Sasha Okun. Observatione

24, September 2013 · Events / Exhibitions

October 15th , 2013, a one-man exhibition by Sasha Okun “Observatione” will be opened at the Museum of Israeli Art Ramat-Gan.

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“Jonah, don’t die! Don’t leave me, Jonah!
We still have to grow old, have you forgotten?
All the hard, exhausting work, the work of aging
And of wearing away, the daily work of despair,
The illnesses, the waning strength, and the fear–
Oh, the fear of death that creeps about during those long sleepless nights–
It’s not fair that you lay the entire burden on my shoulders,
I don’t have the strength for it alone.”

(Hanoch Levin, Life’s Work, 1989)

The Human Comedy: The End of the Road
Gideon Ofrat

The monumental format (Okun: “I chose to paint on a hard plywood surface as a substitute for a wall painting”), served the Romantic painters for depictions of grand-themed history paintings of the apotheosis of heroic leaders or historic battles (Francois Gerard, The Battle of Austerlitz, 1810, l.: 9.58 m.), for scenes of ancient Roman feasts (Thomas Couture, Romans of the Decadence,” 1847, l. 7.75m), and for scenes from the Bible (Fernand Cormon, Cain, 1880, l. 7.0 m.). Such large-scale formats were employed earlier by Renaissance artists for depicting multi-figure scenes from the New Testament (Paolo Veronese, Marriage at Cana, 1563, l. 9.90 m.). However, the monumental format was utilized above all in the church altarpiece, primarily depicting the Passion of Christ, and mainly the Crucifixion, Deposition, Entombment, Resurrection, and the Ascension of Christ and of his mother, Mary. These were heroic platforms for the depiction of the heroic, mythic, spiritual elevation of man to the Divine, or alternatively, of the cruelty of humankind toward God.

Lo and behold! Moving forward in time and place to Jerusalem in 2012, the crowded scenes of hedonistic Rome that unfolded against the backdrops of grand palaces have given way in the twelve monumental paintings by Alexander (Sasha) Okun to operatic anti-myth “chamber pieces” at the center of which are displayed the misery of humankind in its demise. The nubile bodies of youthful male and female citizens of Ancient Rome, the might of daring Roman warriors, not to mention the spirituality of saints, have been rejected and replaced by the flabby, fat, and infirm (perhaps, already dead) bodies of anonymous decrepit men and women. While Cormon’s aged Cain was joined on his wanderings by a young wife and offspring, there is no next generation for Okun’s pathetic elderly protagonists: they appear before us at the final strait of their lives, struggling to perform that grand finale, the salto mortale of their fading existence. Neither a benevolent nor a jealous Father awaits them in the empty blue heavens or cloud-filled skies above. Nature is indifferent to their existence. Below them lies a monotonous desert devoid of sublime glory. No son of God will forgive them from above; no heavenly mother will offer them solace. Okun’s Ascension paintings are saturated with a grotesque bitterness about the despicable human condition, a tragicomedy in which the “triumphant” poses of the damned only serve to worsen their humiliation to the point of loathsomeness. For in his own “sublime” classical style, Sasha Okun paints man’s ignominy bordering on the abject.

The nude holds sway in these works, though not even the faintest hint of eroticism is discernible. On the contrary, the body is depleted of want, desire, or lust. Worse than the figures being so exposed is that they are exposed by an artist devoid of compassion. Actually, Okun already mistreated his elderly subjects in an earlier series of paintings “Breaking News” (2008, Jerusalem Artist’s House), in which they were depicted in the midst of ridiculous and humiliating sexual acts (even worse than those portrayed by Otto Dix between 1923 and 1925). Then as now, there is not one shred of the spiritual in the “Okunian” sphere. Everything is about the body: a perishable body that is simultaneously affecting and repugnant. The infinite, all-encompassing ethereal heavens and the recurring floating only emphasize and intensify the heaviness of the flaccid, neglected fat body.

In the series of paintings from the first decade of the twenty-first century, and certainly in these more recent works, Sasha Okun once again proves himself to be the “Hanoch Levin of Israeli painting”: his persistence in depicting the final act of human life in such a pathetic and humiliating tragicomic light, and at the same time, presenting the absurd human denial of the wretchedness and abjectness of old age and death, could not but remind us of scenes from Levin’s plays, such as the one in Everybody Wants to Live (1985), where the Baron Poznay, who is sentenced to death, offers his old dying father a deal that would transfer his own death sentence to his dying father: “…tripping on feet that are failing on the way to the grave?! How many times have you said to me, father, ‘I have no more strength, there is no point in living, I want to die already, to rest’?! What are you waiting for, father?! Another round of cupping, a truss, castor oil, hemorrhoid cream?”

