The Skin of the Painting, the Body of the Building Remarks on the Paintings of Shlomi Haggai
Shlomi Haggai’s paintings mislead the person contemplating them. At first glance, they look ‘friendly’, communicative, easily accessible, and simple to understand. Further glances expose to the viewer the defense mechanisms, which make it difficult for him to decode the complexity, and the mystery concealed under the skin of the painting.
The viewer’s thoughts move between the immediate and innocent reading of the painting as “paintings of archeological or industrial landscapes” and a complex and more stratified reading of them as “paintings of a journey from the outside to the inside, from the regions of matter to the regions of the psyche”.
In this essay I want to sketch a characterization of this visual-psychic journey that the artist has been conducting for several years, the condensed reconstruction of which transpires before the eyes of the viewer who contemplates the paintings and interprets them at the same time.
This process resembles the way one understands painting, as described by Avigdor Arikha: “Painting is impact. Not significance. […] The step from painting to painting can only continue as a step in darkness. As a process of revelation. A step from within to without, from feeling to knowledge. […] Feeling is a perpetual web, which includes factual propositions but cannot be included in them. […] Knowledge includes the totality of propositions. It includes the flow of words, but not the function of the word. Art alone includes it. Formation is a process. Not a proposition. Style is a process. It grows from within. It is to the artist what the sound of the voice is to oneself: a quality of truth”.*
Haggai was born and grew up in Haifa, a mountainous port city in the north of Israel, which is identified as a working-class city. In 1986 he began his studies at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, and in 1990 he completed them. The encounter with a number of authoritative artist-teachers, new conceptions of contemporary art, new materials, and subjects, was most significant for him. In the course of three years, he created diversified works in an endeavor to crystallize his own personal language, with the guidance of artists such as Nahum Tevet, Larry Abramson, Itzhak Livneh, and Pinchas Cohen Gan. In the second year of his studies, Haggai became acquainted with the work of David Salle (a large solo exhibition of Salle’s works was shown at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art). As he recounts it, he was drawn to the way David Salle creates layers in the painting by means of superimposition, and also by his approach to the surface of the painting and the division and deconstruction of the picture.
In 1988-89, Haggai began doing paintings in large formats, oil on canvas. In these paintings, he planted and integrated floating objects, landscape patterns (resembling illustrations in nature and science magazines) and fragments from deconstructionist architectural drawings by Zaha Hadid and others. Haggai was attracted to these architectural drawings, he says, because of their resemblance to fantasy and science fiction. Another source of the abstract patterns that appeared in his paintings and in the objects he created that year was enlargements of blood samples, body cells and images of electronic conductors (inspired by the paintings of Peter Halley).
In his last year of studies at the Academy, Haggai decided to paint a series of paintings of identical size, based on photographs of various sites, with a character that would recall the architectonic fantasies and the fragments that had appeared in his earlier works.
After a prolonged quest for suitable places, he photographed buildings of industrial plants in various parts of Israel (in Jerusalem, in the B’nei-B’rak area, and in the industrial part of Haifa Bay). The photographs were taken in the early hours of a Saturday morning, when the plants were quite deserted.
This series of paintings constituted the basis for the first five oil paintings in the catalogue. In the course of his work on the series of paintings, Haggai acquired tools and much skill in the traditional work methods of oil painting, making use of thin and transparent layers of paint as well as glazes.
Before we look at each painting separately, it is worth emphasizing that despite the subject that they have in common – industrial buildings – the paintings are different from one another in their character, in their complexity, in their work methods and in their compositional arrangement. This is connected to the same quest for different things every time, in every painting. As I’ve said, the quest is the mental journey from the outside to the inside.
The first painting is based on a photograph of a carpentry building in Jerusalem. The vista is open. An empty road, lit in harsh light, diagonally cuts the lower part of the painting, and the form of the white building of the carpentry shop in the center and of the silos beside it recalls typical elements in the Readymade sculptures of Marcel Duchamp, or the form of the ‘Bachelors’ and the ‘Bride’ in his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) from 1915-23. This association is also evoked in the paintings Factory Number 2 and Number 4. As in Duchamp’s work, the sculptural-formal aspect of the buildings and the connotations that accompany them are more present and significant than their functional aspect.
In Factory Number 2, the space of the painting is partially blocked: in the upper part of the painting, the sky is ‘blocked’ by an elevated bridge; in its lower part, the shadow of the bridge ‘encloses’ the road. Standing prominently in the middle there are two cylindrical buildings and four smokestacks of the Nesher Cement Works in Haifa Bay. Because of the closed composition, the opaqueness of the paint and the static character of the forms, the painting is much more claustrophobic and ‘pressured’.
