The Phillips Collects: In Conversation with Oren Eliav (Part II)

Sherman Fairchild Fellow Ariana Kaye visited the studio of Oren Eliav in Tel Aviv Israel. Eliav’s Listener, 2012, was recently acquired by The Phillips Collection, and is featured in the major centennial exhibition Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. 

Read Part I here.

Oren Eliav, Listener, 2012, Oil on canvas, 59 x 59 in., The Phillips Collection, Gift of Tony Podesta, 2020

AK: The work in The Phillips Collection is from Listeners. Tell us more about the series and its ongoing iterations. Where does the title come from and what was your biggest source of inspiration for the series? There’s some works I’m seeing from the series—that one over there and that one right on the wall over there, yeah?

OE: Yeah, they keep me company. You know, Listeners is a series that I’ve been working on for a long time.

AK: Since 2004, right?

OE: Something like that . . . I have thought about it in many different ways since the series’ inception.

AK: People live with the art and look at it and it doesn’t have one explanation because it’s not static . . . the work develops its own life, and lives within the world too.

OE: Exactly, things always change, including interpretations. I imagine these figures listening to something. I can say it is a portrait of a man. Just like any other portrait. The title is what shifts the attention—“Listener”—there must be sound in this painting, but I can’t hear it because painting is always mute. Sound also implies space. We can learn about space from sound. We can locate things without seeing them. A knock on our door or a distant bird. So, this “Listener” must inhabit a space, but I am not privy to it directly, only by imagination. 

AK: A commentary on your work was talking about how the people in these paintings are in a confessional. So, you’re not privy to that, because in that structure of a confessional, there are those walls. There is a sliding window that opens, with someone sitting on the other side, and it’s closed off. Then one usually tells the priest, “Well, I sinned, “Well I did something I should not have . . .  please forgive me.”

OE: Yeah, the Phillips work is a priest, it is based on the portrait of Pope Pius VII by Jacques Louis David. Only a few years after painting it did I realize that the man in the painting could be listening to a confession, so it opened this level of interpretation, but I admit it was an afterthought. Meanings in paintings often appear in retrospect, not in their making.

AK: It’s an expressive medium, yeah.

OE: And it is only when meeting Ariana, or any other art historian, critic, or just a curious person that I find myself explaining my work. Art historians and writers enrich us with their interpretations and reflections, but the truth, the hardcore truth of paintings, is that they are utterly mysterious and unexplainable objects.  

AK: That’s what makes the role of an art historian so difficult, because we have to say, “Oh, this painting means this or this painting means that,” then the artist will say the interpretation is up to the viewer. We’re kind of like investigators, but you’re also an investigator mining for meaning, because, like Dr. Nikro writes your work utilizes “material archaeologies” so art historians are archaeologists, but you’re also kind of an archaeologist. How do you see your practice as the work of an archaeologist mining for materials, meaning, and imagery?

 

OE: Wow, that’s an amazing question. first let me say that we’re all looking for meaning, that’s true.

 

AK: What is the meaning of life? Yeah, the biggest question of all questions.

OE: Yes, we spend all our life looking for meaning, and as we do it, we generate more meanings. This is how culture works, a mirror hall of meanings. To continue your comparison between art making and archeology and mining, I would only comment that I feel that underneath all these layers lies a deep mystery, a generous void from which things keep emerging. We live while trying to make the connections between them. Also, I am not really sure how the word “meaning” really pertains to art. Is meaning a sentence that replaces a sculpture? A well-articulated motive for the artist? Does a blue triangle in a painting carry a different meaning then an orange triangle? Looking for meaning in a painting means it has a purpose or a message. And painting with a message is called a poster, right? 

AK: In essence, going back to Listeners, you’re kind of mining the archive in a way, the art historical archive and kind of thinking about what it all means, and especially with The Death of Lucretia for example—what her story was and what the significance of it was and how the fragmentation can kind of point to, okay, what happened and how do we make meaning of this and how do we move forward so? I mean, that’s my interpretation . . .

Oren Eliav studio. Photo: Shira Linde

OE: In my work I definitely pursue patterns, stories, relationships, associations, and interpretations, and I hope the viewer, the writer, or the art historian will engage in the same process. In How to Disappear Completely, the story of Lucretia and the specific source painting of Giovanni di Paolo indeed led to a wealth of different ways of looking and thinking and experiencing it.   

AK: There was a quote you said in one text that was talking about how art history is not this linear thing, that all ideas kind of live in a room and they are intertwined and combined with each other and mixed with each other and create vibrations or sounds that result in new possibilities, I loved that.

OE: Thank you. Yes, this is a very simple fact about how we experience art. When you go about The Phillips Collection for example, hanging on the walls are objects created during different points in time, but they are appearing to you at this moment, the moment you encounter them. In addition, they have external information attached to them . . .

