Avner Ben-Gal, review by Rebecca Wright
The anthropomorphic drawings and paintings currently on show at Sadie Coles HQ by the Israeli artist Avner Ben-Gal seem familiar. This might have something to do with the recent Tate Modern retrospective of the vanguard modernist Joan Miró which closed in September 2012. It is not in the visual similarities that I would like to pit this likeness, even though Ben-Gal’s Surrealist images strongly evoke those of the Catalan painter in their composite use of imagery and biomorphic forms. Instead, this sense of familiarity lies in something altogether more subtle. It is, I think, in their use of allegory.
Now, surely as Modernism rejected allegory in favour of purity and Greenberg’s beloved ‘flatness,’ placing Ben-Gal in relation to Miró‘s use of ‘allegory’ seems somewhat perturbed. In fact, an essay by Philipp Kaiser in a recent book on Ben Gal’s work (Biogenetics, edited by Yael Bergstein and published by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art) heralds his work as the ‘revitalization of history painting after its burial by Modernism.’ This phrase echoes the infamous art critic Craig Owens’ thesis mapped out in his canonical essay, ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism’ (1980). Owens suggested that what unites Postmodern art is its use of allegory. If Modernism excluded historical allegory, Ben-Gal who draws on a Surrealist lineage to create his cryptic images, resurrects this avant-garde style in order to form a new art of historical allegory, inserting politics as its background.
Ben-Gal’s work mixes everyday and imaginary scenes with what appear to be national and personal histories. Images such as Mutual Humidity Sensor (2010) combines pencil drawing with inkjet print to juxtapose two mediums; one graphite, which suggests a private imaginary realm, and the other digital print, the purview of journalism, media, and national history. The two juxtaposed pictures speak of the composite images which occur, Freud believed, in the act of condensation brought on by dreams. Thus both the personal and national unconscious works together here in the manufacturing of a disquieting allegory, subject to the analyst’s interpretation. Other images, such as Snake Boy (2010) incorporate a calligraphic element into the image evoking Hebrew letters. This does not act to settle meaning, but just like the head which seems fragilely poised upon the figure/Hebrew character, it proliferates meaning, introducing a sensation of drunken Surreality into the image.
What this exhibition neatly effects is not, I believe, as Kaiser would suggest, a revitalisation of history painting following Modernism’s cruel destruction of allegory. As the Miró Tate Modern retrospective clearly showed, and Owens always understood, allegory (and in Miró‘s case a deeply political one) was always present (just suppressed) in Modernism. In fact, Owens pointed out this meant that Postmodern art ‘could no longer ‘proclaim its autonomy, its self sufficiency, its transcendence; rather it is to narrate its own contingency, insufficiency and lack of transcendence.’ What Ben-Gal’s intimate and tactile images show is not a revival of history painting but its very continuation, its impregnation in modern art. It focuses us on this very act and process of allegorising; reminding us that even in violence, sexual abjection and pain a greater narrative always exists.