An uneasy feeling
By Philip Leider | 29/07/2010
Mulling over the issue of "place" is a very Israeli phenomenon. Philip Leider looks at the art of Eli Shvadron
Eli Shvadron, "Landscape of a pack of cigarettes",
26 x 26 cm, acrylic
In recent years Eli Shvadron has created an extensive series of paintings, prints, and drawings, all of which deal with components of the same image: the banal depiction that appears on millions of packs of Camel cigarettes, of a desert scene with a few palm trees, a distant pyramid, and a single camel in the foreground (our minds are filled with similar scenes from old Hollywood movies on "The Foreign Legion"). Shvadron's series does not depart from the prototype, even though sometimes in the distance a row of Eastern-style buildings peeps out, or a two-winged, first-world-war airplane (which itself is taken from the cover of matchboxes of the kind that you only find today in flea markets), sluggishly flying overhead in a clear sky.
The details of the picture appear only in silhouette, and even then without an abundance of detail: the outlines of the camel's head are not sharp, and outside the appropriate context, they could also be those of a dinosaur. The archetypical scenes that arise in our brains, it turns out, are also silhouettes: they lack details, because in fact we have never seen these things in detail. The paintings are gloomy, even melancholy. The earliest works in the series sometimes made use of a clear, indeed gay palette, but in time the palette become dimmer, more serious, anonymous. The paintings developed the look and the feel of a somewhat vague icon. In his recent works, Shvadron suddenly started painting a colored frame around the paintings, a style that he noticed when observing icons of the church in the Russian Compound. Despite this, it seems that the artist himself is aware of the absurdity of the enslavement to this kitschy exoticism. He knows, and we know, that something else is at stake here.
"The East occupies me incessantly," the artist wrote in a short accompaniment to some of these works, when they were exhibited a few months ago at the Municipal Arts Center in Jerusalem.
"The idea that we as a nation bring to the Middle East an essentially Western culture," aroused in him an uneasy feeling, which is connected "to belonging and to return." I have already learned that this endless mulling over the question of "place" is a very Israeli issue. I am constantly astounded to discover how many Israelis live with a more-or-less clear feeling that they don't belong to this place, or that they have in some way defiled an ancient location, and have forced the frenetic and vulgar tempo of the West on the honorable immobility and the eternalness of the world of the desert. The truth is irrelevant here: the type of unease that paintings of this kind express, are immune to logical reasoning. It would seem that part of the definition of Israeliness is that the feeling of belonging which should follow from an unbroken history of physical presence in this region, a feeling supported by thousands of years of prayer and remembrance of the Land of Israel from the distance of the diaspora, disappears as if it never existed the moment it encounters—a camel! Why is our feeling of belonging to this place so fragile? The paintings don't provide an answer. They only give expression to the "defamiliarization".
These works are local—they are not intended for London of the Saatchi Era for example—and this is the source of their immediate, ingenuous attraction. There is frankness in localism, authenticity that no longer exists in what remains of "universal", avant-garde art. This artistic current seemed to have completely lost its persuasive ability in the last two decades of the twentieth century. Paintings such as those of Eli Shvadron point out that the best art of the beginning of the new century might well be characterized by the reduced influence of "ambitiousness", a phenomenon coined by an earlier critic. The dialogue with the great artworks of the past will be replaced with dialogue between the artist and the local audience, the emphasis being on intimacy, familiarity, shared norms, situational truth, and an eclectic-casual approach to style.