Bezalel academy graduates try to shine in final exhibition: Review

Written by on August 26, 2020

Myriad works show what the new generation of Israeli artists have to offer. Varying in quality, some prove the students cultivated their own creative voice.

An image from 'Moonscape,' the final project by Bezalel Academy 2020 graduate Mona Benyamin. (photo credit: MONA BENYAMIN / BEZALEL ACADEMY)

An image from ‘Moonscape,’ the final project by Bezalel Academy 2020 graduate Mona Benyamin.


After months of lockdown, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design opened its doors earlier in August to visitors in order to showcase the final projects of the school’s graduating class of 2020. While last month’s MFA exhibit (which was on view at Bezalel’s Tel Aviv compound) was somewhat underwhelming, the BFA show currently on display in the institution’s Jerusalem campus is overall a creative feat.

Diverse and well thought-out, many of the artworks in the exhibition reflect a deep familiarity with Israeli art history, coupled with a desire to innovate. It was especially remarkable to ponder these projects in light of the fact that their makers had to spend the past semester either in solitary confinement or far from their instructors and peers due to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

The works that were the most moving to behold were the ones that didn’t try to reinvent the wheel but simply showed that the emerging artists behind them truly enjoyed stretching their own limits and those of the mediums in which they operate.

Untitled, oil on canvas. A painting by graduate Chen Tamir. (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Bezalel)

Reveling in the painting

Of the 48 final projects created by the students of the Fine Art Department and sprawled over two floors at the academy, those that showed the most promise weren’t necessarily based on an overly intellectualized concept. Among them, especially commendable was graduate Hannah Ilievsky’s modest selection of paintings, showcased together in a small room. Titled Voyeurism, Ilievsky’s works address a subject that has been extensively explored throughout the history of art: The importance of the gaze. The latter is one that is involuntarily shared by the onlooker, the painter and the subject of the paintings.

Ilievsky may have selected a topic that many masters explored before, but she managed to handle it with humor and grace. While some of the frames she created didn’t succeed to induce the three-dimensional effect that one may have expected to find; the emotional value they offered were their redeeming quality.

Touch it, mixed media on MDF; a painting by graduate Irad Lavi. (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Bezalel)

Ilievsky examined not one but several different kinds of looks. In one of her paintings, the voyeurs are a group of young people seated close together, clutching pens or pencils and looking down in the direction of what are presumably sketchbooks. Only one of the members of the group, a young woman, is glancing up intently. The subject of her attention is a nude model, whose entire body and face are nowhere to be found in Ilievsky’s painting. Only the model’s pale and muscular legs, spread apart in a standing position, are visible. Ilievsky arranged her composition so that the group of young painters, who are perhaps students much like she was, can be seen through the space between the model’s thighs. By zooming in on a mundane experience that every painter goes through – drawing from observation – she raises questions about what it really means to look and to be seen, highlighting the transactional nature of the gaze.

Another strong work by Ilievsky was one in which she directly but subtly referenced American realist painter Edward Hopper, who was renowned for works in which he explored how light can shape the mood and architecture of interiors. Echoing Hopper’s geometric squares of sunlight that he depicted against walls, Ilievsky painted the shaded, maroon-colored facade of a building.

What was intriguing about her work was not the portrayal of shadow and light, which could have technically been executed better. The clever twist in this painting is Ilievsky’s nod to Hopper’s Night Windows, an iconic work that gave its viewers a voyeuristic peek into a room in which a woman is seen crouching. Ilievsky painted various such windows, offering her viewers concentrated snapshots of ambiguous scenes in which naked figures are captured dancing, posing and presenting their vulnerable selves to the eyes of invisible observers.

The Virgin, multimedia (Lightbox, wood, felt and printed photo) and installation by Penina Simkovitz and Penina Shtauber. (Credit Mooli Goldberg)

Graduate Tamir Chen displayed abstract works in strong, contrasting hues of green, red and blue. While far from espousing a completely novel visual thesis, his works are sensuous, luring the eye and inviting its caress. Using both oil and wax on canvas in his paintings, the artist wrote in a short text accompanying his project that he wanted to offer an answer to the question: What is a fleshy painting?

Both the amorphous shapes that he rendered on the canvas and his generous use of color contribute to the buildup of a pictorial plane that tries – maybe a bit too hard – to be anything but flat. Chen’s treatment of materials manifests paintings that call on the viewer to immerse himself in them. The enjoyable aspect of his work is that it illustrates how much its creator revels in the painting process, evoking the tactile and sensory experience of smelling the paint, allowing the wax to melt and letting the pigment spill freely.

ONE MORE graduate whose abstract paintings are worth taking note of is Irad Lavi. Lavi created a truly compelling body of work, one that demonstrates that he already possesses his own visual language. Using mixed media on medium-density fiberboard, Lavi crafted intelligent painterly compositions that demanded to be observed leisurely because of their layered depth.

Much like the late Israeli abstract expressionist painter Raffi Lavie, whom one can assume Lavi considered and studied at length, the young painter incorporated written language into his paintings. Scrawled in black, graffiti-like letters with pencil, Lavi introduced statements that evoke the mental process that accompanies his work. “Like that, like that, yes yes, yes touch it, touch it, come on yes, like that,” Lavi wrote in Hebrew in a painting that combined paper cutouts and acrylic paint. The words, hidden within the folds of his painting, seem to serve a dual purpose: They encourage those facing the painting to let the work in, while reminding the artist not to be afraid to delve into his own creative journey.

All seeing, 2020, oil on canvas. A painting by graduate Hannah Ilievsky. (Credit: Courtesy of the artist and Bezalel)

The Quest for a home

Two multimedia projects presented at the graduate show demonstrated the students’ attempts to test and point at blurred boundaries, be they personal, political or geographical.

Graduates Penina Simkovitz and Penina Shtauber, who refer to themselves as The Peninas – a singular artistic entity – created several video works and installations to present a mental and mystical voyage. The two allude to an artwork, titled simply The Vagina, which they explain that they have carried with them from overseas to Israel. This is a simplistic but nonetheless apt analogy for the burden of evolving and protecting one’s female identity in a male-dominated world. The highlight of their project is a short film called The Banished Whore. It relates the story of a lost woman who seeks freedom and room to contemplate, and finds it only in the sea. As she submerges herself in the water in an act of despair, a different woman who comes after her perceives the proximity to the water as a chance for renewal and hope.

Arab Israeli artist Mona Benyamin created Moonscape, a video work in black and white in which she filmed her parents dancing indoors. The pair are seen moving to the beat of a song their daughter had written about the desire of Palestinians in Israel to visit their families’ countries of origin in the Middle East, and their inability to do so due to the complex relations between the Jewish state and its neighbors. Unable to travel to Lebanon or Syria, Benyamin decided that the only territory where she can truly be free is the moon.

Presenting an exchange with a lunar embassy over emails that are interspersed between moving images of her laughing parents, Benyamin harnesses humor as her weapon. Her work is entertaining, but the sentiment at its core definitely isn’t. By declaring that she wants to obtain a passport that will take her to the celestials, she is using a creative narrative to tell a story of emotional and physical entrapment. At strange times like these when most of us can’t roam far beyond our homes and the streets are abuzz with protests and violence, Benyamin’s dream of setting off for the moon seems like a favorable alternative.

Bezalel’s BFA graduate show is on view until August 31 at the The Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, 1 Martin Buber Street, Jerusalem, Sunday-Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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