Leonid Zeiger: IN PROCESS

19, October 2013 · Events / Exhibitions

October 17th a solo exhibition by Leonid Zeiger “IN PROCESS” was opened in the Jerusalem Gallery “Agripas 12″. The exhibition is part of the “Manofim 2013″ events. Curator: Katya Oicherman. The exhibition will be open till November 12.



Leonid Zeiger and Katya Oicherman.

Craft only exists in motion. It is a way of doing things,
not a classification of objects, institutions and people.
Craft to be thought of as a conceptual limit active
throughout modern artistic practice.

Glenn Adamson “Thinking Through Craft” (2007)

K.O.: The text presented here is an extract from conversations with Leonid Zeiger in the summer of 2013. The purpose of our meetings was to view the works, and to identify possible approaches to their perception and discussion. I made a deliberate effort to distance myself from the position of an art critic, to avoid as much as possible the general narrative interpretations of the paintings and drawings, and to focus on the phenomenon of making them . Such an approach was interesting to us both. Zeiger wanted to trace the dynamics of his own practice and to understand the place in it of the actual work process, as well as to determine the interrelationship between preparatory drawings and paintings. As an educator and a textile researcher, I was most interested in the status of craftsmanship, and in specific varieties of its manifestation and interpretation, in contemporary life. It seemed most appropriate to present the result of these encounters in the form of a monologue by Leonid Zeiger, with myself as editor and sometimes-commentator. My comments are marked in italics.

The creative act is a process. From the inside and the outside perspectives it is seen and perceived differently. That which may seem to the viewer indistinct, unfinished, raw, may well already be of certain value to the artist. More than that, the discovery as such lies in the work material, at the starting point of the process, in the pencil sketch, or in the hidden brushstroke on the canvas. The idea is born and secured, the artist has experienced the rapture of discovery; next comes the development, the explanation not so much to oneself as to the viewer, giving it a form that is easier for others to perceive.

This “raw material” is usually inaccessible to the viewer, but is undoubtedly of interest for the understanding of the creative process. In fact, this process is the essence of the artist’s work, the central moment on the way from conception to implementation. This work happens in the studio and stretches on for months and years, depending on the manner, the technique, and the mood. By photographing the work at different stages and by juxtaposing sketches with finished paintings I trace the process of creation. This exhibition demonstrates such a “tracing” experiment and allows it to be seen as an act that is valuable in itself, as a product of art.

Contemporary art often sees as its mission the pursuit of novelty. Myself, it is in the primitive, the naïve and the non-modern art that I find values most topical and pertinent to me; novelty as an end in itself does not interest me. Take Alfred Wallis1 as an example. He simply drew sailing ships, setting for himself a small, unambitious task. This was not a declared pursuit for outward form, but rather simple, routine doing. At this point, such an approach may yield more possibilities than a search for an “original statement.” Just by leaving the rut of contemporary art can one hope to infiltrate it. The basic need for creative work may lead to a much less predictable road than the path of innovation.

This approach fits into the overall context of the contemporary aesthetics, which often constitutes a mish-mash, a fusion. Various marginal “primitive”, ethnic, and “mad” discourses are an inherent part of this layered pie. In the context of this pervasive tendency, it is problematic to depend on the “purity” of a given source, especially considering the experience of Western modernism, which has drawn on “others” of various kinds, from African tribal art to works by the mentally ill, from objects of everyday life to advertisements. These very references have transformed the face of Western art, dramatically changing the intonations and the range of applied artistic idiom. To some extent, the search for purity of source on the side has led to the delegitimization of the notion of “pure art.” The interconnectedness and multilayered nature of cultural space is an established and acknowledged reality within which the “pure” aesthetics outside of the historical context does not exist.

Life in the Soviet Union familiarized me with the experience of cultural isolation. After perestroika, the previously inaccessible geographic and cultural spaces were opened. The volume of information and sensations expanded incredibly. Even though this provides an enormous creative impulse, I am, however, often perplexed by the overabundance of sensory information. The fragmentation and “incompleteness” in some of my works are the consequence of this feeling. Even if I were to lock myself in my studio for several years, I would not be able to process the amount of information that I have already received, and yet still more information is constantly added.

The critically important moment in creative process is, to me, stopping the stream of consciousness; the work begins when, like a silent monk, you stop internally judging and inwardly verbalizing each thought. Thus the inner space is freed up, which allows one to internalize the world and to change this very internal self. When this happens, you observe yourself from the outside. For me, only such conditions can bring about a genuine creative discovery. The painting is merely the materialized evidence of this transformation. How precise this evidence turns out is a question of talent. Because we are speaking of a momentary experience, the static nature of the image becomes the key aspect; this is a Kabbalistic tzimtzum, the contraction of a stream of information to its simplest form. Contraction is essential; otherwise it is simply impossible to survive and express this infinite deluge of sensory information. If you can realize yourself in this simplest form, a discovery occurs, a qualitative leap.

