About Oren Ben Moreh’s New Paintings
The figures, furniture, and rooms are all treated the same: between flatness and hints of three-dimensionality. They are a part of the color surfaces (blues and reds are dominant in the new series, but there is also and mostly a lot of brown, the color of the mixture, the color that blurs the differences). The figures relinquish tangibility, plasticity, and volume, at times oozing and slipping, like in a dream, some would say like in the subconscious. But also like in Dali’s 1930 painting Paranoiac Woman-Horse (Invisible Sleeping Woman, Lion, Horse). And even his famous melting clocks come to mind. At times, the objects – coffee cups, a bowl of fruit, different artifacts in arrangements that allude to or quote still life paintings – are the only ones that preserve their solidness.
This is for instance how the author, philosopher, art critic, and cinema theoretician, Jean-Louis Schefer, writes in the essay “What Are Red Things,” printed in the book The Enigmatic Body:
Red is the last protected substance, and is in fact a mythical material. A subject of admiration and fear (from the red of regal robes, to the slippers of the byzantine virgin, to blood-soaked rags). This color is in itself the subject of legends – like that on the circularity of life-giving blood; the only human substance that can dye materials and from which Heliogabalus created his flags: “red, the flag of all women.”
The essay was written for an art magazine in 1990, as an invitation to discuss monochrome in contemporary art. In it, Schefer in fact turned to Uccello’s paintings in order to declare unequivocally that red was a feminine color or the color of the woman. He continues:
…red is almost always the color of the arbitrary – and in two senses of the word: the color of power and protection […] but an arbitrary color in that its use is encoded (or as linguists would prefer, relatively reasoned) without a signified. Meaning, without a reference to the natural and without legitimization as part of it: red things do not exist [emphasis in the original].
The last sentence of course resonates Lacan’s statement “the woman does not exist and does not signify anything.” During an early visit to Ben Moreh’s studio, before Bardot’s three portraits appeared, I searched (partly due to the title of the movie) for the woman in her paintings.
Among all the compliments she gives Vadim’s movie, she has one reservation. The next paragraph seems to describe Oren Ben Moreh’s paintings:
Nevertheless, there is one thing for which I blame him [Vadim], and that is for having gone so far as to de-humanize it. The human factor has lost some of its importance in many spheres. Technical progress has relegated it to a subordinate and at times insignificant positions. The implements that man uses – his dwellings, his clothes, etc. – tend towards functional rationalization. He himself is regarded by politicians, brain-trusters, publicity agents, military men and even educators, but the entire “organization world,” as an object to be manipulated. In France, there is a literary school that reflects this tendency. The “young novel” – as it calls itself – is bent on creating a universe as devoid as possible from human meanings, a universe reduced to shiftings of volumes and surfaces, of light and shade, to the place of space and time; the characters and their relationships are left in the background or even dropped entirely.
I would say that in Oren Ben Moreh’s paintings – the same universe that deals with “shiftings of volumes and surfaces, of light and shade, to the place of space and time; the characters and their relationships are left in the background or even dropped entirely,” in fact tells a different story. Not one of “rationality” and “functionality” nor necessarily one of de-humanization. We could also think in this context about Edward Hopper, a painter who has influenced Ben Moreh.
Court Painting: the Works of Oren Ben Moreh
Something about vegetation provides the painter with everything she needs: a thin veil through which to make things visible; a dense thicket in which to dip the strokes of oil paint time after time; a supple twig with which to frame and enclose the image; majestic foliage with which to play in monochromatic tones, a choice which means that faithfulness to realistic colors might take us as far as phosphorous, industrial, and toxic colors. One brushstroke is needed to portray the long life of a leaf, as well as the vitality inherent to its growth potential.
In paintings with no openings or sky, Oren Ben Moreh creates closed, back and front yards. She dubs them “frontiers” and imagines them as fortified fronts, but also as elaborate surfaces. There is no point in separating the works’ subject matter from the technique in which they were executed – contemporary painting is “not only a painting but also the representation of an idea about painting.” Ben Moreh’s painting is imbued with the image just as it is filled with ideas about painting and of painting.
“Court painting” – we imagine decadent wealth, a class which is as self-indulgent as much as it is dependent on the elaborate depictions of that same wealth to which they could hold on and never let go. Ben Moreh paints actual courts, framing front and back entrances of houses: the area which is removed from the house just enough to populate ordered illusions of nature, magnificently broken statues, fountains, dozy cats, and unwarranted visitors who peek through the thick vegetation or hide in the dark entrances of sheds. The yard is the area through which one may invade the house or its surrounding spaces. It should be cultivated as a layer of protection, just as it should be defended against intruders. The vases, and the sculptures, and the fountains, and the cats, and the roof tiles, and the fences, and the benches, and the stone walls, and the arches, and the chairs, and the rugs, and the hammocks, and the flowers, and the leaves, and the branches, and the trees, and the shrubs, all produce impenetrable frontiers in the likeness of serene, orderly, barricaded life. A life which offers restricted entry and is blocked from view. Much like the domestic scenes portrayed in Ben Moreh’s earlier works, which were taken mostly from cinematic scenes, the yards similarly remain in the realm of the private which is open, yet does not relinquish its impenetrability.
