Include Me Out
The series of works entitled ‘Include Me Out’ uses the Star of David as its central motif, into which I have inserted various ‘humble objects’ and also portraits of heroes, both real and fictional, in order to investigate the double-bind situation of being a Jewish American living in the Israeli reality, while at the same time being nourished by and aspiring to a global culture.
The first part of the series shows common, household objects – vacuum cleaner, perculator, mixer – and, on a series of ceramic plate reliefs, smaller objects such as paper clips, hairpins, nails, inserted into Stars of David. The meeting between the national/religious symbol and the intimate/personal space leads to an absurd mixture of the two and emphasizes the question of personal versus collective identity.
In the second part of the series, I have inserted people and fictional characters into Stars of David, all of whom are not Jews, but each of whom carries a moral, ethical or cultural weight which I needed to balance out what I feel is lacking in the Israeli reality: Thomas Jefferson, who composed the American Declaration of Independence; Princess Diana, who made a stand against the politics of status of the British royal family; Tom Waits, who sings of society’s outcasts; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who embody the horror which befalls those who entertain a black-and-white view of other human beings, etc…
All the objects and characters were chosen from my own personal ‘cosmology’, but each is also an archetypical representation of that which sustains humanity: the longing for a safe home and a livable life, beauty, song, poetry, faith and freedom of choice.
Jenifer Bar Lev
Jenifer Bar Lev’s latest exhibition presents a range of new works executed in various materials and on various foundations, united by the image of the Star of David. The artist uses this image in its role as representing content, as well as a basis for forms and colors. The symbol is simultaneously being built and pulled apart in the paintings. In some of the paintings, the Star of David is revealed and emphasized, and in others, it is hidden and camouflaged by various formations of colors and shapes. Sometimes it appears in three dimensions, in wood or ceramic, and at other times it is flat.
The six pointed star appeared in Middle Eastern cultures thousands of years ago, symbolizing the connection and unification of opposites. In some cultures it was perceived as the heavenly base which aspires to earth (the triangle pointed downward), joined to the earthly base which aspires towards heaven (the opposite triangle, pointing upwards). The six pointed star appears in Moslem culture as a symbol which repels the Evil Eye. In the past several centuries, the Star of David has become a uniquely Jewish symbol. “The Star of David, which never was a symbol exclusive to Judaism, has been successfully appropriated, particularly by Jewish Zionism, as well as by all Judaism.” (Naomi Carmi: “The Lion With Shoulders Extended Towards Empty Space”, Ma’ariv Newspaper, 11.17.2000) The name: ‘Magen David’ is first recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, as the title of a blessing: “Blessed Art Thou, Our Lord, Protector of David”. In the Jewish tradition, the Magen David is first and foremost a national symbol, rather than a religious one. In this tradition, which has no archeological basis whatsoever, the shield which King David bore was decorated with the Star of David.
In Bar Lev’s manipulations of the Magen David, she draws the viewer into her personal struggle with various identities: personal, collective, and national. She uses the Magen David as a graphic symbol for both its meanings: Jewish and Israeli. By means of the Star of David, Bar Lev examines the Jewish-Israeli narrative, emptying out the symbol and recharging it with new meanings. She often ‘imports’ visual images from different sources in order to represent the world of her personal cultural references, which includes key artists and cultural heroes of Modernism, such as: Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf, Elvis Presley, Tom Waits, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Thomas Jefferson, Princess Diana and others. She paints their portraits as miniatures in the center of each Star of David.
This is not the first time that Bar Lev has appropriated international figures and entertained a dialogue with them by importing them to Israel and inserting them into Israeli culture (‘Empathy with Artists’, Bograshov Gallery, 1989). She draws a connecting thread between international art and culture and local art and culture, and at the same time, between the collective language of Israeli art and her personal artistic vernacular, as an individual.
The name of the present exhibition: INCLUDE ME OUT, is taken from a quote of the Hollywood film producer, Samuel Goldwyn, who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States of America. The name contains the opposites of IN and OUT, and defines the feelings of the artist, who moved to Israel from the United States as an adult. Although Bar Lev has been a resident of Israel for many years, she vacillates between feelings of belonging and feelings of alienation, of being accepted and rejected by Israeli society and the establishment. In the past two years she has evolved beyond the subjective, biographical and personal ‘I’, who had characterized her work since the 1980’s, to engage with wider social and collective themes. In the works in the present exhibition, the symbol of the Star of David is a tool for her to examine her relationship to this place, where she lives, in its various aspects.
