Leonid Zeiger. “Knight, Lady, Dragon”

19, February 2017 · Events / Exhibitions, News

A personal exhibition by Leonid Zeiger “Knight, Lady, Dragon” was opened on June 16th at the Jerusalem gallery “Agripas 12″. Text: Tali Ben Nun. Closing: July 11th.


The exhibition “Knight, Lady, Dragon” is based on three monumental paintings. These works induct the viewer into a world that raises questions about human nature, emotional conflict, and the history of art.

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In this exhibition Leonid Zeiger continues to explore, in his own way, fundamental questions concerning the roles of artist and painting in contemporary art. From the starting point to the end, each painting is created through a process that involves deconstructing, combining, searching, doubting. This time Zeiger chooses to touch upon themes that are essential to painting – the figure and the portrait – and in a sense brings back the discourse around the body to the fine line between modernism and postmodernism. Each one of the exhibited paintings is a compact and dense entity that conveys, by means of color and form, the sensation of a personal memory or a unique moment.

Like the eternal battle that transpires in mythical and biblical epics between good and evil, light and dark, emotion and reason, femininity and masculinity, in Zeiger’s paintings there is an incessant battle between the artistic foundation provided by an academic Russian education and the tendencies of contemporary art. To avoid artistic and cultural clichés, he distances himself from “beautiful”, naturalistic painting and creates a figurative painting that acts as an abstract painting. In this exhibition, more than ever before, Zeiger is employing artistic methods characteristic of the medieval era and the early Renaissance, when abstract concepts were imbued with a vital significance. Artists such as Giotto, Masaccio, and Hieronymus Bosch conveyed religious, social, moral, and spiritual messages through allegories and symbolic motifs.

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The local milieu in which Zeiger lives and works transforms in his paintings into a private world with a personal mythology, a world that has practically no connection to reality. The space that he creates in his works allows him to escape to a world of fantasy. The artistic process, meditative in a way, creates a kind of bridge between Russian and Israeli culture, between the modernist and the contemporary, between the illusory and the material. The large-scale canvases hint at a prolonged and sinuous process of searching, one in which there is also a considerable element of playfulness and irony. Zeiger exposes the traces of the inner structure of the painting and thus demonstrates the step-by-step process of its creation. Along with the paintings, the exhibition includes a few preparatory drawings (selected from a formidable quantity) that merely map out what is asking to be on the canvas, what has yet to be fleshed out.

Zeiger’s works are built on visual paradoxes and on the discipline that reigns among them. These paradoxes convincingly express the inner reality, surging and full of contradictions; echoes of memories and passions merge with everyday occurrences into a single vortex.

In two of the three paintings, the artist portrays himself and his wife as iconic images that embody an absurd amalgam of Renaissance influences and futuristic blockbuster cinema. Each of the figures is suspended in the center of a large rhombus, which is hanging by a corner. The portraits of the man and the woman are transformed into symbolic images of a kind of “still life,” embodying the tension of a living object – changing, feeling, believing that it still lives, yet frozen in time so that it can enter the eternal world of painting.

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The intimate quality of Zeiger’s paintings is born not out of the relationship between the viewer’s gaze and the depicted images but from the relationship between the image and the space in which it emerged – an interplay that gives the viewer a glimpse into secret forests of memory, fantasies, anxieties and moments of peace, shadows and light. In spite of an inner security and rationality manifested by the image in the painting, Zeiger lays bare his vulnerabilities, his moments of weariness or weakness, without any pathos.

The artist’s wife morphs into a bionic figure, her beauty resembling that of Princess Leia from Star Wars. She gazes straight ahead, without a shadow of embarrassment. Her body, white like marble, floats in a surrealistic “aquarium” filled with fish or perhaps phalluses. The theme of the nude female model, which has undergone so many interpretations and incarnations from ancient times to present-day pop culture, here assumes a grinning and ironic form that seemingly mocks the notion of the model, one that engrossed scholars of art history for years. Zeiger wants us to think of “Olympia” by Édouard Manet or even of an erotic 19th century photograph, but decides to rid the nude female form of anatomical details, primarily so as to maintain a critical distance from clichés that determine the relationship between the viewer’s gaze and female nudity.

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The image of the knight (a self-portrait of the artist) similarly evokes “stereotypical” masculinity. Encased in tight-fitting armor, the kneeling knight grips a long spear resembling a lightsaber, as the earth is slipping under his feet. Into a landscape that is in effect a collage of various geographic characteristics, the artist “inserts” himself as a superhero, who fights for his kingdom or for the heart of his beloved. All the forces of the universe merge into a sphere of light endowed with magical powers, like an allusion to a galaxy or to a mandala, which gives the universe its cyclical and eternal motion.

In medieval understanding, the notion of chivalry was based on two dominant forces: dramatic and erotic. The knight embodied the martial principle, which from time immemorial has depended on love as a source of passion, regenerating again and again. Johan Huizinga captured this well in his book The Autumn of the Middle Ages: “The knight and his lady, that is to say, the hero who serves for love – this is the primary and invariable motif from which erotic fantasy will always start. It is sensuality transformed into the craving for self-sacrifice, into the desire of the male to show his courage, to incur danger, to be strong, to suffer and to bleed before his lady-love.” (ed. 1995)

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The third painting is constructed as a different artistic mechanism, not only due to its oval form, but mainly because Zeiger presents the viewer with a straightforward and theatrical scene: a dinosaur-like lizard possessing a woman. Zeiger draws inspiration from traditions of the medieval miniature and imparts the lizard with mythological-symbolic power, using the technique of anthropomorphism characteristic of that period.

That very lizard, whose tail can merely be glimpsed in the painting with the knight, now appears in all its glory, hanging over the female body. In order to attenuate the mythological-pornographic nature of the situation, Zeiger encircles the scene with an oval frame reminiscent of an archived photograph or an antique map of the world. The dynamic created from within the painting – between the animal’s body and the woman’s body, between the rectangle of the canvas and the oval of the image – resembles with its circular motion the universal Yin-Yang symbol, which imparts relativity and contrast to the two poles.

The brutal image acquires a musical rhythmicity due to the way Zeiger treats the vertebrae of the lizard’s skeleton as if they were piano keys or cogs of an incessantly rotating wheel. The same mechanistic quality that characterizes the pedantic depiction of vertebrae and ribs is also present in the act itself – in the juxtaposition of the woman and the mechanistic-animalistic entity. Before our eyes the lizard becomes not just an animal taking possession of a woman’s body, but also a subject of physiognomic and anatomic study, fleetingly bringing to mind Damien Hirst’s cold, remote, and sterile aesthetics.

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When Zeiger portrays himself as a warring knight or his wife as the object of restrained passion, he is consciously performing modern manipulations on classical and romantic ideas. Nothing is accidental in his works. He weaves compositional, coloristic, and thematic links between the three paintings, recognizing the danger of banality even as he wants a taste of it. The tension feeds on the conflict within the canvas between the figurative and the abstract, between reality and illusion.

The “dressing up” of the artist and his wife as mythological superheroes, along with the humanization of animal nature (which lies at the basis of human nature), allows Zeiger to distance himself from a painful and imperfect reality. The transition from monumental canvases to intimate, small, quick sketches is comparable to the transition from the “skin” – the surface of the painting – to the opening of its innards, the skeleton, that hidden structure on which the entire construction is based.

Death, love, passion and universal forces manage to elude lofty interpretation and remain within immediate, day-to-day limits. As the images pass through the prism of the fantastical, boundaries disappear between the rational and emotional, between violence, decadence, and beauty.

Tali Ben Nun
May 2016

Translation to English: Anna Shevelyova



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