Tentative Paintings 2020-2022
Curated by Ilan Wizgan
14 May- 6 August 2023
Evgeny Merman: Tentative Paintings.
Those who visit a warehouse sale of used military equipment for the first time may be mistaken and think that the wars, whose remains are scattered throughout the huge warehouse without order or hierarchy, already belong to a forgotten history of human society. It was in such a warehouse in Israel that Evgeny Merman came across piles of old, folded military tents, scorched by the sun, full of holes and bearing faded inscriptions. The tents fascinated him and evoked associations of war and survival, on the one hand, and on the other of trips during his childhood and youth with his family to his native Ukraine. As a painter who is used to preparing the raw canvases for himself, he immediately recognised the potential inherent in those tents and purchased as many of them as the money in his pocket allowed.
Preparing the tents to be used as a sub-base for paintings included washing, drying, straightening, cutting and sewing with red thread, in an act that simulates treating wounds. When the canvases were ready for painting, a work process that was partly spontaneous and partly planned in advance began, with images from various sources – memories, biblical and other cultural contexts, past experiences, magazine illustrations and old sketches – finding their place on the canvases. Whilst doing so, the great Russian plains came to mind, as well as the story of the exodus from Egypt and the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, situations of prayer and acceptance, images of salvation and rescue, anti-Semitic and Holocaust references, and more.
Evgeny Merman’s painting language is characterised by large, colourful gestures, quick brushstrokes and a painterly dialogue between full and empty, between the patches of colour and the raw and untreated canvas. Influences and echoes of masterpieces can be found in the paintings, alongside illustrations, comics, posters and magazine covers, in a way that eliminates the hierarchy between the different fields and mediums. His paintings, the ones shown in this exhibition as well as other works on linen and cotton fabrics, have a nomadic character: they are not mounted on wooden stretchers, but rolled on top of each other like carpets. This is how they move between countries and exhibitions, and this is how they are displayed on the walls. Maybe this is perhaps related to the personal biography of the artist, who was born in Ukraine, emigrated to Israel as an adult, left it after a few years to wander the world for two decades, living alternately in Hong Kong, the USA and Canada, and ultimately returned to Israel, where he lives today. Or perhaps this is inherent In the essence of his Judaism, in the nomadic nature of the Jewish people, from their exodus from Egypt until today.
In the body of works presented here, several threads, both visible and hidden, are drawn that tie the works together. The one thread is biographical and connects different stations in the artist’s life, from childhood to adulthood and parenthood. A second thread is national-historical, referring to various chapters in the history of the people of Israel. A third thread is religious, Judeo-Christian, connecting values and ethics common to both religions. A fourth thread is socio-political, binding together the fate of refugees from different areas of conflict in the world, starting with the Ukrainian refugees fleeing the terror of the Russian invasion of their country, in these very days, progressing through the stories of refugees from Asia and Africa who have sought asylum in Europe in the last decade, and arriving at the Palestinian refugee problem, one of the significant stumbling blocks on the way to a possible solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The word Ohel (Tent) has a special meaning in Jewish culture. It indicates a house or a place of residence, or a group of people with common characteristics – an extended family or a tribe – as we can learn from the contexts of the word in the Bible. The combination Ohel Moed (Tent or Tabernacle of Congregation) indicates the tabernacle that contained the Ark of the Covenant and within it the two tablets of stone that were given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, on which the Ten Commandments were engraved, and therefore also indicates the presence of God. During the wanderings of the Israelites in the Sinai desert, this was the place where the members of the community were judged and sacrifices were offered to God. When, finally, the Ark of the Covenant was housed in a permanent structure in the Temple in Jerusalem, this was the holiest place in the temple, which only the High Priest could enter.
Sinai is the title of one of the paintings in the exhibition, a dual painting depicting on the right-hand side two mediaeval Jews with typical pointed hats, against a desert-like background, and on the left a landscape of a place that looks like a campsite. The Sinai desert, the place where the Israelites became a people with a common language, culture, history and faith, the place where hundreds of Israelis (and many Egyptians) lost their lives in unnecessary wars, is today a favourite resort for Israelis, a place where they can escape from the routine and hardships of everyday life and enjoy a relaxing vacation at an affordable price. The 1973 war, the most difficult war experienced by the Israelis, when for the first time they felt that a real existential danger faced their country, took place mostly here, and perhaps a hint of this anxiety can be found in the small yellow star that the artist placed at the feet of the figures in the painting, on which the word Jude is written, so closely associated with the Holocaust.
