To stroll in Chelsea this month — its galleries brimming with contemporary Israeli art — is to feel as if you’ve been transported to Rothschild Street, Tel Aviv’s gallery capital. In a number of noteworthy exhibits, artists are innovating and dialoguing with history. Showcasing a robust tension between past and present, they make references to Israeli and world history, as well as the history of art, showing an awareness of what’s come before, but always with a nod to the future.
At CRG Gallery on West 24th Street, Ori Gersht, a London-based photographer born in Tel Aviv is exhibiting “Falling Petals,” a suite of works shot in Japan. An artist focused on memory and the importance of meaning and place, Gersht, whose large-scale photos were taken digitally, followed cherry blossom trees in cities deeply affected by the Second World War, such as Hiroshima, as well as those left unharmed, viewing the cherry blossom as a national symbol whose meaning has changed over time.
Also on view is “Will You Dance For Me,” a short film Gersht made at Kibbutz Ga’aton. Set to a score of piano and cello, the subject is Yehudith Arnon, founder of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. In the film Arnon sways slowly on a rocking chair, her image fading in and out of focus, interspersed with shots of snow falling heavily in a deserted forest. In one portion, Arnon recalls being requested to dance at a Nazi Christmas party while she was imprisoned at Auschwitz. When she refused, she was ordered to stand barefoot in the snow all night as punishment. Arnon then vowed to dedicate her life to dance if she survived. Now elderly and in poor health, the rocking motion is like a form of dancing in this meditative film.
Barry Frydlender has travel-based photographs on display at the Andrea Meislin Gallery on West 26th Street. Frydlender, who had a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007, lives in Tel Aviv. For “Travelogue in Pictures,” he presents digitally reconstructed scenes from Los Angeles, Paris, London, New York and Nazareth. For each large piece here, Frydlender compiled more than 100 shots taken over the course of a day and remastered them on his computer. The final pictures address questions of veracity in imagery, as well as issues related to culture and ethnicity. One photo shows a variety of Parisians at a park; ordinary at first, it adopts extra significance since it was taken shortly before France’s ban on the Muslim face covering.
The paintings in Gideon Rubin’s “Shallow Waters” at the Hosfelt Gallery on West 36th Street are based on found photographs taken in the early 20th century. Rubin uses a painterly technique and muted, almost muddy, colors to depict landscapes and faceless people. The London-based Rubin is also exhibiting his first short, “To Change Air a Little,” made in homage to Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet. The gouache animation is projected onto one of Rubin’s paintings and was inspired by Bialik’s love of long walks.
At the Mike Weiss Gallery on 24th Street, Yigal Ozeri’s “Garden of the Gods” is made using a similar methodology. Known for his ultra-realistic paintings of young women in nature, Ozeri, who lives here, painted canvases of ethereal pre-Raphaelite-style women in a range of sizes based on photographic source material.
Working with myth and history, Lior Shvil’s first solo exhibit in New York, “Operation OZ Belev-Yam,” is now at the Andrea Rosen Gallery on West 24th Street. Curated by American artist Andrea Zittel, Shvil engages different characters through role-play, juxtaposing the narrative of pre-state Israel with that of modern-day politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. On view is a video playing in a small room of props that Shvil, now living in New York, uses in performances each Saturday through June 11.
At the Bertrand Delacroix Gallery on West 25th Street, Ron Agam, son of iconic artist Yaacov Agam, is showing a new set of paintings. In an interview, Agam spoke of his father’s legacy and his own need to create art in another language. These new paintings, which are finished with a coat of resin, are bright and large, boldly occupying the space. Agam’s bond to modernism is clear. He recalls countless childhood visits to galleries with his father, and these geometric works contain linear motifs that pay homage to everyone from Kenneth Noland to Piet Mondrian and Josef Albers.
The French-Israeli artist is currently based in Long Island City, Queens. He often thinks of a line his Parisian yeshiva teachers told him, “Taaseh ve’tishmah” — “do and then understand. It [is] like a biblical call that triggers my action,” he said. In his artist statement, Agam puts it well, writing that he is an “artist that lives in the present, creates for the future with a deep respect for the past.”