Bat Kol | Matan Ben Tolila
Standing in his studio, he lays a blank canvas down on the floor. It is the end of the day, soon he will go home to his family. He pours diluted paint and turpentine on the canvas, allowing the mixture to spread across it. In a couple of days, he will return to the studio and discover the stain that was created and its boundaries, from which he will build a place – a cave, a lake, a mountain.
The stain is a piece of information or a message without clear guidelines, like a divine voice (Bath ḳōl) of sorts, which appears before the painter and asks him to give it shape and essence. It is the one that prescribes where the entrance to the cave will be, the direction of the light, the dark areas, the water reservoir, and at some stage, after the place has been created and materialized on the canvas, also how it will be populated.
In the seven preceding years, the painter Matan Ben Tolila followed a different work method. He would go to the studio and create preparatory sketches, stretch a canvas and transfer the grid onto it, choose a color palette and create the predetermined image. His works featured imaginary landscapes and delineated structures, bold and phosphoric hues against the emptiness of the blank canvas, and they were created by an aware and meticulous painter, an artist who feels responsible for the vibrancy of his works and does not compromise its relation to the painting’s past, present, and future. But over time, the advance planning that gave him control over the work process and confidence in the finish point, has run its course, and was replaced by a desire to exist in painting’s other places, those that search for not knowing, wondering, and hesitating.
As a painter, he always felt that he has a responsibility to be clear, unequivocal, impeccable and known, to instill confidence in the images and the words, and now he created a series of works of an abstract origin. The painted expanses and the presence that belongs in them emerge from the paint that spread across the canvas, and he understands the painting while working, as he lays down paint on the canvas. As part of the new practice, he parted ways with the other artist who shared the studio, emptied it of previous works and started working on the new series without preparatory sketches and grid. Each painting starts with the arbitrary action of the paint and turpentine stain. And when he allowed himself to follow the unfathomable stain, he was engulfed by sweet sense of disorientation.
Upon first encountering the new series of works, I find myself in a world I recognize from Matan’s previous series of painting. Like in the series Moonwalks (2013) or The Young Mariner (2015), I am facing melting mountains and fantastic landscapes in phosphoric and pastel colors. However, as I spend more time in their presence, I realize that this time I am entering this world from a different place. The landscapes that were always there, as settings to be filled by a certain presence, have now moved center stage, becoming the main event.
In this series, I feel that the line Matan walks is finer than ever. The fantastical worlds, full of colors, textures, and figures whose faces and eyes are hidden from the viewer, demand precision– any deviation may push the painting further away from its meaning. More than these, it is dangerous, certainly for the more organized and methodical among us, to lose control, to summon unknown voices into our room, and hand our brushes over to disorientation. But, just like the figures’ hidden eyes, the paintings in this series wish to say that there is more than meets the eye. Disorientation asks of us to trust the other order it holds, listen to the divine voice (Bath ḳōl), and let it guide us. If in Matan’s previous series I could hold on to the image of the transient house, the structure that promises stability but does not deliver it, in this series there are no walls or roof, no structure to give us shelter. The closest things to an anchor are a kite, a billboard, or fence fragments. The unnatural, saccharine colors offer me no comfort, but rather trigger unease, bringing to mind acids and corrosive compounds. The figures in the paintings do not belong to the caves and unfolding landscapes – how did they get there? Are they abandoned in a world which, in the absence of order or grid, allowed itself to expand, grow, and take over the space of the painting?
Two main figures in the painting are the painter’s best friend, a free spirit who found his death at a young age several years ago, and Matan himself. The encounter between the two, which could not take physical shape in our world, can take place in the expanses born from the expanding shapes. For the first time, the painter brings his figure into this world. More than a self-portrait, I see a man who tries to situate himself in the spaces that exist inside him, in an attempt to fathom them. As though until now the landscapes created by his own brush were foreign to him just as they are to the viewer, and only now he dares to be present.
Picasso suggested that “the purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” It seems that in the new decisions he has made, Matan transformed the action that is so known and familiar to him from years of painting into a new action. Surrounded by his largescale works, the eye and mind trace a line between the flying kite, the figures in the cave, and the floating man, and in an instant, they all exist in a shared space, which is different and other from our world. A place like this, whose realness is only possible in Matan’s painting, recounts a story through which I can part with the quotidian and give myself to the new action, to the echo that reverberates from the mountains, that fills the caves, that dives into the water. I can sail and float in a place I do not know but does not threaten me, wander through disorientation, without losing touch with reality, wash the dust of everyday life off my soul.