Sasha Okun, whose affinity with the theater has been variously demonstrated by the theatricality of his paintings and by his own earlier, albeit short, involvement with the theater, also “converses” with Nissim Aloni’s The Bride and the Butterfly-Catcher (1966), in his portrayal of naked old men and women, nets in hand, in pursuit of a butterfly. In 1966, Yosl Bergner painted the silhouette of a butterfly-catcher and a butterfly at rest on the side of a building, which Aloni translated into a poetic drama of the absurd about a clerk named Getz who tries to capture the illusion of fleeting happiness. Aloni’s Getz shows up every Wednesday at the city park with his net in order to catch butterflies. In his play The Deceased Gone Wild (1980), Aloni revisits Getz after fourteen years, in order to portray him on the verge of middle age in all his petit-bourgeois ordinariness that is without a trace of any redemptive butterfly souls. Okun interprets the Bergner-Alonian butterfly-catcher decades later, when he is approaching the finish line of his life. In three separate paintings, Okun portrays him still chasing after that unattainable butterfly. Now, our hero appears in the middle of a desert (no longer in a paradisiacal garden), old, bald, paunchy, his body worn out, his muscles sagging, but he still casts his gaze upward toward the empty skies hoping for that butterfly that he will never find and never catch. And, as he gaily skips and waves his net, his shame is exposed in a brilliant vaudevillian show of the wear and tear and foolishness of holding onto an illusion.

Okun portrays this whole human comedy, this cruel existentialist satire, in the classic language of art, which he peppers with grotesque caricature. Accordingly, an affinity (among others) with the satiric caricatures of the British artist William Hogarth lies hidden behind the imposing affinity of these works with classical Renaissance painting: here, a reference to Michelangelo and the monumental human form, there, references to motifs from the paintings of Botticelli, Raphael, Lucas Cranach, among others. “I arrived in this country from the Hermitage,” Okun reminds us of Leningrad and the environment of classical painting in which he grew up before he immigrated here in 1979. Indeed, we cannot but wonder at the rare expertise of the artist, his phenomenal draftsmanship and his understanding of color; we would be hard pressed to find comparable examples in our region (emphasizing, accordingly, Okun’s deviation from the language of the “Hershberg” school of Israeli realism). Besides his exemplary control of human anatomy, where Okun succeeds is in his ability to endow the topography of the human body with the gentle qualities of landscapes, and fill the cellulite-riddled skin with delicate, nuanced, picturesque textures.
I first encountered the paintings of Sasha Okun in May 1982, at an exhibition of his paintings at the Debbel Gallery in Ein Kerem. Even back then I was impressed by their simultaneous iconic quality and volumetric exaggeration, although Okun was still using muted color and favored static scenes. Okun, who was active in Leningrad in the Jewish Avant-garde group “Aleph,” exhibited a clear Christian tendency in his early Jerusalem works (even when he depicted the Jerusalem market stalls). Thus, I already recognized a plain intent in the nakedness of the figures:
Their state of undress, that divests them of labels that are too individual and too local, is intended to elevate them to the mythological level of a saint. Yes, a saint, because despite all the grotesqueness that inhabits the surroundings, a metaphysical lightness settles on Okun’s figures. On this plane his figures lead us either to the Madonna or the Devil. (Kol Yerushalayim, May 21, 1982)

Theatricality was powerfully present even then, if only in the stage-set ambiance that resonated in the paintings. Italian Renaissance roots were also apparent:
Okun, as a “neo-Platonist,” sculpts most of his figures, as if continuing the classical hierarchy of the supremacy of sculpture over painting. (Kol Yerushalayim, May 21, 1982)
Thirty years later, I once again come face to face with the paintings of Sasha Okun and make a mental note of the great strides this painter has made in the degree of his painterly quality and in his courage to look, without mercy, directly into the eyes of his flesh and blood subjects. For, apart from their painterly quality, these twelve paintings by Okun are literature and drama that dare to confront the “grand themes” on existential and theological planes: this is pittura maggiore, great painting at its best.
Here is the Pietà according to Okun: at once, a hortus conclusus in the classic tradition of paintings of the Annunciation and of works such as the Primavera, and a prosaic public park. In the background are the high rise apartments of the capitalists and wealthy corporations (at the rear of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, we should note). Here in the utopian garden of everlasting spring, an old man sitting on a white chair has breathed his last breath. His jaundiced body is surrounded by three keening naked old women, like the three Marys weeping over the death of Jesus . . . night; clear skies. The Marys, who appear to have aged rapidly, are cast in the classic poses of grief (who does not recall the thin tree trunks in the backgrounds of early Renaissance paintings?), while, in the middle, the frog-like corpse, a look of serenity across its face, strikes a relaxed pose. The capitalist-materialist Tel Aviv backdrop distills every trace of myth from this image of death, which presents exaggerated emotions, but prevents us from experiencing any sense of empathy by virtue of the effect of grotesque theatricality, the aesthetic collapse of the body, and the lie embedded in the image (note the artificial lighting of the scene). No sanctity prevails in this garden in which only death reigns in all its absurd and enigmatic meaninglessness. The deceased will not ascend to heaven, nor will an angel appear in this garden to herald good tidings; like the sensual power of this garden’s leaves, so is the misery of aging and the shame of death revealed in this garden’s midst.