 AK: Essays, texts . . .

OE: Yes, and also provenance.

AK: The work lived here, and it lived there—it lived multiple lives before you encountered it. It lived in this museum and this rich man’s house and then the Medici Palace…

OE: Exactly. So, if you are a sleuth of paintings, it’s nice to have this external information. It certainly enriches your experience, but it is not indispensable. The fact that a painting was made in 1836 or in 1428 is not the main factor in my opinion. It is the fact that you have an object filling your field of view right now and that it is making you feel and think in a certain way, during the moments you are standing in front of it.  

AK: So you started to talk about painting as a different medium than verbal and sound communication. How can you let us in on your artistic process? I see all your paintbrushes and paints and everything. How do you make these incredible works? What’s the process of making?

OE: Thank you, first.

AK: The works are incredible. I got hooked through everything online and at the Phillips and now at the National Gallery, too.

OE: In a way I believe in full preparation along full improvisation, like both at the same time. I like to think I know what I’m doing, then be surprised. The first part is done digitally, I mean my sketchbook is just the computer.

AK: Can you show us some? 

OE: Yes of course. I make many sketches, most of them in greyscale. The next step is to choose one and transfer it to the physical canvas, which I built, stretched, and prepared beforehand. After that it is like having a map on the canvas, a scaffolding made to hold future actions. I start approaching it from the general to the specific, from the big to the small. I use stand oil as my medium and I especially like the possibilities of glazing and scumbling. The paint is usually transparent, thick, and slow to dry. It means that as long as it is wet, I can wipe the paint, which in turn creates another kind of mark. This process repeats over months and across multiple paintings at a time. At a certain point it is like looking at a mirage—you are not sure anymore of what you see. There is some sort of combination going on that eludes me and I also I realize that I am not able to reconstruct my steps. A painting is usually done by then. 

AK: So the painting happens in the moment. 

OE: Well, not in one moment. In many, many moments over the course of many days. A painting is a residue of all these moments. 

AK: Yeah, it’s interesting because it’s such a different experience when I’ve been looking at these images online for so long and to me, your work felt like this Warhol-esque screen print kind of thing because of the overlay of layers.  

OE: Paintings seen online are indeed different than seen physically. But you are right about the screen print aspect, as the glazes function as some sort of transparent screen.    

AK: It’s interesting because we’ve talked a lot of about iconography of the history of art and all these historical images in your work, and you told me on the phone back when we talked that your dream of going back and studying art history. You seem to know all of it already. 

OE: I never studied art history proper, only some courses in art school, so I am very, very far from being an expert . . . By the way, I really like Google Arts and Culture. The close ups are incredible. I could spend hours just going through the site . . . it’s amazing what you can find there. 

AK: Yeah, me too. Google Arts and Culture has this close-up function for Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and you know how complex that image is so you can just spend hours looking at every tiny little detail of it and see people without their heads and many imaginative creatures. It is old, but seems so contemporary because of how outlandish it is, right? 

OE: Such a trippy painting. 

AK: So you’re right to say that these paintings aren’t old because everything comes back around at the end of the day and everything re-lives itself one hundred times, if not one thousand times and even more than that… 

OE: Exactly, the paintings are not old. Every time someone looks at them, they are born. Also, it’s so funny what we consider as “old.” Our entire lifetime is just a blimp in reality’s scale of things. Even the entire history of mankind is extremely brief if you compare it to the time scale of the evolution of life, or the history of our planet or of the universe. So, in this perspective, Hieronymus Bosch is just that a slightly older trippy dude next door I would gladly go to a party with. He must have licked a toad somewhere along the way to make these paintings. 

AK: Oh my gosh!

OE: So, art history lives on again. 

AK: So accessible now over the Internet. 

Oren Eliav in his studio. Photo: Shira Linde

OE: I remember that when I was an exchange student at Cooper Union, my visa didn’t allow me to have an outside job, so I had a job at the library. And one day they got rid of a lot of reproductions that they didn’t need anymore. And they were high quality, you know, printed on fabric or on special thick paper. All sorts of paintings ranging from the Hudson River School to French Impressionism, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and many more. I still have these treasures. 

AK: Yeah, I always do that too, I hang them all up in my apartment. How long were you at Cooper Union? 

OE: I was there for one semester but kind of stretched it into a year. I loved it. It was such a formative experience. 

AK: So, you went from being a student at Cooper Union to being a teacher in your own rite. You mentioned that you are teaching at Shenkar (College of Art Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, Israel) and Beit Berel (College in Kfar Saba, Israel). What was the experience like teaching the students painting over Zoom? 

