Tel Aviv

Efrat Shvily/David Reeb

This was an exhibition hounded by war, but Efrat Shvily’s folksy video art and David Reeb’s flinty paintings provide stirring examples of the struggle to keep one’s artistic bearings in the face of cyclical violence. This is not to give special dispensation to Israeli (or Palestinian) art, but when you can say, like Goya, “I witnessed this,” you have given up the idea that war waits uncomplainingly outside when you step into a restaurant, a bus, or an art gallery.

Reeb paints in a menagerie of styles. Now fifty-two, he was a teenager during the Six Day War and saw his career begin to blossom at the time of the first intifada, beginning in 1987. Yet his low-key street scenes of Tel Aviv, placid vistas out his studio window, and decorative pictograms seem oblivious to the conflict—or would, if such pictures weren’t counterpointed by canvases based on Miki Kratsman’s intifada photographs, taken long before we knew what “embedded” meant. In this exhibition, a sampler of Reeb’s styles, paintings quote in third person Kratsman’s firsthand witnessing of war, and by this means testify—much as Thomas Lawson suggested in his 1981 manifesto “Last Exit: Painting”—to art’s incapacitating distance from events. These seemingly unassuming images become stalking horses for inconspicuous distress signals worming their way toward our attention in Reeb’s quieter paintings. Rainbow, 2004, for instance—all garish spectrum and husky graphic pattern—disarms us with visual tedium until its patterns gradually materialize into Hebrew script exploding in a furious indictment of war: “TO KILL, TO INVESTIGATE, TO BLOW, TO DESTROY, TO SCARE, TO BRAKE, TO BURN.” Reeb adopts terrorist tactics to defeat art’s torpid image within the culture he seeks to undo. Some might call this “caught napping” tactic hackneyed, but it needn’t be. While unlikely that anyone will mistake a missile for a passenger plane in the near term, we still lack the imagination to anticipate and forestall every new terrorist subterfuge, and similarly artists like Reeb will continue to take advantage when they spy a vulnerable audience.

Shvily’s suave video Have No Fear At All, 2004, confronts war by seeking consolation. After the second intifada erupted three years ago, and as the peace process unraveled, Israelis began gathering in public and private to find comfort singing nostalgic folk songs. Shvily’s video, whose title is taken from the Hasidic folk song “This Whole Wide World,” documents such a sing-in. While I was in the gallery, visitors spontaneously sang along in soft voices to “Consolation,” which goes, in part, “And though each of us was in his own little world / Just living his life . . . / The calm was broken . . . / Sometimes it’s me, / Sometimes it’s you, / In need of consolation.” Neither an antiwar documentary, nor an attempt to artistically frame a sociological fad, Shvily’s video deliberately collapses a folk aesthetic into contemporary art with great virtuosity, gaining political scope on the back of local tradition. Of evident strength in the gallery, the work’s significance as a witness to war may be diluted outside Israel. The songs in the video express a love of country steeped in religious sentiment, and in this respect, Shvily’s art is an act of patriotism, like much other wartime art too easily seen as propaganda outside its own context. When war forges art or criticism, that’s always the case.

Ronald Jones