Backyard Bible

Smadar Sheffi

Ha'aretz guide, 26 April 2007

Adi Nes "Bible Stories,"

Helena Rubinstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art, Tel Aviv


"Bible Stories" is a good exhibition, even a daring one to a certain degree. There is nothing innovative about its artistic approach, but Nes presents a cultural agenda that sets him apart from mainstream Israeli artists. When similar subject matter is dealt with on the fringes of the Israeli art scene, the level is for the most part embarrassing.


The use of Jewish symbols has been widespread in Israeli art from its very beginnings. During the past two decades these symbols bear a prominent place in the works of many artists, including Moshe Gershuni, Zoya Cherkassky, Micha Utiman, Guy Raz, Belli Simion Fainaru, Moshe Ninio and Gary Goldstein. While these artists take a theoretical-philosophical-spiritual approach or use the symbols to raise questions about identity, Nes considers biblical-Jewish subject matter social no less than religious in nature.


In this respect Nes' exhibition constitutes a political statement. He discusses the disintegration, not to mention disappearance, of human-cultural values for the most part rooted in Jewish-biblical sources, from Israeli social reality.


The exhibition shows images of shelters, women rummaging through garbage, homeless people living on the streets, and an elderly man with no teeth. All of these are images that most of us would like to disregard, images that manage to creep into Israeli public consciousness for about an hour or so upon the publication of

the National Insurance Institute poverty report or following the murder of a homeless person.


In today's Israel the Jewish tradition of matan beseter (anonymous giving) has been replaced by publicity-hungry fund-raising events and television programs for those in need, which actually do more to celebrate the names of donors (usually giving commercial companies public exposure that far outweighs the monetary value of their donation). Jewish laws that come up in Nes' work, like leket (leaving the gleanings when harvesting), peah (leaving a corner in the field) and shikti'cha (leaving forgotten produce for the poor), as well as concern for the well-being of strangers, have almost all been erased from public consciousness. Independent of an organization or fund of any sort, Nes' show offers a chance to rethink the backyard of Israeli society.


He shows 14 works, all of which are large (the bigger ones are 175 cm x 223 cm) and presented as objects with heavy, black frames. Such presentation strengthens their connection to the history of art, which is an important and continuous aspect of Nes' work.


Christian  religious painting - the iconography of which has inspired Nes since his portrait series of IDF soldiers from a few years ago - was in- tended to serve in place of religious scripture for illiterate believers in an age when illiteracy was widespread in Europe. The most prominent, example of Nes' connection to this iconography is his Last Supper photograph. Nes' most famous work, it is an Israeli photograph that has twice received the highest price in an art auction.


In "Bible Stories" Nes continues to work in the style that has come to characterize his photographs. He uses models, most of whom are neighborhood acquaintances, and places them in well-crafted scenes bearing the direct influences of a variety of works throughout the history of Western art, and especially religious art. Most of the works are excellent, but it would have been preferable not to include "Cain and Abel," "Job and Friends" and "Samuel and Saul," three photographs in which the actual staging takes on an additional, cumbersome presence. In the case of "Samuel and Saul," Nes comes dangerously close to kitsch, creating the image of a prophet with a somewhat crazy, transfixed gaze. These, as well as other works, give the feeling that the choice of light is unnecessarily dramatic.


In contrast, two more refined works include "Joseph" and "David and Jonathan." To the best of my knowledge, in "Joseph," a work showing an intelligent, wide-eyed boy in a striped buttoned shirt, a reference to the striped coat from the Bible, Nes makes no reference to an artistic precedent. Joseph, the beloved son of Jacob, described in tlie Bible as a clever boy who believes himself to be above his brothers, appears here as someone who knows life will not be easy. He looks straight into the camera, with a heavy stare that makes him look a lot older than he really is.


The work recalls a photograph from the "Young Boys" series that Nes displayed upon winning the Nathan Gottesdiener Award in 2000. There he photographed a boy surrounded by a circle of yellow light, a kind of saintly halo. In contrast, Joseph's head in the present photograph is not haloed. Nes does not: sanctify his religious figures but intentionally underscores their humanness. At the same time Joseph's face catches a warm yellow light hinting at mercy, at choice.


This light returns in the moving photograph "David and Jonathan." Nes is well aware of the homoerotic interpretations of the relationship between the two biblical heroes. The question whether such a relationship makes itself known in the photograph is overshadowed by the intensity of the feeling the image conveys, including a sense of protection, support, gentleness and a sort of union in the face of forces outside of the two photographed subjects.


Especially interesting are works in which Nes addresses more contemporary artworks, like "Hagar," referencing the iconic photograph of American artist Dorothea Lange. In 1936, during the Great Depression, Lange documented an American mother in a state of great desperation; her two children hiding their head

in her shoulders. Nes' "Hagar" is a lonely character, without Ishmael, the child whose birth gave the biblical figure her status and who was responsible for her banishment

from Abraham's house. An excellent photograph is "Ruth and Naomi" two women rummaging through the leftovers of a market, which highly recalls the Jean Francois Millet painting from 1857.


The strength of the exhibition lies in the way that it enfolds the viewer and fills the space of the Helena Rubinstein Pavilion. There is none of the sense of burden that characterized Sigalit Landau's exhibition "The Endless Solution," or the surprise of Gal Weinstein's "Huleh Valley" show, which seemed to transform the space into a different place, The works in "Bible Stories" stay within the conventional borders

dictated by their medium, subject matter and presentation but still manage to touch viewers, to communicate with them, providing the time and place for closer inspection.