OE: Yes, I teach painting and my approach is very physical and hands on. Painting is a verb. To teach painting is like teaching skiing or dance, so I have to watch the student mix paint, get bored, get excited, get dirty, and even wash their brushes. I have to see how much pressure the student is applying on the canvas and what their paint palette looks like. All of these things are physical. Zoom was a disaster in this respect. On the other hand, I must say that once I realized that this is it, at least for a while, we had to accept a different process. Something more conversational, something more after the fact. Distance learning also gave students a chance to work in their own spaces at their own rhythms, and that was good. 

AK: Yes, that makes sense. Thank you again for having me, this has been such a privilege. 

OE: Thank you, Ariana, for dropping by, it was a real pleasure. 

The Phillips Collects: In Conversation with Oren Eliav (Part I)

Sherman Fairchild Fellow Ariana Kaye visited the studio of Oren Eliav in Tel Aviv Israel. Eliav’s Listener, 2012, was recently acquired by The Phillips Collection, and is featured in the major centennial exhibition Seeing Differently: The Phillips Collects for a New Century. 

 

Ariana Kaye: First off, thank you for having me here at the studio. It’s such an honor. I love the new works. Did you know your work was in The Phillips Collection? 

Oren Eliav: Thank you for coming, Ariana. I was gladly surprised when you told me they hung the work, it’s an honor.  

Outside of Oren Eliav’s studio in Tel Aviv. Photo: Shira Linde

AK: This year is the Phillips’s Centennial year, their

100th year, their birthday, and your painting is in the Centennial exhibition! I was talking to the staff, and told them I love this work and the artist—maybe I can reach out to him and they said of course. So I emailed you and this worked out so well. Do you know how the work got to be there? 

OE: It is thanks to a long-time collector, Tony Podesta, who was introduced to my work by my gallerists at Braverman Gallery. He has been following my work since the beginning, and he generously gifted the work to The Phillips Collection. 

AK: Can you share a sneak peak of what you have been working on recently? 

OE: I haven’t spoken to anyone about this yet. It’s really fresh and different from my last two shows, which were carefully planned as a whole choreography of paintings for a space. How to Disappear Completely was a large-scale installation for the Israel Museum, and Mount Zero was a four-floor journey at Building Gallery, Milan. This time is a bit different.  

AK: I read extensively about it, it was amazing! 

OE: I am used to engaging in a long process of planning, modeling, thinking, and writing. This time I’m going about it in a simpler manner, which means just painting daily in the studio, seeing what comes and letting it unfold. It is starting to come together and will revolve around the notion of echo location or sonar. It will be held at Braverman Gallery, Tel Aviv, in January 2022.  

AK: That last exhibition, Mount Zero, seemed ambitious and different.

OE: It was a landmark exhibition for me. It took place in Milan, the epicenter of the pandemic at the time. We had to make tough choices whether to postpone the exhibition or not, but in the end, I decided to go through with it. I felt that since it was already three years in the making, including a book, that the time has come and that the show must go on, as they say.  

AK: Your use of art historical imagery from Christianity is meant to disrupt ways in which we see and understand the world. However, one cannot ignore direct references to religion in your work, as some of the source images come from Church or papal commissions. How do you view religion and how does it influence your artistic practice? 

OE: It’s going to be a long answer…

AK: I’m here to hear it.

Ariane Kaye and Oren Eliav in conversation. Photo: Shira Linde

OE: Let’s start by saying that personally I’m an atheist, an absolute atheist. Religion is a strong organizing idea. It used to be a satisfying system to explain the world and its mysteries. But eventually, with the advent of science, we now have better explanations. It was also an organizing system for our societies, and it helps many individuals make sense of their lives, I guess. But religion in a way diverts us from the real magic—the fact that we are an organic material arranged in such a way that it is not only able to come to life but also to be aware of it. We have a brief period of time to appreciate this, to be conscious of our one life. So, I see no point in thinking that something more precious will reveal itself in some sort of heaven or an imaginary afterlife.   

As to your question, I used to work with other paintings as my starting point. It’s not the roofs of Tel Aviv or my childhood memories that are my primary sources of inspiration, its art coming from other art. And as it happens, painting from the past is steeped in religious imagery, namely Christianity. So, it was part of the package and I decided to look at it attentively and observe the various visual mechanisms that are at work, for example when looking at an altarpiece or a cathedral. 

AK: Even tells you how to see them.

OE: In my new work I’m starting to move away from that, but the basic question remains the same: what is it that we really see? and what’s the difference between what we see and what we believe that we see? 

AK: So, this concept of seeing is believing: do these concepts coexist? Seeing and believing, are they compatible or do they even go together at all?

OE: If being a painter has taught me one thing it is that vision is not very reliable. We think that we just need to open our eyes and let light in as if they were a camera. But it’s not how it works. Vision is also an outward action. Your brain is busy projecting a model of the world, and constantly comparing it to an influx of data. You mostly notice the things that are different from your expectations or that stand out from a pattern. This is a more cost-effective way given our limited resources. Also, you constantly complete missing information or assume it is there. And on top of that, in order to see, light needs to be quickly transformed in the darkness of our brain into chemical reactions and pulses of electricity se we can just “see.” So, vision is never passive, it is always active. And it is influenced by what you expect to see and by what you believe is out there.    