Gil Cohen has initiated, curated, and produced art and culture projects since 2007. She is a graduate student in the interdisciplinary program of the Faculty of the Arts, Tel Aviv University, where she explores the connection between objects and memory.
The exhibition takes its title from one of the drawings featured in it – Nut Case. The hermetic, intact image of the coconut is not just a metaphor for a hard, fuzzy shell that does not crack easily and protects what is inside it (“a tough nut”), but also a symbolic play on words charged with a flash of madness, a borderline state, or instability.
The hollow knocking sound on the coconut husk (“Knock knock, who’s there?”) sent me to T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Hollow Men: “We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. / Alas! / … Shape without form, shade without colour / Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” Doubt, absurdity, death, and alienation seep into Eliot’s poem. With a visual and poetic language, he depicts the hollowness of the human experience and the people who inhabit it – scarecrows, empty “vessels” stuffed with questionable materials, lonely and lost people whose skulls are like hollow headpieces. A mass without a backbone.
Shahar Yahalom’s private mythology meanders between the Gothic and Mesopotamian mythology to memories and dreams. Sleeping/dead heads, conjoined heads, hands, a lifeless bird, a lizard, a black cat, tropical vegetation. Flora, fauna, and human are intermingled, hunter or prey, a concoction of inanimate living beings. The images embrace the material from its front, back, or side, without drawing any clear distinction between the “right” side and the back side.
Her work processes are fundamentally physical, manual, and material, but they also hold a human, personal, and emotional dimension that permeates the sculptures themselves. The images break through the surface of the material from a vast, abstract mass or a liquid that solidified in a mold, like an embryo in advanced stages of development, curled up in its mother’s womb, moving, flipping, stretching, and kicking, trying to stretch the abdominal skin and emerge.
The coarseness and smoothness of the calcic plaster, the transparency and opacity of the glass, the black charred lead of the cement, the metallic conductivity of the aluminum. An alchemy of materials that inflate and shrink, expand or warp with the energy that erupts in the encounter between body and material, steeped in mythical and contemporary time, presenting themselves to the viewer who looks at them as though they were singular, accidental, fragile. Yahalom organically interweaves the various techniques – extracts drawing qualities from the sculpture, layers sculptural gestures in drawing, and fuses drawing, sculpting, and etching into the stained-glass pieces, where the light breaks through the green glass and renders the metaphysical physical.
The transformation from a state of liquid into solid mass does not erase the traces left by sharp tools that probed and incised the material or the movements of the artist’s fingers. Features, noses, sunken eyes, openings, depressions, and bulges make the inanimate human, and underscore the paradox of the living-dead object, whose very presence stands for its absence.
The sculptural space is charged with the tension between sight and touch. We are looking at the sculptures, the sculptures look at us. They are static, we are moving – wandering between them, circling them. They eschew self-presentation as sculptural monuments and wish to be read as sentimental, domestic artifacts on a cupboard or a table in the living space, becoming enchanting artefacts that unfold their – and our – stream of consciousness. Their presence, or being in their presence, brings to the fore a raw, pulsating human emotion, as though life is encased in them. The longer we spend in their presence, the more they take on human qualities, communicating not only the dense accumulation of the material in its untreated state, but also an intimate, physical, and mental human experience, which comes to life in the triangle formed between living body (sculptor), inanimate body (sculpture), and living body (viewer). The desire to touch them, feel, grab, hold in the palm of our hand or nestle in our lap, as though they are a physical and natural extension of our body, stems from the sculptures’ human proportions.
The body/sculpture/space relationship is also manifested in the marriage between the sculpture and the pedestal that carries it. The choice of (read-made) pieces of furniture as a temporary or permanent “understudy” for the museal plinth mitigates the sculptures’ material presence, mass, and scale, shrouding them with intimacy and presenting them as though they were “decorative artifacts.” This juxtaposition – organic yet unnatural on the one hand, and functional on the other hand – frees the sculpture from its dependency on the representative, formal, and unapproachable art space and bestows it with a human, domestic, and familiar dimension.
The space of the exhibition becomes an active mineral crystal that weaves a web of perspectives and focus points. Each piece is a zenith in the exhibition as a whole, but also an independent body that holds a substantial specific weight, magnetic, dense, and concise. The viewer walks in the space and becomes a part of this landscape of a living-still nature.
From Hebrew: Maya Shimony