New York

Yhuda Porbochrai

Concord Gallery

Today’s figural painters are not really at ease with the human figure. They don’t have the cognitive interest in the body that might be indicated by a thorough knowledge of anatomy; they are not Renaissance men (or women). They are not bothered by the fact, as Paul Valéry was, that “every society of men is composed of bodies almost entirely covered, manifesting as little as possible in word and gesture of their strongest feelings.” They make no effort to show the naked body as the vehicle of these repressed feelings. Instead, they understand it purely technically, as an allegorical trope; ironically, the human form comes to represent the absence of humanism, the seeming impossibility of any kind of respect for humanity, of any chance finding of permanent human essence, in the contemporary world. The new figuration expresses the antihumanism of much abstract art, and of the modern world itself. It makes no return to the old humanism and shows no interest in establishing a new one. Rather, it demonstrates the evanescence of the subject into its environment; the figure is really a will-o’-the-wisp in an oppressive, indifferent visual/linguistic world.

In the case of the Israeli artist Yhuda Porbochrai, this world is at once timelessly Mediterranean and painfully historical—a sensually colored interior world haunted by symbols of war such as helicopters. Boxes that seem to represent coffins float in the beautiful flat space, which sometimes has a Matissean look, at other times is reduced to decorative design. The figure seems anomalous and intrusive in this scene, yet by reason of its passivity—it usually sits unmoving and inscrutable—it blends right in, almost disappearing in the process. It is a creature taking on the bright color of its environment. But it is far from being at home, and indeed becomes a symbol of discontent—it is responsible for the coffins and helicopters in this dream world. Are Porbochrai’s paintings a new kind of “et in Arcadia ego” imagery? The threat of death haunts this sensual world, corrupting its symbolic value as Weltinnenraum, the inner world space. The figure is integrated in the paradise yet insinuates its disintegration, its uncertain future. The paintings are poignantly political, their joie de vivre infected by an air of menace.

These pictures represent Israel’s dilemma, the failure of its dream, the discomfort that pervades it. Porbochrai’s paintings are deceptively facile and even cartoonlike in their look, but their message is sinister. The ingratiating scene understates and deflects the harsh message. It may be that the message will last, not the paintings, but that is perhaps inevitable in a world where art has for some time been courting its own mortality, whether by mocking its materiality or, more recently—as in Porbochrai’s case—recapitulating its own phylogeny in a dubious ontogeny.

Donald Kuspit