Amnon Ben-Ami, Alma, 2011, oil on paper, 19 5/8 x 13 3/4". From the series “Alma,” 2011.

Amnon Ben-Ami, Alma, 2011, oil on paper, 19 5/8 x 13 3/4". From the series “Alma,” 2011.

Amnon Ben-Ami

Bezalel, Yaffo 23

Amnon Ben-Ami, Alma, 2011, oil on paper, 19 5/8 x 13 3/4". From the series “Alma,” 2011.

In “Zephyr,” an exhibition bringing together a decade of work, Amnon Ben-Ami stealthily assumed an aesthetic nonchalance to suggest how difficult it is to communicate ideas and remind us of how intricate the processes of looking and knowing can be. However light and schematic his touch in a painting such as Sole, 2011, and however insignificant its subject, the work’s impressive scale forces a moment of reckoning; and while the bonding of two pieces of wood is demonstrated with the greatest possible literalness in Gluing, 2010, his paintings and sculptural objects are far from simple. Levity, for Ben-Ami, is not only a tool for scrutinizing the creative and affective embellishments that amplify the commonplace and transform it into aesthetic experience but also a means to contemplate the fugitive quality of experience.

To that end, the artist revisits the annals of both Western art history and Israeli popular culture with the same attentiveness. Four works that nod to Paul Cézanne—two works titled Mont Sainte-Victoire, 2012; Vegetation, 2012; and Apples, 2011–12—are suggestive painterly gestures, rudimentary diagrams, and unfinished surfaces of color on inexpensive paper and white satin. Displayed salon style, these negligible iconographic references to the natural world gain a cumulative force, at once alluding to the modernist crisis of representation signaled by Cézanne’s technique, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s postwar narration of “Cézanne’s Doubt” as a phenomenological inquiry, and our contemporary ability to identify and reconstruct such canonical masterpieces by “reading” even the most formulaic pictorial vocabulary. This last point is the subject of “Alma,” 2011, a series of female profiles that reference a local brand of chewing gum known for its iconic design. The packaging has had numerous makeovers, but Alma’s brunette hairstyle, red-glossed lips, and pert features, usually circumscribed by a bold red oval, have gone through only very minor refinements. Ben-Ami’s paean playfully changes the complexion of Alma’s hair, skin, and lips and reworks the color relationships between foreground and background. None of these manipulations affects her immediate recognizability to a viewer socialized in the Israeli collective experience—suggesting the powerful imprint of the brand. The artist’s juxtaposition of Cézanne and chewing gum, installed on either side of a shared gallery wall, makes visible the common visual procedures (or “family of forms”) that connect between representations, whether of “high” or “low” referents. Here, E. H. Gombrich’s teachings about the influence that “acquired patterns or schemata have on the organization of perception” are never far from mind. For the artist to represent something in a fresh way and for the viewer to see it anew, each must acknowledge the power levied upon him or her by long-standing visual classification systems.

Elsewhere, Ben-Ami asks whether concepts and affects can ever be adequately contained or transmitted by objects or signs. In Fruit of Thought, 2003, a Hebrew translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is impaled on a caulking gun and suspended, open, on the wall. Are we to reflect on the contemporary marketability of ideas as DIY goods and gadgets? Or perhaps their incapacity to be adapted as tools for “home improvement” no matter how hard we try? This type of witty deliberation also animates My Father and Israel Sela, 2003, two sets of eyeglasses affixed to one another with plasticine. Is Ben-Ami honoring the complicity between two men who “see eye to eye” or indicting both vision and object production as equally dysfunctional vehicles for the expression of emotions? The sum of the exhibition’s parts—barely held together by pins, clips, and polymers—suggests that from Ben-Ami’s perspective, the answers to such questions are all provisional.

Nuit Banai