Beyond the Evident
On Anne Ben-Or’s Paintings
The artist's face stares at the spectator with defiance. In her self portrait, the upper half of her body seems to be thrust forward, as if breaking through the yellow green surface, or perhaps this is really the back side of the “canvas. It seems as if she wishes to pull aside the “curtain separating the spectator and herself, while pointing to the magic of the act of presentation, to its power. Anne Ben-Or defies Western painting tradition and at the same times, ratifies it – “that liminal state between the real and fictitious: between the world and the artistic structuring. This means Until here it is life, and from here on – death,” as Lea Dovev puts it in her notes to Hubert Damisch’s A Childhood Memory by Piero della Francesca. The portrait of Adi, the artist's daughter, also presents an affront, as her face, a Madonna's, face, is formed out of an array of stormy colors behind her demanding the spectator’s gaze: “each of my works is an attempt not to fall asleep in something already known, but to create something that can change the very manner in which we look at things around us,” says Ben-Or. “For me, the work of art is the freedom to create limits, to form separations and to rethink them. This makes life and art possible. I am constantly searching for ways to look at what surrounds me from another point of view, from a place that does not know I do not know what flowers are, what man is, what this place is. We have been educated to identify things preliminarily without really looking. I am trying to give everything a space of its own, to see what is different and what is similar, and I attempt to transmit this sense of feeling. How do I transfer all this into the painting? I am not interested in transferring reality one by one. What interests me is what is happening between us, between the canvas and myself, between what I see and myself. Looking is what is essential, it is what stimulates, what arouses.”
A fundamental element in Ben-Or’s creation is movement. As an artist who has been raised on the Western realistic painting tradition of perspective and figurative composition, Ben-Or constructs a pictorial language, which is based on a constant movement of forms, of lines, and of color-surfaces. In the painting Untitled (no. 6 in the catalog) an undefined red patch at the bottom right balances the large white patches on the left, and the patches as a whole define a hectic homey space in which the figures constantly move forward, aside, backwards. Here they do not turn towards the spectator. The event is at the center and it is mysterious, intimate, thrilling and unresolved. The work A Woman’s Story contains a painting within a painting: one contains the figures of two young women, one is holding a baby, and both women are looking at a painting on canvas on a wall or maybe what they are seeing is a transparent .glass window through which they can see a dance studio .The two women pause during this moment of spectatorship. The multiple gaze – theirs at the painting and ours, the spectators’, at them, is not serene but illusionary and is never resolved. For a moment they seem separated from the painting they are looking at while the next moment they become an inseparable part of it. The entire work revolves around one intense blue patch of color that operates on several planes simultaneously: the plane of the gazing women, the level of the dancing figures in the painting and the plane of the array of color on the canvas – that which is liberated from representation, pointing only to itself. Merleau-Ponty in his essay Eye and Mind verbalizes the magic theory of seeing that the painter implements, and the change of roles between the painter and the object of his painting, until it becomes impossible to distinguish who sees and who is” seen, who paints and what is painted. We say that a human being is born the moment when something that was only virtually visible within the mother’s body becomes at once visible for us and for itself. The painter’s vision is an ongoing birth.”
Another painting, Feminine Movement, centers on the body of a woman seen from behind leaning on her side and sitting on the corner of a table. It is not a relaxed position, but a choreographic gesture that resists the rest of the array of patches and lines in the composition. This resistance is the basis for the tension in the entire work. Contrary to this, the painting Stability deals with movement through a rigid composition, as though using the orderly floor of colored-squares for a perspective structure. And in the painting The Dance, the figures dancing in the painting A Woman’s Story seem to have emerged and are now looking at what may be children’s scribbles on a wall and alongside it marks of a drawing that brings to mind Piero della Francesca’s painting The Baptism of Christ, to which Ben-Or directly addresses in another painting (no. 15 in the catalog) Ben-Or conjures up the understanding of the world from the very act of painting. She confronts the attainable and the unattainable, the seen and the unseen, the exposed and that which cannot be represented. She focuses time and again, on homey, private scenes of daily life, of her family members of friends and acquaintances, of the spaces and landscapes that she lives in and that surround her. All this emerges in her work as a revelation, as a recreation. In the large triptych Once Upon a Time she creates a family-mythology panoramic scene reminiscent of Paul Cézanne where body joins nature and nature become part of the body. Nature and body form one out of the other until they become one plane and then separate again to shapes and matter and colors.
Alberti’s metaphor of painting as a fictive window to the world is not only expressed in Piero della Francesca's concentration on the optically-illusionary aspect of painting and on imaging painting as a transparent glass, says Damisch, but in the manner in which he relates and intensifies the physical and real affect of the paintings’ planes. Painting is not framing, and the economy of what is considered classical representation is fully exposed only in its moments of detention, when we cannot decide if the curtain is lifted revealing the scene while it is still empty, or alternately, it is about to fall since the act of representation has come to an end: or alternately, and this is the same thing, at the moment of halting when, the painter approaches his canvas or retreats backwards from it. In several of her works Ben-Or openly engages with Piero della Francesca, the Renaissance artist who creates in his paintings intimacy and mystery through rigid compositions and severe geometric perspectives. It is the distancing and the dramatic pause characteristic of his paintings which deal with philosophical and moral subject matter and the manner in which they form a contemplative and personal window through mysterious mathematical harmonies that inspire Ben-Or. These are expressed in her insistence on creating reflexive harmonies dealing with the act of painting itself and at the same time touching upon very, private physical and emotional experiences, of childhood of maturity and aging, of parenthood and motherhood, of longing and of facing finality: “When I paint I feel I contribute my part to creation and I am in peace with myself. If it does not happen, it is a nightmare. You cannot grasp space, only through shapes at space. What is happening between the hand and the patches, between the chair and the patch, and, then an entire world is created – there, between the patches in between the encounters. Everything is formed there – the line, the perspective, the body.”
Ben-Or’s body of work emerges from the realistic tradition but in many ways deals with abstraction, with the patch of color, with the one next to it and with the encounter between them. Out of the red-brown space a flower is born expressing its fragile existence, its shadow hovering alongside it and the water in the bottle reflecting surfaces of blues. Cézanne in a letter from October 23rd, 1905, to his friend, the painter and the critic Emile Bernard, writes: “…The obstinacy with which I pursue the realization of that part of .nature, which, coming into our line of vision, gives the picture Now the theme to develop is that – wherever our temperament of power in the presence of nature may be – we must render the image of what we see, forgetting everything that existed before us.”