From January to February 2012 Sadie Coles HQ is presenting recent drawings and paintings by Israeli artist Avner Ben-Gal. Painting and drawing form two vital and interdependent strands of Ben-Gal‟s practice. In both, he veers between sharply defined forms and gestural abstraction, and between everyday and otherworldly scenes. Ben-Gal‟s drawings comprise recent works in blue pencil, graphite and felt-tip pen, and are documented in a new book, Biogenetics, edited by Yael Bergstein and published by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Throughout the works, there is a sense of reality having been teased apart and reformulated in the style of a dream or a cryptic allegory. Human figures are presented in various acts and encounters (whether carnal, violent or mundane) or mingling with animals and anthropomorphic hybrids in ambiguous realms where space has been compressed and perspective has gone awry.
In Withdrawal (2010), a densely shaded, grimacing head perches on the base of an unfolded Swiss Army knife which sprouts talons and drives a shakily sketched plough. In this way, Ben-Gal presents a strange mesh or conflagration of images which recall biomorphic Surrealist collages, or the composite images and process of “condensation” which Freud described as brought about by dreams. A number of drawings literally collage together digital and hand-drawn imagery. In Mutual Humidity Sensor (2010), saturnine faces drawn on a computer have been combined with a grainy photograph of a naked woman and a male torso delineated in graphite. Sections of each figure have been digitally warped to suggest clusters of cells or scars.
Within and between Ben-Gal's drawings, semi-abstract forms are offset by visceral anatomical details. In an untitled image of a female figure, Ben-Gal's blue pencil marks concentrate into a network of capillaries in her breasts, while her head is blotted out and merges with a background scheme of hatched geometric shapes. In another work, in which an elongated figure sits with a plate and cat perched on its lap, Cubist-style segments and arcs vividly evoke muscle tissue.
Ben-Gal's works in black felt-tip are deliberately crude in both form and content, more closely reflecting the art informel quality of his paintings. At the same time, certain works incorporate calligraphic elements that occasionally resolve into Hebrew letters. As Philipp Kaiser has observed of Ben-Gal's use of language, “writing does not supply the works with new content. On the contrary, writing speaks ceaselessly of its failure and its endless, never-to-be-concluded production of meaning.” Graffiti-style images of copulation are accompanied by anonymous tableaux and portraits which allude to Israel and its fraught past, such as Veteran (2010). Other works present scenes and figures from elsewhere in history: Jewish Village (20100 imagines a settlement in eastern Europe before World War Two. The recent and ancient past converge in The Night Before the War (2010), in which a silhouetted pair of lovers (the male 'soldier' incongruously endowed with a tail), sketched in the style of old newspaper war illustrations, evoke the mythic tale of the Corinthian maiden drawing a line around her soon-to-depart lover‟s shadow.
The paintings in the exhibition mirror the drawings‟ contorted perspective and conflation of familiar and beguiling spectres, suggesting the fragmented or compressed narratives of friezes or history paintings. Indeed, speaking of the conjunction of myth and real-life violence in Ben-Gal‟s paintings, Kaiser argues that “the violence that is often depicted in this work calls for a revitalization of history painting after its burial by modernism. To be exhumed, however, are not the cruelties of war cast in gigantic tableaux, but the more subtle, often more private, dark image-worlds evoked by artists such as Francisco de Goya [...] the aim is to investigate the archetypes within the image typologies, in order to test their relevance in view of a new history painting”. Collectively, Ben-Gal‟s recent works form an allegory of personal and national histories, imbuing everyday and fantastical scenes alike with a disquieting subtext of abjection and violence.
Avner Ben-Gal (b. 1966) lives and works in Tel Aviv. He has exhibited internationally with major solo shows at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel (2009); Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Basel, Switzerland (2008); and Aspen Art Museum (2007). He has exhibited in group shows including The Second Strike, Hezliya Museum of Contemporary Art, Israel (2011); Infinite Painting: Contemporary Painting and Global Realism, Villa Manin Centre for Contemporary Art, Passariano, Codroipo, Italy, (2006-7); and Dark, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2006. His work is the subject of a number of books; a was catalogue published by Hatje Cantz to accompany his 2008 show in Basel, and a book devoted to his drawings, Biogenetics has just been published by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.