hot Mediterranean country the young woman has come to, is a quotation of the sun depicted in Mordecai Ardon’s triptych At the Gates of Jerusalem.
In Jewish Carnival the solar sphere and the Star of David alike are transformed into a sephirot wheel borrowed from Kabala. Empty chairs rotate within the wheel around a text, whose meaning is a mystery, a paradox or an oxymoron. All the chairs face in the same direction, like patients waiting in line to see a doctor (on a psychoanalyst’s couch?) or the seats of a fairground Ferris wheel. White balls placed on the wheel’s hoops represent the cosmos (these also appear in Ardon’s painting, mentioned above), while the background is composed of three primary colors: red, blue and yellow, in an interpretation reminiscent of Michael Sgan Cohen’s work Bible.
Continuing the same theme, another of Bar Lev’s paintings depicts a stool and examination bed within a “room” painted pale pastel blue, alongside the white-on-black text: Pain has an element of blank – a line from Emily Dickinson’s poem of the same name, in which Dickinson imbues pain with an absolute entity, an eternal presence that transcends time. Perhaps Bar Lev’s insertion of this quotation underlines her own pain and concern about the significance of her chosen national home as a safe, calm and unconditional place, a place that does not exist in the reality of the Jewish ethos.
In her depiction of empty chairs, Bar Lev is conducting a dialog with Israeli artists who chose to use that same image in their works, artists whose works were shown in an exhibition named “The Absent and the Present: the Empty Chair in Israeli Art” at the Genia Schreiber University Gallery at Tel Aviv University in 1991, or who exhibited together with her in the “Routes of Wandering” exhibition at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum the same year. The works of those artists represented veiled signs of detachment and a Diaspora mentality, and an interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt not as the start of a journey to the Promised Land, but as a text associated with the desert generation exiled from Egypt.
Those artists expressing their nomadic mentality as a Jewish principle included Yosl Bergner, whose painting Destination Xillustrates an endless procession of empty chairs trailing across a desert landscape that resembles the Sinai. The chairs themselves are quite unaware that their grueling trek will lead them nowhere. Another of Bergner’s paintings, After the Show, depicts empty chairs arranged around a flagpole bearing white fabric but no flag, set in a desolate background. The empty chair as a symbol of emptiness and a fall from greatness is also found in the works of Micha Ullman, whose chairs are often buried in the ground or placed on top of burial caves.
Michael Sgan Cohen’s conceptual work Settlement shows a chair on whose seat the artist has roughly drawn a map of Israel (as compared to Bar Lev’s Star of David), with a blue sky painted on the backrest. In a similar way to Sgan Cohen’s chair, that of Ori Reisman appears to be standing in an environment with earth at its feet and sky at its head, bringing together as if they were one the small area occupied by the chair and the vast nature surrounding it.
It is not by chance that Bar Lev has also chosen to use the Star of David as a leitmotif (alongside her empty chairs). Beyond issues of personal and cultural identity, Judaism, the Israeli and Zionist entity, the Star of David raises questions pertaining to strength and control. In Jenifer Bar Lev’s hands it also becomes an emotional experience; a newly proposed order; thought; a renewed wonderment and the creation of a channel of communication with the spectator in anticipation of critique and reaction.
By the very act of isolating the Star of David – a single element of the whole flag – Bar Lev strips it of its sacred status and assigns it a different, more banal and everyday identity, making it possible to re-evaluate it with new tools as an absolute value in its own right.
Eighteen black and white circular relief ceramics allow the artist an opportunity to create an encounter between herself and the trivial items she uses: a toothbrush, lipstick, hair clips, a box of medication, sewing thread, buttons, clothes pegs, scissors, a spark plug, batteries, a screwdriver, screw, nails and more. All the objects are “trapped” inside a Star of David (as in a closed room), while the ribs that create the triangular shape are decorated with elements borrowed from the items themselves.
The Star of David makes a repeat appearance in eight additional works painted on canvas in delicately feminine pastel shades and in a uniform squared format, again with everyday objects at its center (as on the circular relief ceramics). These include a kettle, a mixer, a vacuum cleaner or a lamp – all taken from an illustrated 1950s or 1960s encyclopedia or from the Internet. The triangles created by each of these Stars of David contain some ornamental pattern: fruit, stars, cotton flowers, leaves, sun and moon (an eclipse?) and snowflakes. These are a kind of continuation of Bar Lev’s Rooms pieces, which connect to her own private home, but in this case with the further addition of the national home too: whereas her personal home is a pleasant, safe haven, a place to prepare a cup of coffee, bake a cake, entertain friends or perform routine house maintenance, that same home, viewed on a national level – and although representing the end of her days of wandering – is a place that she tries both to arouse and to light up (with several lamps painted in the center of the image), with questions and issues of its complexity.
