When pictures work, they shout without noise

Robert L. Pincus

The San Diego Union - Tribune. 



Adi Nes sometimes tries to fool you and sometimes he doesn't. There are pictures in his exhibition that look as if he is simply observing life as he finds it. Nothing looks more straightforward than his images of soldiers sleeping on a bus.

Then there are photographs that let you know, from the get-go, that the artist from Tel Aviv has staged every scene on view in the downtown space of the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego. With only minimal effort, a viewer figures out that his vision of one soldier comforting a wounded comrade is an artificial moment. The man in pain is being treated not with a medical implement, but a makeup brush.

These examples, at opposite ends of Nes' spectrum, are among the weakest in his 15-picture exhibition. The pseudo-documentary compositions of sleeping soldiers are pictorially uneventful, even if they gain symbolic life as we take in the rest of the selections. The image of a sham battlefield injury is marginally witty but relies on a kind of interplay between illusion and reality that has pretty much exhausted its appeal after three decades of postmodern photography.

There is more persuasive art to be found in Nes' first solo exhibition in the United States, organized by MCA curator Toby Kamps. The artist is adept at finding ways of expressing his jaded views about war and the military without resorting to message- shouting.

No photograph in this show does it better than Nes' sendup of Leonardo Da Vinci's "The Last Supper." It works as simple social commentary. The soldiers look oblivious to their possible demise, except for the figure seated in Jesus' place. The rest of the men are caught up in spirited conversation, while he stares straight ahead, his expression pensive.

The picture works in a purely formal sense, too, because it resembles "The Last Supper" without parodying it directly. It's just enough like the original to trigger memories of it.

Nes' exuberant use of irony and his darkening view of his country's future animate a photograph of several soldiers, one with raised gun. The reference point is a Life magazine cover image of June 13, 1967. At the end of the Six-Day War, a soldier, weapon in hand, smiles and gazes upward as he stands chest deep in the Suez Canal.

In the artist's version, the water is dark and several soldiers cling to the one with gun raised. He's busy looking heroic while the waters threaten to sweep them away with their turbulence. Self- conscious as this image may be, it is provocative allegory, given the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Nes also makes his gay identity an integral theme in his art. The photographs in this exhibition tend to be more subtly homoerotic than some of his other work. The one exception: a photograph that alludes to a scene from Greek mythology, the Rape of Dionysus. The artist suggests the act rather than literally depicting it.

There is a paradox at the heart of much of Nes' work. Though his photographs are themselves staged, they try to illuminate the gap between Israeli social realities and its ideals. When he finds a way to capture that gap in a concise way, his photographs coax you to smile at their ironies and wince at their deeper insights.