This is a return to a painting as a “window,” a departure from textuality and a return to experiencing the act of looking at/into the painting. For me the painting is a world into which you submerge and which allows this kind of entrance to be achieved through visual means. Film and the internet are similarly able to achieve this entrance, yet observing a static, sensual object represented by a painting (at least, my painting), involves alternative modes of sensibility, an alternative state of perception in which the viewer is far from passive. This distinguishes my approach to painting from that oriented a verbal content, the approach which is typical of contemporary art, Israeli art included, as well as of mass visual culture.

More than that, I view my work in its utilitarian aspect. Throughout many years of working for the Israel Antiquities Authority, sketching their archaeological finds, time and again I would wonder about the origin of art. In the figurine of the Neolithic period, in the petroglyph drawing, I see the rudiments of utilitarianism in art, which had enormous meaning for those who created them, but which was subsequently annulled by the mode of thinking that separated the work of art from its ritual and everyday context. This separation granted the artist an independence of identity, but deprived the art as such of vital strength outside its own boundaries.

For me the artist is always a craftsman; the culture of production is an inherent part of creative work. Established practices and a proper work routine are necessary. This is like the warm-up in dance. Such a culture of craftsmanship has not caught on in Israel. Though the issue does not solely lie with this, but with my own yearning for craftsmanship. In the past, even the preparation of a board for painting would take years; it was soaked to protect it from insects, then dried, then parts were adjusted so that the fibers would align and the surface would not be crooked. The board itself must have excite a sense of awe in the artist. Even now I prepare large-format canvases myself. This ritual unquestionably has an impact on the work process and on the mood.

There were in my life periods when I had nothing to say. I would stop painting. Yet the itch to produce something always remained; I wanted to do. Then I would make hundreds of small watercolors and pencil drawings, kind of rhythmic hieroglyphs comprehensible only to me, produced without thinking, wherever my hand would lead me. More like mechanical writing rather than drawing. In these compositions, “algorithms” of sorts would emerge, patterns of three or four elements which combined into a kind of visual logic. I worked “for the desk drawer,” not showing them to anyone, as if in a prison cell. It had been this way during my service in the Soviet army: snow, nothing all around, no television, no books, no art journals, no newspapers (aside from army papers), no paper either. And even then my hand would be itching to sketch something, even on the newspaper margins, only for it to be crumpled and thrown away, since there was no place to store it and no one to show it to. An almost mechanical craving to move the hand around a sheet of paper, like when one traces lines on snow or sand.

All these drawings are about the same thing. It is an attempt to force the sheet of paper to breathe, to force the flat sheet or canvas to achieve spatiality. I am still trying to solve this, not through an illusion of space, but through a sort of imaginary depression in the sheet. While studying at the Mukhina school, it was drummed into me that the two-dimensionality of a painting should never be violated. A correct mural does not upset the flatness of a wall but exists together with the architecture; “breaking” walls with painting is not acceptable. Siqueiros2 was downright vandalistic with his wild distortions and fists sticking out from walls. Excessive volume exercises are in bad taste. Yet, despite what I was taught, I do attempt to break the plane in some way by “depressing” in the sheet of paper. However, in my case, this is primarily achieved not through perspective, but through a rhythmic play of visual elements, such as in dance, statics vs. dynamics. This is visual architectonics, the interrelations between the bearing and the borne parts on the plane of the picture. Each of these drawings carries some structural idea, which sometimes sprouts out as a human-like form, sometimes as something like a landscape, sometimes as an object resembling a still life.

At the next stage, you take up the canvas and feel eager to quickly complete the piece in one sitting. This happens far from every time, though sometimes you envision everything in advance and all that remains is to put the stroke in the right place – a single-layer work. A different situation is multilayered painting, when you consciously go through the stage of “spoiling” the canvas. Work on the painting is guided by a certain vision (a “shining ball”), a visual idea that gradually manifests itself during the work process, but which is not fully clear to me before the process has exhausted itself. A work that has been executed “according to a plan,” in the style of “to devise – to work through – to complete,” is less precious to me than that which “happened” as a result of a chain of experiments, mistakes, and disappointments.

Sometimes it happens that, until the very last stage of a work, the figurative (“this is a head”) or at least somewhat substantive incarnation does not manifest itself. Sometimes an object, such as that very head, emerges at an early stage and one has to rework it, constantly change it, until it stops getting in the way, imposing upon the painting a didactic tone. Then, in the final product, the object can be deciphered step by step through layers of painting, through the oily history of its own transformations. It is better this way. The change itself is a sum total of interrelated elements – colors, brushstroke, composition – which attach themselves to one another in search of the right feeling, when the duel with the canvas can cease. In fact, this moment is just what I work for. A work that is incomplete in this regard causes constant unease. The discovery of a “solution” is a happy moment of peace.