Thus, in depicting the Star of David in encounters with everyday objects, Bar Lev permits herself not to isolate its perception as a symbol or an image of sanctity in a secular environment. In reference to incorporating the secular into a religious or sacred image, sociologist Yehouda Shenhav introduced the term “post secularism”, whereby “secularity” and “religion” are not antinomies, but rather are inextricably interwoven with one another. The post-secular view of the world manages to integrate religion and secularity rather than replace one with the other.
In her articles “The Silence of the Fish” and “Eyes Wide Shut” Sara Hinski indicated local processes that demonstrate how “a society creates art in its own image”; art that frequently produces the secular within the sacred. Hinski cites the example of Rafi Lavie and his “Tel Aviv” disciples, who emphasized their sense of disconnection and ignorance of Judaism and its symbols, while at the same time their works were filled with symbolism and expressions rooted in Jewish tradition and culture. Hinski claims that, this being so, there is therefore a certain collective Jewish subconscious and an attempt to reshape tradition, while still relying on the visual sources of the Western world. A kind of building and creation that make use of traditional materials, but seek to appropriate the world of tradition under new terms of deconstruction and defiance; a kind of enlightened cultural synthesis/hybridization between “Israeliness” and Judaism.
Examples can be found in the works of Michal Neeman: Lord of Colors ;Michael Sgan Cohen: Here I Am and a series of works by Yair Garbuz from 2007: Modern I Stand Before You.
It is possible to examine the assimilation of Jewish religious or symbolic expression in Israeli art over the last generation, since the world of religion is not perceived as threatening to secular supremacy.
However, the religious world is somewhat open to accepting the new concepts of such art, as David Sperber refers to in his article: “Signs – Judaism and the Israeli Art Dialogue A”, in which he quotes Rabbi Mordechai Vardi, a senior teacher at the Ma’aleh religious school of television, film and the arts: “I believe that criticism is the healthiest thing that art can create, and that every society should be blessed with critical creative artists who will ask disturbing questions and not let society fall asleep in complacency”.
Together with images of empty chairs and Stars of David, texts are another major feature of Bar Lev’s works. For her, text represents an authoritative and abstract reality, sometimes even more so than the visual image. Texts lend her images direction and create meanings that the visual image alone may not be able to present.
The predilection for the written word is by definition perceived as a significantly Jewish concept, hence Bar Lev sees in it a direct link to the Star of David. The text is written in English, in a disorderly way that seems like “chit-chat” and resembles the writing of short, everyday anecdotes in a personal journal. Jenifer admits: “Writing is another kind of line, as is drawing.” And indeed her drawn images initially take shape in a notebook which is a kind of journal of her thoughts, dreams and memories. Her words seem to be directed at or asking the viewer to find additional meanings, links or references. They are like a container that permits its thoughts to continue wandering without fixing them in a specific image drawn according to some format. For the most part, the texts are arranged according to the compositional structure created by the shapes. As a result, words are sometimes split into separate components, leaving the viewer with the task of reforming and reuniting them. “Disassembling the words increases the visual impact of the written word so that the experience of looking at and absorbing the work, which is altered on reading, reverts to the visual.”
The use of the written word is influenced by the American culture in which Jennifer Bar Lev grew up, and especially by the works of Robert Indiana, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, as well as by Israeli artists of the 1970s who also integrated texts into their works.
The same non-hierarchical method in which Bar Lev arranges texts and images in her own format enables her to attach equal importance to what she depicts at the top, bottom or center, right or left of the pictures, however large or small. However, the harmony her works produce arises from a delicate balance between the text and the patterns and images surrounding it.
Jenifer Bar Lev’s works transcend time and place, since she relinquishes any illusion of volume or space. Instead of space, she highlights line, decorative pattern and color. Her color palette includes unrealistic colors which, when combined with other elements, force the viewer to concentrate, read and gauge them.
Symbol – text – object – sacred – secular – personal language – writing which is also drawing (reminiscent of hieroglyphs or comics) – these are the elements that form the unique narrative of Jenifer Bar Lev’s body of work.
Curator, Raanana Municipality