Bar Lev has not chosen the Star of David for its nationalistic value, or as a symbol of sovereignty, but rather for its use as a visual symbol of cultural
belonging. With it she creates hybrids, as metaphors, and subverts the known and generally accepted meaning of the symbol into a different arena of meaning. Through her personal manipulation of the symbol, Bar Lev contemplates the gap between the dream and the reality of Israel, between there and here, and between the universal and the local. She investigates concepts of order and ornamental representation in the Jewish-Israeli sphere as well as Moslem associations, which vary from the figurative to abstract pattern. The endlessly repeated patterns echo, on the one hand, the mandala, and on the other, the arabesques on the ceramic tiles and carved wooden window screens of Moslem architecture.
Bar Lev’s painting always starts with a grid. She constructs the central Star of David on it, and places the images and the rest of the elements of the paintings in relation to the star, generally in a symmetrical composition. “The grid, warp and weft, is always present as the foundation of my work”, she says, attributing to it the ordered, organized part of the work, within which it is possible to break conventions of thought and to stage ruminations on other questions.
The compositional technique and the general appearance of the central series exhibited here, specifically the paintings done in a round format on plywood, resemble mandala paintings. The mandala is a complex painting arranged within a circle, or just as a circle. The Swiss psychologist Karl Jung saw the mandala as a representation of the archetype of the self, and as a tool to attain integration of the whole personality. In one interpretation, the inner circle of the mandala is the border of the self, and the area outside of it represents the world outside. The Star of David, with its six points and six inner triangles, relates directly to the mandala, and appears in many mandala paintings, particularly in Tibet. Like the Star of David, the mandala has six directions: the four directions of the Winds of the Sky and the upwards/downwards direction of imaginary axes where the horizontal and vertical lines meet in a cross. The mandala thus paves the way to direct the thoughts in specific meditation practices, and the person who places himself at the center can imagine his soul moving outside of himself, in all possible directions, on the ribs of the mandala, to merge with the universe around him.
At the center of each of Bar Lev’s paintings there is a miniature portrait of a person or a fictional character, which is the subject of the painting and gives it its name. The points of the star extend from the center outwards, until, filled with pattern, they breach the limits of the Star of David and flood the entire painting with an intense, endlessly repeating pattern, in an almost meditative obsessiveness. Bar Lev’s use of repeat patterns in strong colors, using plant themes as well as geometrical ones, ties her work, as always, to the tradition of historical Women’s Art, such as quilts, which she transformed in the 1980’s, by feminist subversion, into art.
In the painting entitled ‘Aishwarya Rai’, a portrait of the famous Indian actress appears within an oval frame at the center of a Star of David composed of smaller Stars of David, and also of five-pointed stars, in a dense pattern of black on a brilliantly colored background. The dense patterns surrounding the small portrait create a tangle, a maze, resembling the complicated, abstract, decorative arabesques used in Moslem architecture. ‘Mashrabie’, carved wooden screens and shutters, are placed on the windows and porches which face the outside, the street. In Bar Lev’s painting, the black pattern, like the screens on windows and porches, works like a metaphor: the dense black ‘screens’ protect the successful, modern movie actress, while simultaneously imprisoning her.
In the painting ‘Andy Warhol’, Warhol’s miniature portrait appears in its small oval at the center of a purple and black line-drawn Star of David, on a background of small, overlapping golden circles. Warhol, one of the artists at the center of the American Pop Art movement, is transformed, on the golden background, into an icon himself. As Bar Lev explained: ‘ Warhol, who was a devout Catholic, is ‘ inserted’ into the Jewish world. He who transformed so many American cultural heroes into icons has been ‘imported’ as an icon to Israel, here and now.’ There are many references in Bar Lev’s work to American Pop Art. This influence can be seen in her use of printing with stencils on her paintings, as well as in her choice of commonplace, everyday images.
Bar Lev’s works are crowded with images from different worlds, with bright colors (orange, yellow, gold etc…) and repeated patterns, creating a dense visual, formal and conceptual experience for the viewer. This overload is a metaphor for the experience of both the viewer and the artist, who strive to find peace and harmony within the maze of Stars of David. Harmony is achieved by means of the composition which creates a balance between the figurative image and the graphic patterns, between the decorative elements and the texts surrounding them.
In her work, Bar Lev eliminates the illusions of volume and space. Her paintings are direct, devoid of idealization. They move between the figurative and the abstract, between the concrete and the imaginary. The Star of David, an ancient symbol appropriated by the Jewish people to symbolize their rebirth in the Land of Israel, represents, in Bar Lev’s works, the possibility and the impossibility of the social, cultural and political existence here, in the State of Israel. As she said: “This is not a political exhibition per se, but the works are trying to represent my feelings about this complex place, in which I feel simultaneously counted IN and excluded OUT”.