New York

Sharon Ya'ari

Lombard-Fried Projects

LIVING IN ISRAEL, a country with a painfully acute sense of the mutual dependency of geography and national identity, Sharon Ya'ari is particularly aware of the socially constructed character of the landscape. His new series of photographs, “Last Year,” 2000, portrays the environment beyond the city limits, where the Israeli terrain is open and only sparsely populated. Those few individuals who do appear in the images manage to destabilize what would otherwise be a fairly classical depiction of verdant pastures and rolling hills.

Ya'ari sets up his shots with a plein-air painter's sensibility for framing devices, paths leading the eye into the distance, and figures grouped according to compositional rules established centuries ago. Yet unlike, say, the people in Renaissance pastoral scenes, who are in tune with their surroundings, those who occupy these spaces appear to be trapped, implying that the trip to the countryside is as stressful as life in the city. By playing with the dictates of the Arcadian tradition, Ya'ari's images tread a fine line between reality and escape, offering up a kind of damaged utopia.

In Iris Hill. South West View, three adults, a boy, and a couple of dogs, loosely lined up in the style of a Greek processional frieze, stand looking confused at the dead end of a dirt path. The boy gazes down as if hoping to find a new trail, but one of his companions, on crutches, is ill suited to navigate the weeds. Another work, Three Women—Alexander River West, presents a trio of women looking similarly perplexed. They twist around to stare at some unseen object, perhaps hidden behind one of the trees. There is something off-kilter about the scene—it recalls the staged quality of certain early works by Jeff Wall-yet there is no clear indication that Ya'ari has posed his subjects. The impression that something is awry, however, is confirmed by the artist's open admission that he makes minor digital alterations to the photographs. Indeed, in the case of Three Women, the object of the women's gaze, a small child, was excised from the picture. The look of displacement is thus partly engineered, demonstrating that Ya'ari is not above inserting a visual hook into an otherwise unremarkable scene.

Ultimately it doesn't matter whether or not Ya'ari confesses to his trickery. His work is not driven by technological issues; rather, it thematizes the act of seeing, making the viewer's reading self-conscious. In Mother & Daughter—Red Hairband, the two figures are seen at dose range from behind, like stand-ins for the beholder in Romantic paintings. The landscape in the background is out of focus and seems almost to be speeding by in a blur of motion. The woman Dresses her hand to the side of her face in a gesture that can be interpreted as an expression of fear or surprise. Given the political turmoil in Israel, one looks for some sign of conflict or tragedy, but in vain. Without something concrete in the distance to capture one's attention, the eye is drawn to the simple beauty of the bright red hair band in the immediate foreground. Ya'ari must realize that the escapism suggested by these “non-places” is undermined by the viewer's knowledge of what is taking place in the nearby cities. But the artist is not willing to give up the effort to partially relieve the landscape of its history and politics.

Gregory Williams