These and other questions arise from the exhibit “Vayehi Hayom” at the Jerusalem Artists’ House. Arad-born Shimon Pinto shows oil paintings winding from childhood memories, through identity questions, and ending with complex references in deceptively simple settings, often punctuated with humor. It was Pablo Picasso who said:
Every child is an artist.The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.It is with eyes open in wonder that Pinto approaches the world.
In Israeliness we see the optimism of early harbingers of spring, Cyclamen (rakefet) flowers, uncharacteristically yellow, reaching skyward from a summit topped with a pita-shaped vase or pot, in the simple hues easily found in a crayon box. Is this the joy of mundane pleasures or an understated stab at political criticism? Curator Ilan Wizgan suggests both are possible in his statement:
Whether idealistic and ideological as in the works of early artists in Eretz Yisrael, or critical and political as in those of contemporary Israeli artists, the characteristic they have in common is the attempt to adopt the perspective of the child, the untouched gaze, unspoiled and free of mannerism and excess.In today’s climate of charged codes, can pita merely be bread or is it part of the turf war of local imagery in the wider political conflict? Is it a simple childhood pleasure or is it a visual statement asking whose fertile ground gives rise to nature’s annual renewal? And, given the naiveté used, can we be over-thinking this – or, in Freudian parlance, is a banana just a banana?
This exhibition assumes familiarity with certain symbols and connotations in the paintings from Israeli art history and from Jewish traditions. Itzhak Danziger’s iconic sculpture Nimrod, considered so central in Israeli art that it is displayed at the juncture of the Israel Museum’s three main wings, is seen by many as the quintessential expression of angst over Jewish/Israeli identity (religious references can be found here, artistic ones here). Nimrod is pivotal in Israeli art - an exhibition at this same venue was devoted to a gathering of contemporary responses to it.
Pinto continues the long line of artists who have wrestled with Nimrod. Danziger's sculpture, which harkens to a pre-Jewish age, is apparently uncircumcised, bears a falcon on his shoulder as a reference to ancient Egypt and is, indeed, an unlikely visitor to a tiled Jewish ritual bath (mikveh). His companion is perched while he immerses, witness to a ritual change, an unusual mikveh attendant. A complex chain of references are subsumed in Pinto’s pared-down setting. The viewer is left to ponder the implications.
As an artist from Beer Sheva it would seem likely that he would draw his influences from local Israeli culture. As Wizgan mentions, Pinto is a double outsider in the Israeli art world, neither running with the Bezalel School crowd, nor, being religiously observant, is he an easy fit in Israel's decidedly secular art world. Ori Reisman's paintings of flat simple shapes comes close as an antecedent to Pinto's works.
A graduate of the Visual Art Center of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Pinto was as peripheral to the art scene as one could be in those formative years. This, perhaps, may have contributed to the clarity of his personal voice.
The question of influence was once a relatively simple matter for the curator: could the artists have crossed paths, could they have visited each other, known about each other, seen one another’s exhibits, owned each other’s works? Pity the poor curators who will write of artists and their influences in the internet age, with social media a given in terms of cross-fertilization.
One can make a case that Philip Guston – whose painterly cartoon-like masterful works pack a strong visual punch and are laced with humor and charm -- could have been an influence. There are others, notably Katherine Bradford, who, though working in NY a world away, share a closely-related approach, though not identical.
Like a child and yet not.
Artists’ House (Images courtesy of the Artists' House, Jerusalem and of artist Katherine Bradford).
Till October 18, 2014.
This was originally published on Times of Israel here or: