Catalog text from the solo show The Birthday of the Infanta, March-May 2011, Shay Arye Gallery, Tel Aviv.
A conversation between Tsibi Geva and Shira Glezerman
The animals in your paintings are always set in extreme situations: the circus, taxidermy, and formaldehyde jars. Where does this come from?
Animals in formaldehyde are lonely and tragic creatures: preserved, but only after their catastrophe has already taken place. I paint them as reflecting my own foreignness. My father, who is a doctor, once brought home some lab animals in jars of formaldehyde. My sister and I who were about seven and eight years old, were completely fascinated. From that day on, and without his knowledge, we would get the jars out of the cabinet in his study and play with them. Like my father himself, this room was a German island in the heart of Beer Sheva. It was hidden in the basement, with heavy old wooden furniture, a huge oriental rug, and walls lined with books from floor to ceiling. In this kingdom of ours, we used to arrange the jars on the carpet, name the animals, and play with them. We were proud and excited that unlike other children who played with “ordinary” dolls, we had the real thing. Deep down we knew that our classmates – had they known – would have been disgusted and that our father would not have approved either, so it was our secret. One day they disappeared; they were probably returned to the lab, but we could not ask. For us, this was the trauma: not to behold the preserved animals, but rather the fact that they were taken away from us.
Did you raise “ordinary” pets too?
Many of them, and here too lies my initial childhood connection between animals and death. When my hamster died, my father chose to deal with my tears and guilt – that perhaps I had neglected to care properly for my hamster – by carrying out an autopsy for it, together. In his world, this was the most logical solution – to understand what happened and to get clear-cut, scientific answers. Even though he wasn’t very proficient in hamster anatomy, after we finished the autopsy he informed me that the hamster had died from a stomach tumor. Therefore, I remember the event as rather reassuring and comforting despite the traumatic aspect that must have accompanied it. I believe that here lies the basis of my attraction to dead, disassembled things, to physical or mental wounds, accompanied by a dissonance that allows a more protected form of observation. I think this is part of the basis of this exhibition; this unaware point of view of a child which can also be found in The Beast where I am hugging the stuffed bear because I love animals, not because I relate the bear to death and certainly not to the cause of its death.
There is a strong sense of foreignness and loneliness in the stories you have told me which is also prominent in these paintings.
It is possible that my initial choice of painting, an artistic medium which requires many hours of solitude, derives from the fact that loneliness and estrangement are very familiar emotions to me. In my childhood, we moved apartments and countries quite often and I never felt I belonged in my home town of Beer Sheva, either. My mother took us to museums in Europe quite often. I always drew and painted and I attended every possible kind of art class. So when I began my studies at Bezalel, I expected to feel very much at home, but as it turned out, my comprehensive knowledge in art history had stopped somewhere with the nineteenth century. The classes at Bezalel revolved primarily around artists such as Beuys or Malevich and I had no idea who they were. They didn’t teach what I really wanted to know in the drawing and painting classes, either: we discussed many abstract concepts, but I wanted to know how Vermeer’s and Velasquez’s palettes were constructed and had no one to ask. I learned mostly from art books. When I realized that painting was my favorite medium, I was already in a minority; when I chose figurative painting, I had to start fighting my teachers, because most of them viewed it as anachronistic and boring. I didn’t feel at home at the Jerusalem Studio School either, because even though I acquired my most essential drawing and painting skills there, we didn’t really speak the same language. So this feeling of alienation is manifested on many different levels.
Your story about the animals in formaldehyde brought back memories from my own past. As a child, the so-called Nature Room in the kibbutz used to horrify me. Everything there was in some way, reversed to the nature of nature: canned, frozen, and dead. This room was a frightening place, packed with taxidermy specimens and jars, with a lot of tables, strange devices, and a funny smell. Years later, at my first exhibitions in the early eighties, I used taxidermy in several installations. I linked the actual stuffed animals (the ready-mades) with paintings of birds and then the stuffed animals became something else. Even nowadays I write the words “stuffed birds” on some of the paintings. It’s a bit like returning to a cemetery when you are older: you return to a place you had experienced in your childhood as terrifying and you discover that somehow the anxiety is gone. Suddenly you are able to see it as a beautiful and peaceful place.
Perhaps my response or emotional threshold is different than that of people who have not grown up in a home like mine. I have always felt that my home was very different from other children’s. I think that growing up with the idea that it is totally normal to come home to find your father watching a video of a uterine dissection in the living room, has taught me to find a lot of beauty, or at least interest, in what others may view as damaged, or simply disgusting. I can look at my paintings of animals in formaldehyde, analyze them on the surface level, and say that I simply feel compassion for them. I’ve been a vegetarian for many years and object to the exploitation of animals for food or amusement, as I also obviously do to the exploitation of humans. But I think that there is a different element involved here, which is my need to explore the repulsive and the grotesque. I am sometimes asked why I don’t paint my son. I’m not drawn to painting that which is clean, wholesome, and pure. All I can say about my son in my painting is that I love him and that he is magnificent, and that, I have no interest in painting.