The Russian icon has been for me a longtime object of close study. In a few of my latest “heads” (I never give names to my works) the effect of inner luminosity is achieved through a sort of furling of the halo into the head circumference, a sort of compression of the energy of color. This “furling” of Russian icon formula is part of the search for a vitality of the painted image. The centrality of the image’s position on the canvas also goes back to the icon; I am not trying to create an original composition. The visual idea that I am trying to achieve is purely nominal: a circle inscribed in a square, a rhombus in a rectangle. This is the most compact form, which works through a contrast between the rigidity of the angle and the softness of the rounded form. The rules of the rectangular canvas are in my case immutable, they cannot be got around. The internal dynamics of the painting is built on the well worn rules of academic composition: lines that are parallel to the edge of the painting are static, those that deviate from the parallel create motion. The anatomic nature of human figure and head, if and when they appear at all, is purely conditional and unimportant; it disperses in a graphic rhythm and gets back together only occasionally. Such a vision of the figure is in many ways inspired by frescoes damaged by the passage of time or icons with missing fragments. Oftentimes they seem more complex and authentic than those that are perfectly preserved. The damaged parts disrupt the viewer’s perception of the painted image. This “glitch” confers an additional perceptional dimension to the image.

In a similar manner I use the possibilities of oil painting technique, which allows one to glaze and scrape off layers of paint: to wash away and repaint. Due to my extensive experience working with multilayered painting, I am able to predict some effects of such erasure. All the erasures and mistakes, as well as the interplay between the matte and the shiny surfaces, produce the spatiality of the painting. The possibility of making a mistake is an intended part of the process. Work “without sweat,” without an internal history, does not interest me. The unconcealed craftsmanship of these works is a part of their vitality.

In the Soviet Union, after many years of academic scholarship and studies in realism, I took up abstract painting, which in Israel I brought logically to an absolute dead end, even to a complete absence of line, producing a sort of boiling haze, a Mediterranean Turner. Once I came to Jerusalem I encountered, as though in reality, the white abstractions which I started painting in St. Petersburg. My first years in Israel I, like many other artists, was enchanted by the surroundings, the bright light, the scorched landscape, the “khamsin-ness” of the visual field I saw almost no color. Then came various experiments – from impressionist landscapes to surrealism, but nothing satisfied me. Sometimes it seemed that there was nowhere to go, except perhaps to give up my paintbrushes and cut up the canvas like Fontana3. I did not give up my brushes, but out of this haze that had exhausted itself, I began to mold, as if out of clay, diffusing figures, the source of which was now not outside but inside me, that very luminosity, the condensed light that I am still trying to reveal.

That inner source which I mentioned has a material, anatomical, even physiological aspect. While working at a kolkhoz I watched once a gigantic pregnant sow being butchered. I remember mixed feelings of disgust and curiosity, a fascination with the “visceral”. Color for me is profoundly symbolic on this physiological level – chthonic red, celestial blue. Mixing and layering them is a part of the vitality of the image I seek. After my move to Israel, strongly-pronounced flat abstraction gave way to multilayered, dense painting. Pure abstraction became inadequate, while the mishmash, the hybrid language turned out to be valid. Perhaps from mind rather than from feeling, a desire arose to create here something European, dark, “colored,” affirming the contradictory, borderline state in which I found myself. The point is not to depict the outward appearance, but to capture the internal state, which in a modern person, including myself and people around me, is flickering, overwrought, full of hollows and contradictions.

In these dark works one can often discern blurred citations alluding to the baroque: the classic position and the angle of figures emerging from a dark background, their vestment in rich, picturesque layers. In the “heads” – a pedestal, a stand, a window sill, a threshold – a reference to Flemish portraits, the separation between the space of the painting and the space of the beholder.

There is a children’s game that goes like this: you say the same word over and over again many times. The meaning of the word is gradually lost, its sound becomes an absurdity, syllables change places, and the word once again begins from its “ending”. So it is in my work: the rhythmic shift can be traced through the layering. The meaning is just caught in the corner of the eye and slips away, just as slips away the attempt to determine at what point of your life you are – in the past, in the future, or else in today. Is the image there or has it already gone?

The image as such, the object of art, is banal (a head, a skull, a figure, a landscape), long since familiar and hopeless in its clichéd conceptual density. As soon as one accepts this and returns relaxedly to this object time after time, there opens a possibility of getting deeper into the space of the work itself, revealing the painting with its layered, living, self-narrating history.

1 Alfred Wallis (1855-1942), a Cornish fisherman and self-taught painter
2 José David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), Mexican painter-monumentalist
3 Lucio Fontana (1899 1968), Italian painter and art theorist

Katya Oicherman: artist and researcher of textile, head of textile design department of the Shenkar College

Translation from Russian: Anna Shevelyova

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