In Factory Number 3, the road has vanished, and the cinematic atmosphere, which was hinted at in the earlier paintings, is stronger. From here on, the paintings have a more conspicuous character of a movie location before the actors arrive or after they leave. The sharp contrast between the unnatural color of the sky and the strong lighting on the central buildings of the plant (the Lime & Stone plant in Haifa Bay) suggests a psychological focus achieved by means of color filters and spotlights. The lighting also emphasizes the sculptural mass and the surface of the buildings. In the buildings themselves, the tension between order and disorder, the whole and its parts, inner logic and absence of orientation, is conspicuous.
In Factory Number 4 and Number 5, the inexplicable sense of dread grows stronger, because of the atmosphere, the lighting, and the forms of the buildings, the railway track and the fence-posts, which evoke associations about sites where death dominates. In these paintings, more than in the previous ones, Haggai confuses the viewer’s Gestalt: he plants ‘visual traps’ so that the viewer may believe that there is a fence there (although there is actually no fence in the painting); shadows and perspectives are extended and stretched, in order to enlarge the dimensions of the buildings, and so on. As in the paintings of René Magritte or Giorgio de Chirico, the moment when the ‘hoax’ is discovered is an annihilating moment, which reinforces or explains the inexplicable dread evoked by the painting.
As I’ve said, the ‘reading’ of the Factory paintings varies from one glance to the next. It is possible to see them as realistic paintings that most skillfully and meticulously depict a piece of industrial landscape selected by the artist, who has isolated it from its surroundings and has thus accorded it symbolic meanings. In the Israeli context, it is possible to associate the factory and industrial buildings with ‘the Zionist project’, a major expression of which was the creation of a modern infrastructure for ‘Hebrew work’. In this context, depictions of work in the fields, in construction or in a factory, are characteristic of a number of Israeli artists of the forties and fifties who are identified with the Social-Realist position. Haggai’s factories, however, differ from these depictions in that there are no people in them. The joy of creative work, the glorification of labor and the ‘noise’ of the machines are absent from them. The contrary is the case. They project a troublesome sense of threat, desolation, or inexplicable danger. Something apocalyptic hovers in the air of the painting. Likewise, despite the fact that the depicted sites are specific sites, some of which are familiar, they become cold and alienated sites, as though they were illusionary and clichéd cardboard backdrops for a movie set. To the same degree that they are Israeli factories, they could just as well be American or European factories. More than anything, they conduct a dialogue with paintings by Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler. But the innocence and love of the locale that are projected by Hopper’s paintings (for example, Coast Guard Station from 1929, which is in the collection of the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey) and the conspicuous brushwork in these paintings, are different from what we see in Haggai’s paintings.
Charles Sheeler’s paintings of industrial plants, which are also based on photographs, are a hymn of praise to modern technology and to the sculptural-geometrical dimension of the buildings (for example, in the painting Silo, 1938; Conversation – Sky and Earth, 1940; Fugue, 1940), while in Haggai’s paintings the melancholy and the threat attest to a critical awakening and an ecological awareness in the face of these industrial buildings. At the end of the millennium, the word ‘factory’ has a less enthusiastic associative trail than it had at the beginning of Modernism.
At second glance, we discern that the painting does not belong to the ‘trompe l’oeil’ genre or to any kind of ‘pure realism’ (a problematic and even false concept, in my opinion). The painter has performed distinct acts of selection and editing and employed various painterly stratagems in order to clear and ‘clean’ the plants of various elements that reveal the existence of people who work in them. At the same time, he has left and illuminated the geometrical forms of the buildings themselves, as a modern sculptural presence, mostly metallic, of cubes, cylinders, and pyramids. The painting turns into a proposal for a geometrical abstract sculpture installation (which is also characteristic of the artists Pinchas Cohen Gan and Nahum Tevet, or the Minimalist artists of the seventies – Sol LeWitt, Carl André or Donald Judd).
On concluding his studies, Haggai traveled to Italy for a month, in order to directly view several of the most significant works of the painters of the early Renaissance, especially Piero della Francesca and Fra Angelico, whom he had read about in the course of his studies. As he recounts, “The strongest experience I had was looking at Fra Angelico’s paintings at the San Marco Monastery, in Florence, particularly The Annunciation from 1455. Afterwards I read almost everything available about his painting and I feel that this has had a considerable influence on my paintings.”
In The Annunciation, Fra Angelico conducts the viewer’s gaze and directs it from the forward plane of the painting to the inner plane, to the rear window in the distance. Rhythms of columns and arches create a frame, which bounds the closed composition and tightens the dialogue or separation between the angel and the Madonna. On the one hand, each of the figures is bounded within its own architectural form. On the other hand, the painter creates eye contact between the two figures by means of various lines (on the walls and the floor). A stoic tranquility pervades the painting, as though time has stopped. When we compare and ‘adapt’ these elements to Haggai’s paintings, we begin to understand why he was so moved by Fra Angelico’s painting, which marked for him the way he had been looking for.