You are drawn to painting the broken.
Sometimes it is too much for me. When I studied at the Jerusalem Studio School, we had a pregnant model pose for us once. She was sad and exhausted, she chain-smoked and took tranquilizers. She broke my heart and I could not look at her. Painting from photographs provides some distance that allows me to deal with difficult situations, such as these. Israel Hershberg took me aside and told me that Cezanne once said that a painter should paint his wife just as he paints an apple. That was when I began to understand that the Studio School wasn’t the right place for me. I felt I could not, and did not, want to paint a person as if he or she were an apple. I realized I could never look at a human being merely as a collection of lines and spots. Emotions are vital to me, both in the work process and in the outcome.
You talk about something bordering on the disturbed and leaning towards the eccentric and extreme, yet your painting is very disciplined and its construction is a slow and methodic process. There is a dissonance between method and image, or the internal image. Why not choose a pictorial language which gives immediate physical expression to these feelings?
That’s a question I often ask myself: but I don’t think it is really a choice, but simply who I am now, as a painter. The dissonance between the “unpleasant” subject and this precise, clean technique really intrigues me. This too can be traced back to my father. It’s funny, because my mother is the one who actually opened the door for us to the art world, but my disposition as a painter originates mainly from my father. Self-discipline, work ethics, and the need for clear rules to protect me – those are all from him.
What do you feel will happen to you without rules? Do you feel that you will fall apart?
I’m very anxious to find out. I think it is a process I am constantly going through. When comparing my recent paintings to those of ten years ago, one can see how, back then, I tried to conceal the brush strokes as much as possible, whereas today I allow more blots and loose ends both in the painting itself and in the narrative of my work, too. It’s a very slow process. I can’t force a particular pace to it and I don’t know when and where it will stop, if at all. This process is also reflected in my library; when I began my studies at Bezalel, my heroes, besides the Old Masters, were the American Photorealists, especially Chuck Close. Today, they no longer speak to me. Nowadays I feel much closer to painters like Peter Doig, Alex Kanevsky, Eric Fischl, and Jenny Saville.
I think that from the vantage point of time, the process you are talking about is evident in your work. A painting is released slowly and it’s clear that there is an internal struggle between staying within your comfort zone and the lure of going somewhere else. The construction of a painting until the point it is completed is a process of reaching fullness, at which point and only then, it can be released. This point is related to how we perceive our own identity: my studio is full of unfinished paintings, or beginnings of paintings that I have never exhibited, because they are all simply exercises in shifting the release point of the painting.
You say: “Sometimes I rebel, but I still feel the need to straightenup after myself.” I see this in you and it’s very interesting. This is something that never happens all at once. To define our identities, we need to rid ourselves of our safety nets: habits, knowledge, balance, and control. We have to change, both in the pictorial and emotional sense. The path of moving away from the rules is very apparent in your work. Maybe they will become superfluous and simply fall away and maybe other rules will appear.
I keep examining my rules: I sort and winnow them. My favorite places in my painting are those where I surprise myself. The places where I allow myself to be more expressive are those where I feel less obligated. At Bezalel it happened with etching, which is a faster and more immediate medium than oil painting. I painted Stephanie the first time my son slept away from home: I was feeling completely lost, as if a part of my body was missing, and for therapy, I had to paint. In that state of mind, when I supposedly didn’t care how the painting would end up looking, I could allow myself more freedom. Alex brushing his teeth is an example of an unsuccessful painting I decided to throw away, but after I made my mind up to do just that, I permitted myself to go wild with it. The result was a free painting that I really like.
The word “painting” presupposes a complete set of expectations that we allegedly have to answer to. I allow myself to go further when I’m less obligated. For example: when you are used to working on canvas and then switch to paper which, naturally, is cheaper and feels less important. You tell yourself: “I’m just playing around.” When you work without pretensions, it can be therapeutic. People often speak against the coupling of art with therapy, but I think that art is an excellent tool for personal growth. You can always take at least one step beyond where you’re at in life, because you’re not really risking anything – a piece of cloth at the most.
I really do allow myself things in painting that I don’t allow myself in real life. I have a peaceful and happy family life. I don’t fall apart or cease to function. My life and my art don’t collide with, and consume each other. It’s in painting where I allow myself to pick at the wounds. A friend of mine committed suicide and for a while I painted only her. During that time, I told myself it was my way of dealing with what she had done and with the fact that she no longer exists. But the truth is that I was mainly dealing with the question of suicide itself; that a woman I knew took a theoretical idea and turned it into the possible, something which she actually chose and acted upon. This was a choice, and it forced me to question mine.
What you are doing is very similar to what your father did when he autopsied the hamster: you analyze the act, yet remain on the outside. As you watch, you slowly freeze it to a standstill. It seems like you’re trying to carry out a careful formulation: a rationalization of death.