AK: Like we see what we want to see, yeah?

OE: Exactly, you see what you want to see, and what you want to see is mostly things that benefit you as an organism. It is ingrained in our evolution. If you want to hunt a rabbit running in the grass, you will likely see it when it stands out from the pattern of the grass, either by its color or by its movement. Coming back to painting, paintings also carry a pattern with them, an expectation. You walk into a museum and your mind anticipates the paintings you are about to see. You expect a landscape, an interior scene, a portrait, a still life, and so on. 

Oren Eliav Studio. Photo: Shira Linde

AK: Yes, like History painting…

OE: Yes, also History painting. So, in my work, I consider the viewer’s expectation, their supposed inner models of a painting. It’s about this transition between “Oh, I see a landscape painting’” to “Wait a second, something is wrong, or something is off, or something is not as I am used to.” It’s a subtle thing that I hope happens in the 10 to 30 second range. But anyway, it’s in the hands (and eyes!) of the viewer, who could just as well pass right by without noticing. 

AK:  I love hearing everything! It’s so true—on one hand, paintings and art in general are a window into our world so it is a window into that outside. But one the other hand it’s our own interpretation of the world. So, what you said, our brain has ways of interpreting something, so it has this duality or system. It’s like the history of art in general, where art is life but also art is not life.

 

Read Part II of the interview

From Otis Street: The Artist’s Book as a Time Capsule

Artist Beth Curren of the Otis Street Arts Project reflects on the hands-on workshop she led: The Artist’s Book as a Time Capsule.

As an artist, I believe everyone has a creative streak―it just has to be discovered. As we all gradually came to terms with the limits and extremes of life during a pandemic and political strife, it became even more important to consider ways for artists to give back to the community. Artists and arts organizations offered many ideas: print exchanges for fundraisers, online presentations and tutorials in every genre imaginable, virtual exhibits and gallery tours. On a smaller scale, I created packets for the 22 houses on our small cul-de-sac and most every home participated in the Middleton Lane Prayer Flag Project.

Making artist’s books during the online workshop

When David Mordini, our director at Otis Street Art Project, outlined The Phillips Collection’s Saturday afternoon online workshops, we realized it was possible to reach an even wider community. These sessions were an opportunity to engage people in something new, something that they had never tried before. I chose artists’ books since it is a favorite genre, combining hand skills, art skills, and writing skills. It made sense to design a workshop that called for materials that nearly everyone already had at home: pencil, ruler, 8.5 x 11 in. paper, scissors, glue, and a popsicle stick/round bladed knife for creasing the paper. With these tools, we made three structures: a Book-in-a-Page, a Petal Fold, and a Flag Book. For content, participants could use photos, stickers, crayons, magic markers, images, and text cut from magazines. I always encourage students to make two to three identical models―repetition fosters muscle memory and the mission is for the students to be able to re-create the structures on their own.

After much discussion with David, I chose the theme of a Time Capsule. The three structures would incorporate images and text; when finished, they would be put in an envelope, dated, and put aside to be reopened sometime in the future. Suggested prompts included: “How has this pandemic affected your sense of yourself? What do you hope for in the future? What do you want to remember or to remind yourself that makes this year different from all others?”

As always, there was a lot of prep for the workshop: a PowerPoint presentation; hand-outs and notes; pre-cut paper so that I could repeat the same steps over and over until the participants felt confident that they had mastered each structure. David had set up a little studio at OSAP and we had a short dress rehearsal with Emma Dreyfuss and Miguel Perez from the Phillips and that was very helpful. Over fifty people signed up for the class; that was both gratifying and a bit intimidating for my first Zoom workshop but the enthusiasm and excitement from the participants was very encouraging. There was a wide range of ages and skill levels but these basic book structures are very flexible and allow for endless variations of text and imagery.

Making artist’s books during the online workshop

The best part was when we did a show-and-tell at the end. People are full of surprises and ingenuity. The variety and ingenuity of their pieces reflected, I think, their response to making art during a crisis. Many of the children were all ready to put their masterpieces in boxes and bury them in the back yard for their future selves to find.

As for me, I was both overstimulated and exhausted: trying to connect and engage with that many people in their little boxes on the computer screen was a real challenge. But it was so, so worth it. And I think I learned a lot, too―there are steps I would modify if I taught this online again: I’d teach two structures instead of three; I’d leave more time for individual work; I might schedule in a few breaks. But those are small quibbles. It was a fabulous experience and one I hope to have the opportunity to repeat.

Artist’s books by Beth Curren: (top) My Fortunes (flag book structure); (bottom) Solar Eclipse (book-in-a-page structure)