Merman continued and even intensified the practice of dividing the canvas in two, to the point of two seemingly separate paintings, connected to each other as a diptych, perhaps as a hint or hidden reminder that every story has two sides (at least), or even opposite interpretations. These twin paintings can be read separately, but together the stories become more complex, and the context created increases the number of interpretations of the painting(s). For example, a couple of young lovers on the beach in the painting Black Sea can evoke pleasant experiences in our memory or call to mind the biography of the artist, who often spent his youth on the shores of the Black Sea, but in juxtaposition to the painting No Peeping, Dad (which alone can be interpreted as a game between a parent and a child), the two paintings reflect each other and evoke feelings of prohibition and concealment, even a threat (the black birds in the left-hand painting recall Alfred Hitchcock’s film masterpiece), or imply complex relationships between teenagers and their parents.
The artist’s preoccupation with Judaism, as a religion and as a nation, its relations with the gentile nations and its dealings with anti-Semitism throughout history, are also reflected in paintings that seem out of context at first glance. When You’re Dead, You’re Dead! is one such painting, inspired by the cover of an old comic book (Lois Lane – Superman’s Girlfriend). Merman replaced the original inscription at the bottom of the cover (from which the title of the painting is taken) with a Yiddish translation, thus putting the iconic American figure into a Jewish context. The image of Superman carrying a dead woman in his arms echoes Christian Pietà artworks in reversed roles between the sexes, and at the same time the American preoccupation in recent years with Superman’s Jewish roots, with his Jewish creators and with the character being a Jewish counter-reaction to the Nazi oppressor. According to some researchers, the image of Superman merges biblical and Jewish characters such as Moses, Samson and the Golem of Prague – characters that all symbolise salvation and rescue.
I have already mentioned that Merman’s work involves the personal with the national: another example of this is the work he has installed in the courtyard, outside the walls of the museum. An old tent, complete and without picturesque intervention, was placed in the spacious garden. The sharp-eyed will notice the faded production date stamped on the tent: 1945, a year that symbolises the end of one of the most tragic wars in human history, the too-late ending of the Shoah, the genocide of European Jews, and the victory of good over evil. The lonely tent stands out as an unwanted guest, one who was not allowed to enter the house. It recalls the camping trips of the artist’s youth, as well as his service in the Soviet army before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but at the same time it echoes the essence of life in Israel, where two nations exist side by side, the sovereign Israeli beside the Palestinian devoid of political definition and status. And of course, also the Jewish settlement, permanent or temporary, in the heart of Palestinian territories, under the auspices of the law or by force. This is the moral dilemma that Israelis face every day – the existential need for a state strong and large enough to accommodate every Jew in the world who wishes to immigrate to it, in the face of the righteous national aspirations of the Palestinians, those living within the borders of the State of Israel, and those outside them, including the refugees scattered in the neighbouring Arab countries.
Ilan Wizgan, 2023.
Ilan Wizgan is an independent curator based in Israel and active also on the international art scene. Before curating the Israeli pavilion in the 2011 Venice Biennial, Wizgan occupied several posts in major Israeli art institutions, such as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan and the Art Focus Biennial in Jerusalem. He founded and was the artistic director of TRACES – the first Biennial of Works on Paper in Jerusalem (2002), has curated thematic exhibitions such as Urban Tales in Tel Aviv, video installations in open spaces (2006), The Cypriot Case at the gallery and artists’ residence in Herzliya (2005) and In the Name of the Place, in the Name of the Land at the Artists’ House in Jerusalem (1998), and has commissioned several exhibitions in the biennials of Venice, São Paulo and Istanbul.
To this day, Ilan Wizgan has curated several dozen group and solo exhibitions in Israel, the USA, Italy, the Ukraine and the Netherlands. He serves routinely on several art juries and committees and also as a guest lecturer and critic in art academies in Israel.
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