At this stage, Haggai decided to stop painting industrial plants and to change the format of the painting from an oblong to a square, in order to limit the viewer’s field of vision. Haggai: “The change in the field of vision is also an attempt to direct and limit the viewer’s interpretation, not to leave things too ‘open’. Umberto Eco’s books and essays about semiotics and the limits of interpretation were a source of inspiration for this.”
The first square painting is based on a black-and-white photograph that was probably taken by Paul Klee in the course of his trip to Tunis with August Macke. The photograph shows August Macke, dressed in a coat, standing on the deck of a ship. Haggai, in his painting, preserved the hues of the photograph, but ‘cleaned’ parts of it, ‘closed’ the picture in a square format, and emphasized the sculptural forms of the portions of the ship. The resulting image is also one of a scientist or an industrialist standing at the center of a strange laboratory or industrial plant. Haggai’s motive sounds somewhat nostalgic: “I just had to paint this photograph and join Klee and Macke on their journey to the East, to something primal.” After the event, however, this painting in fact joins the inward mental journey which begins with the ‘body’ of the buildings and ends with a penetration into the inside of the body.
The second painting in the square series is The Pools 1992. It is based on a photograph of a deserted site in the Haifa area, where Haggai used to wander about as a child. This place was once a kind of idyllic Oriental paradise, an urban oasis in the style of the Persian gardens, and became known thanks to the Israeli artist Itzhak Danziger, who had seen this very place as a source of primal, Oriental, local values. In Haggai’s painting, the empty ponds and the deserted garden are an image of a ‘lost paradise’. The square of the painting closes the viewer’s gaze on the image, which at the same time also looks like a row of tombstones. Again, as in the Factory paintings, a deathly quiet and a hidden threat hover over the stones. A place of beauty and hedonism has become a representation of a ‘void’.
The same feeling also pervade the other paintings of the series – Road with Palm Trees, 1993; The Stairs, 1994-96; Archeological Item 1, 1997, Oleander, 1998; Archeological Item 2, 1998-99.
In the center of Road with Palm Trees, 1993, stands a tall palm tree, which divides the painting in two. The painting invites an immediate association with the ‘Oriental Eretz-Israeli landscape paintings’ in the spirit of the ‘Zionist paintings’ done in this country from the beginning of the twentieth century through to the thirties, except that there is something strange in the painted landscape that creates a kind of estrangement and distances it towards the concept of a ‘non-site’. The depicted landscape, which is bounded by a ‘black aura’ (like photographs in which the lens has been blocked by means of a frame of some kind in order to focus and define the image), could equally be in the U.S.A., in Jericho, or anywhere.
In the remaining paintings (The Stairs 1994-96; Archeological Item 1, 1997, Oleander, 1998; Archeological Item 2, 1998-99), where he uses a smaller square format of 55x55 cm., Haggai zooms in ever closer to various corners in gardens or deserted sites (at the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem, an archeological site at Beit-She’an, and at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem). In each one of these paintings, one gets the sense of artificial light, an invasive camera flash, which exposes vegetative images out of the darkness. The vegetation that is inscribed in the stone, as a decorative motif on an ancient sarcophagus, or the thick vegetation that forms part of a monastery garden, transmits the same dark and threatening feelings that I spoke about earlier. The paintings are fragments from possible sets for the vampire films of the silent movies. The vegetation is petrified, compressed, stifling, and only the princess, asleep forever, is missing from the picture.
In the last painting, Haggai chose to enlarge a tiny section of a photograph that shows the center of an explosion. This is a realistic abstract that does not disclose its sources.
In this painting Haggai penetrates into the body. His paintbrush is now like a miniscule camera that is attached to the end of an optic fiber and inserted into the body orifices in order to cruise through the various systems and report on flaws or disease. It is as if the canvas of the painting has been peeled and we are peeping beneath the ‘skin’ of the painting. The cells of the body and the ‘cells’ of the painting are one. The most realistic painting becomes abstract, blurred, veiled, and hallucinatory. In the end, all of Haggai’s preferences – medical microscope slides; superimposition; the forms resembling single-celled organisms in the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky; the delicate transparencies in the watercolors of Paul Klee; the eternal and sublime tranquility of Fra Angelico’s The Annunciation and of Piero della Francesca’s paintings; the hi-tech organicism in the spirit of science-fiction fantasy – unite into one clear statement: the ability to touch the center of the explosion, to touch the sublime.
* Avigdor Arikha, in Art International, June 1977.