And here, in another work, are three more Marys, depicted as elderly crones. Two wear dresses. One of them, dwarf-like in size, is clad only in her underwear. They are bidding a melodramatic farewell to a naked, overweight old man who jumps off a high cliff, his mouth open wide in a scream. Does he leap or has he been launched? It is unclear whether he jumps to his death or skydives toward it. Either way, this terminal floating (a kind of pathetic “leap of faith,” which offers a comic response to the notion of the Kierkegaardian leap) takes place high above a landscape that is reminiscent of the Jezreel Valley as seen from the top of Mount Gilboa. Now, accompanying the old man’s leap is the sour taste of a national missed opportunity, as if the utopian landscape of the Third Aliyah has become the ultimate site of the final parting. Man jumps or is launched to his death and from it. The blooms in the valley serve to emphasize his withering flesh, even more, since a miracle has transpired: he has an erection! . . . a sterile post-mortem erection. Once again, the clear blue skies are devoid of a savior, and for the one taking flight there will be no salvation.
In the pair to the above work, we find ourselves once more at the same launch point—the cliff above the abyss—with three keening Marys (the dwarf from the above painting occupies the same place here, but now holds a bouquet of flowers. The other two Marys have been replaced). This is still the dramatic moment of the final parting—the desperate attempt to grab hold of the ankle of the departed, or to strands of his hair—and the leap or launch of the naked man (he too has been replaced) toward heaven or into the abyss, which are one. But now, not only do sharp rays of light shine from the heavens onto the half-dead half-alive man, but his fine erection visibly confirms the orgasmic crescendo of ordinary life. However, we are not fooled: no son of God, or saint (Elijah, Hanoch, Moses, or another) ascends to the heavens, and the erection is not compensation. The rays, rather than sounding the word of God, are more likely, just the rays of the setting sun.

And in another chapter in Sasha Okun’s Book of the Dead, an old naked woman, fleshy and of enormous proportion, hovers in the sky bearing the body of an old man who floats with arms raised. The fat woman’s pinkish folds of flesh and huge udder-like breasts are opposed with the man’s gauntness and the yellowish tone of his skin. A look of silly happiness is smeared across their half-dead half-alive faces, another of the artist’s abuses of the myth of life after death. Okun’s astonishing skill at depicting anatomy, his virtuoso ability to depict the form hovering in space, recall the floating figures rendered by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. And, if we already have in mind those images from the Vatican, it would be difficult not to compare the scene of the Creation of Adam—the touch of the finger of God to the finger of his young, powerful creation—to the touch of the hovering Okunian pair: God has been replaced by a woman . . . and the creation of man has been exchanged with his death.
In a related painting, we are no longer certain who carries who into the heavens. The woman, with blushing buttocks (woe to sexual excitement), appears no less flung about in the heavens than her partner, way up above the clouds, and it appears as if she too—with eyes closed—flies the death flight of a soulless, fat, heavy body, for which gravity will disallow the grace of ascension.

In the terms of a “Hanoch Levin of Israeli painting,” Sasha Okun does not shy away from teasing the “big woman,” while portraying her also as the omnipotent ruler of men (a kind of spirit he intuited from the character “Big-Tuches” [lit. big buttocks] in Levin’s play Yaakobi and Leidental, 1972). Throughout this triptych, three naked old women ride on the backs of three naked old men. These last, forlorn of body and soul, crawl along a road in the middle of a barren landscape against a cloud-filled sky. A perfect master (in this case, mistress)-servant relationship: the women rejoice in their triumph and throw up their arms in happiness while they are proudly transported on the backs of their mates who falter on all fours like beasts. The submissive males appear as if they have reconciled themselves to the burdens and humiliations of life.
However, more than the Hanoch Levine-like grotesqueness, in this powerful triptych Sasha Okun reconfirms his personal theological viewpoint of the relationship of flesh and spirit: the carrying of a woman on one’s back, even one foot above the ground, is one more futile effort to lift, elevate, or raise the spirit above the body. It seems that Okun’s twelve new paintings are nothing if not episodes of unsuccessful attempts to recreate the myth of the Ascension. These are paintings filled with decayed bodies, bereft of the human spirit of the human beings depicted. These are “religious” paintings, stern-themed, bitter, contemplative lessons that leave us in a world that is completely and utterly temporal, where a man lives, withers, and dies, without “being in the [God’s] image,” in which all the neo-Platonist pretense to distill the material to the spiritual is nothing but another comic opera.
Therefore, let there be no mistake: this “celebration of the end,” which we have been invited to witness does not separate us—the viewer—from the objects of our derisive gaze. Our smiles are instantly replaced by looks of horror once we realize that we are looking at images of ourselves—if not of ourselves tomorrow, then of ourselves sometime in the future. Thus, the irony of Sasha Okun does not culminate in the way he treats his painted images. His irony permeates us by virtue of the paintings’ dramatic effect. And we, who have been granted a few seconds of comic relief from our own existential predicament while looking with condescension at the fiasco that is represented, have had a quick, painful, and sober awakening: these portraits are our portraits. This nakedness is our nakedness.

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