Norah Engler


An early rite of initiation into the ways of contemporary art might be said to involve learning disdain for beautiful landscape painting. London-based Israeli artist Nogah Engler ignores this taboo, or at least she works her way around it: Her recent paintings may be landscapes, but at least they are not entirely beautiful. In fact, there is something distinctly creepy about them. It’s not just that the skies are dark and threatening, the trees bare, the terrain sere and desolate; it’s that these elements don’t quite add up. They seem to have been collaged together from torn-up bits and pieces that almost match up—but not quite.

There are passages within each painting that feel, spatially, quite definite and meticulously worked out, but these bleed into areas that seem nebulous, confusing, somehow deceptive, and even threatening. Although the eye may be led from these ominous zones to others where the ground again feels stable, the viewer moves from one familiar setting to another as if in a dream, by ways mysterious and baffling, and a sense of anxiety prevails.

The luscious red berries in the foreground of Night and Day, 2007, look poisonous. Who knows, then, what the animal inhabitants of this beautiful but bleak terrain—owls and other birds, deer—must live on. Engler’s use of the deer as an image perhaps represents a weakness in these paintings, as at times there is something preciously emblematic about it (in Way Under, 2007, for example) while elsewhere, as in Landmarks II, 2006–2007, it evokes pathos a little too explicitly. The deer’s precise function depends greatly on composition: In those two paintings, the animal is placed bottom center, with the whole weight of the image hanging heavy above it; in other paintings, which place less emphasis on the animals, such problems don’t arise.

Just occasionally there are signs of human habitation—or are there? The trees lost in the wintry whiteness of Night and Day are indistinguishable from pillars that support an arched ceiling; and in the distance one catches sight of some domed building. In The Passage, 2007, bits of chain-link fencing seem to float across the surface of the painting like windblown spiderwebs; their traceries are not much different from those of the delicate shoots surging up from the snowy ground. Here Engler’s work possibly shows the influence of Tsibi Geva, her onetime teacher, in whose kaffiyeh paintings of the early ’90s the decorative patterns of the traditional Arab headdress transmute into the interlocking zigzag of a chain-link fence. Just as Geva used painterly means to distill overtones of unease with definite political implications from within the idiom of ornamental abstraction, Engler mines the putatively decorative genre of landscape for its ore of disquiet.

This disquiet is not entirely free-floating; the paintings were inspired by the artist’s visit, in 2005, to the town of Kosov in Ukrainian Galicia, where her father and other relatives spent years in hiding following the German military occupation in 1941. “Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine,” wrote Paul Celan, whose parents died in a camp there. Thus, these paintings represent the imaginative reconstruction of an actual landscape that was experienced in the past as at once familiar and threatening, while in the present it might be lovely but is laden with sadness.

Barry Schwabsky