New York

Margalit Mannor

Bertha Urdang Gallery

Is it possible that abstract imagery can serve as social critique? Margalit Mannor’s photographs suggest as much. Ostensibly studies of a museum on an Israeli kibbutz, Mannor’s deft photographic manipulations of this stereotypically modernist-rationalist building amounts to an ingenious damnation of its anonymity. At first glance the photographs look as serene and reasoned as the architectural structures they depict. We seem to be in an elegant world of geometrical clarity, made all the more hermetic by Mannor’s isolation and intricate articulation of the flat white wall planes and unadorned windows. While two marvelous works, with strong diagonal lines, suggest the transcendental perfection of the structure, details of rust—a sign of temporality—suggest the datedness of the building, and thus the peculiar failure of its putative universality. Similar telling details erupt more vigorously in two works focusing on the band of windows close to the ceiling. Below one window we see a naked light bulb, and through the other blinds are visible. Both serve as jarring accents against the smooth integrity of the wall planes. In another work, a delicately luminous spider web makes the same mortal point, even as it blends into the surrounding space. Similarly, the introduction of a bit of plant life on the periphery of another picture seems a repudiation of the inorganic, even inhumane structure.

The depth of Mannor’s criticism of the building as dead or subject to death, despite its eternal form, is conveyed by her chiaroscuro. She seems to be describing the incidental, though sometimes bold, even Manichean, interplay of contrasting light and shadow across the structure. But her chiaroscuro is so integral to the planes of the building that it seems inherent to them. What we get is an architecture symbolizing rationality turned into one symbolizing the irrational, the very irrationality implicit in the overrationality exemplified by the pretentiously pure, utopian building. Mannor reintroduces mystery into this straightforward structure, suggesting that the God masked by its austerity may be darker than imagined. Perversely, she implies that the building’s candor and confidence—its Enlightenment qualities—are, if not inauthentic, inadequate and even ominous. These photographs suggest the inner deterioration of the ideal of geometrical perfection that motivated the International Style and much modernism generally.

I think that what is revealed in Mannor’s work, perhaps unconsciously, is a certain ambivalence about Israel, or perhaps only the kibbutz. Like many Israelis, she has moved to the United States, and looks back at Israel with melancholic nostalgia. We might say the building represents the idealism that once motivated Israel but that now exists only as a haunting memory.

Donald Kuspit