In these paintings of cultured and populated vegetation, Ben Moreh joins numerous contemporary artists who engage directly or allegorically with yards and gardens as expanses that revert to the botanical order through private and dilettante manifestations of the ecological turn, and which are associated with the reexamination of the self-world relations put forward by post-humanist thought. In Ben Moreh’s works, the courtyards (or “frontiers”) direct us to our private spaces over which we are losing our grip, and to nature which is lost in our grip. However in her painting, as mentioned, there is no point to separate the rich and specific technique of oil painting (a technique the artist presents here for the first time in her work) – dense, layered, bold, speckled, and flattened – and the image it renders. The courtyard manifestly exists in these works as a portrayal of the existential state of painting itself – a private space that goes out to the public, fraught with a tense duality, as a space of both nesting and fantasy: an invaded area that skillfully designs its own fortifications.
 Barry Schwabsky, “Painting in the Interrogative Mode,” in Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting, London: Phaidon, 2002, 8.
Have you already seen Oren Ben Moreh’s paintings? Maybe in a moment. In any case, you’ve come in, and that’s pleasing. Because these paintings, which have been revealed or will be revealed to you in a moment, draw you in to the remote regions of the human mind, to those moments that manage to elude the brain’s synapses. To moments of a partly chilling, partly welcomed quietness. In a cold and warm or warm and cold painting. But, did the painting invite you to enter? Did the painting let you gauge it in the moment of encounter? Because the paintings, seemingly, are concerned with things that anyway do not pertain to you: an elusive moment of meaningless prevarication, waiting for something whose time has already passed, things that disappear because no one sees them. Here is not home sweet home. Here is the intimacy of the other. And maybe you are familiar with the painting’s intimacy, which stems from the voyeuristic gaze into the private realm, that privacy that is concealed by and constructed from the layers of paint – what seems exposed actually demands excavation and discovery, since the painting in fact conceals more than it reveals. Maybe it is not necessarily love at first sight.
Have you asked yourself about the women appearing in the paintings? Or is that actually clear to you? Is there something feminine in the paintings? Maybe in the fact that they prevaricate and mull things over, bursting with a raging storm of yes or no? And maybe here something and nothing live under one roof, masculine in its insolence, in its charisma? Either way, like a dolled up lady, the paintings are heavily, suffocatingly made up – layers of makeup cover all the pores, making it impossible to breath, impossible to distinguish between a streak of light and a lighting fixture.
True, there are no borders in Ben Moreh’s paintings, but in spite of that, and maybe precisely because of that there is a struggle. And what a struggle! One territory in the painting features the occupied territories, so filled with paint that it peels off the paper, and on the other side – gentleness, painterly cunning that tries to create clear images. But these images too seem restrained, not to say ashamed, for having dared to raise their heads and emerge from within the painting. Like these images, the painting too has not made up its mind yet whether it wants to be revealed or to remain mysterious – the insolence of the color, the opaque glow of the pastel, stand as a counterweight against the painting’s qualms.
The inevitable result of this struggle, which is at the heart of the painting, is death. And indeed, you can think of Ben Moreh’s painting as a made-up corpse. It shows a ceaseless concern with death and the space it creates, with the lack that is highlighted by death rituals and by the consciousness of death that flickers without warning into people’s lives. Often you can ignore this concern, but not here. This is painting that resists the advertisement, the instant, the self-flattery and the information superhighways that dominate art. Honest painting, which looks death straight in the eye without wrapping it with tiresomeness and kitsch, and that doesn’t wish to shout or glorify the naturally underpowered.
Against this background, you might want to notice the small details, how much consolation they offer, the single cup that holds all the consolation (however small), painted in front of the figure’s blurry face. How material are the fire and the background, like the Cliffs of Moher struck by the ocean waves, and yet how airy and light. Flowers sent to spread joy but destined to wilt momentarily, the landscape paintings that dream of the pastoral – all everyday objects whose presence is meant to make life easier; a corporeal world, full of matter, that tries to lift the spirit. Like the paintings themselves, these objects are completely material, but they evoke all thatpersists in a human being’s spirit – not in the sublime but in the human, in the living.
If you like, you can say that these paintings reside in the twilight zone, and they do indeed wonderfully produce such a twilight zone. In fact, the paintings keep subtle balances – in color, texture, images, composition – in order to linger as long as possible in this twilight zone and emphasize its importance. You too might want to join them, lingering for a moment inside your vacillations, identifying with this sense of indecision and letting your mind wander aimlessly. To leave the safe ground of reliable knowledge.