Maor Haim – Don’t Go Any Further
1997 | Exhibition catalog text
About Haya Ran’s Paintings.
At a first glance, Haya Ran’s works are captivating. The painted figures’ beauty and seductive classical splendor, the exquisite skill employed, and the refined surfaces are compelling and often remind one of icons, ritual objects or remembrance photos. A more penetrating examination reveals other elements, not quite as visually pleasing, suggesting that the beauty and seductiveness are perhaps a manipulation and a fraud and, in fact, conceal the ‘real message.’ As one becomes absorbed in the work, one realizes that the paintings themselves are sealed containers, block cases and mirrors, holding forbidden material whose nature will remain a mystery forever.
Cautious, camouflaged, coded, covered or sealed articulation is at the core of Haya Ran’s entire oeuvre. The pictorial voice — meticulous and stylized, clearly European and cultured — leads one to believe that everything is open and neatly arranged on a glass table top (the pictorial surface). Yet in fact the black, opaque, polished glass is a mirror which only reflects the spectator’s own image. Any attempt to induce the painting to tell a story boomerangs. This articulation is apparently a diplomatic strategy: don’t tell what is forbidden, merely wrap it in seductive, misleading packaging. The phrases “Let’s not talk about it” and “Don’t go any further”, which are the titles of some of the works, and also inscribed on some, are examples of those ‘didactic rules’. They lead the spectator into a correct reading of the paintings and suggest that beneath the innocent surface there lies a coded, latent articulation.
Demons and Angels
Haya Ran’s basic attitude is Post-modern. It allows her to open the drawers of culture, both general and personal, and extract images and fragments of images, mix and match them as she sees fit. She can dip into various and curious rivers who do not, so to speak, run to the same sea. Haya Ran also makes a statement regarding the nature of painting. She reexamines concepts such as ‘realistic painting’ and ‘artifact’, she takes part in the, complex ongoing discourses between painting and photography, painting and personal confession, painting and remembrance, painting and the ritual object. Her triptychs incorporate Renaissance archangels, childish doodling; quotations which became obscure emblems, graphic signs and symbols; and family album photographs with mythological connotations. In her own way, Haya Ran uses intermediaries from various eras and from both ‘high’ and ‘low’ esthetic sources, to recreate and rearrange the realm of her reminiscences, rectify them where needed, as if searching for Tikun, a cure for her soul.
The primary materials that feed into Haya Ran’s works are derived, among other sources, from her 1950s childhood reminiscences. These memories have to do with an existential struggle to hide the scars of the past by dipping them into saccharine affectation. These memories are a part of her and by using fragments of photographs, like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle, trying to examine, articulate and redefine her childhood. Visual images came in lieu of words, since the immediate surroundings chose not to discuss that which “should not be discussed.”
Many years later Haya Ran picked up family albums, selected images and used them as a prism through which she reexamined the issues of womanhood, motherhood, childhood, and family. Personal identity and kinship are interconnected and juxtaposed with national-collective identity, while maintaining a post-modern awareness of the fact that Israeli society is no longer monolithic, and that the Zionist idea of the ‘melting pot’ has disintegrated. The nuclear family, its symbols, and true, dramatized and falsified reservoirs of memories are now the raw material one can use for outlining the new boundaries of identity. The personal testimony is set aside or suppressed, stretched from the past into the present and from the personal-familial to the general-archetypal. This reexamination is not about reviving reminisces, or conjuring up childhood experiences out of nostalgia, obsession or exorcism. It is rather a means of examining one’s identity in the present; elements from the past form the silver coating on the mirror that reflects the present.
The photo collection that feeds into Haya Ran’s paintings comprises black/grey/white photos which bear no mark of an individual maker. Similar photos can be found in any family’s album whose owners took the trouble to !preserve the usual precious moments: the birth of a child; a nursery school teacher with a group of children; the first day in grade school; choppy family with parents and children who look like a strong, proud, and unified entity – a documented and filed ‘happiness.’ Haya Ran’s photos are no different from a great number of photographs of that nature. If you have seen one, you have seen them all. The history of photography has taken note of these repeated modes of representation. Only the faces and the clothing change, and they add up to a stereotyped icon that is duplicated to the point of meaninglessness, We no longer notice the details nor do we see the real story behind the superficial shell of happiness. Perhaps we are scared to find out that the happy, sweet, somewhat sticky appearance is nothing but a layer of whitewash, hiding undercurrents of decay, alienation, Indifference, or betrayal.
“Let’s not talk about it” is a phrase Haya Ran repeatedly heard as a child, uttered by her parents and relatives. There are things that should not to be discussed; it is forbidden to talk about them, or even to know they exist. Children should be introduced to a world that appears happy and whole. Light drawn from darkness.
Venus of the Sand Dunes
In 1996 Haya Ran painted Don’t Go Any Further, using a tiny 8×4.5 cm photograph as a model The photograph shows a young woman in a dark skirt and a short sleeved white blouse embellished with cross-stitch. Her legs are protected by white stockings and fashionable elegant high-heeled shoes. She is standing on top of a sand dune by the sea shore. Her figure, rising from the sand, reminds one of the image of Venus rising from the foam, standing on a sea shell Venus of the Sand Dunes is not naked and is not carried by the waves. The mundane, dune-enveloped Venus is Haya Ran’s mother, who was carried by the waves of immigration from Europe in the 1930s. She had wished to be a part of the collective Zionist dream, but settled for the traditional role of a wife and a mother.
Clipped to the easel as Haya Ran painted Don’t Go Any Further, this photograph served as both a source and a model. Although the painting appears realistic, what we actually see is neither mimetic nor objective realism. Haya Ran does go further and beyond. She takes the liberty to change, add, eliminate, isolate or ignore details, so that her testimony becomes distant. Any indication of time and location is eliminated, and the image is thus elevated to a timeless mythological realm. The process of sorting out and editing the information is affected primarily by the artist’s emotional involvement.
She examines the personal image, stretches its boundaries and transforms it into a general, archetypal image, while scrupulously maintaining the personal story behind It. The painting becomes a idealized story, a revised and healing version of an event that took place in the past and was captured in a photograph. Haya Ran is aware of the typical photographic picture-making manipulations, and of the properties of the photograph as an object; the paper, graininess, two-dimensionality etc. The photo as an object, its texture, creases and scars are often minutely detailed in her paintings. As was made clear, the model is the photograph itself rather than the event it depicts. Like many artists of her generation, both in Israel and abroad, who create elusive images of reminiscences and identities, Haya Ran calls attention to documentation itself and to the fingerprints of the anonymous archivist (whether these are national-collective archives (as in the work of Michal Heiman, Gai Ral Meir Gal, Noorith David, Haim Moor, Christian Boltansky And others), or a family album, as is the case here}
Unlike the figure in the family album photograph, the female figure in Don’t Go Any Further is as faded and ephemeral as her white dress. The figure seems to float above the sand like a butterfly fluttering above the flowers, barely touching them. The woman is as pale as a ghost and does not belong to her environment. Her shadow, thrust on the sand, forms an imaginary ditch in the ground. A crease in the photograph creates another ‘ditch’ just left of the figure. The horizon crosses the figure just below her hands, dividing, so to speak, between the earthly aspects of her femininity and its spiritual ones; the upper part being pure and whole and the bottom one cracked and divided.
The painted photograph is placed on a red, tarnished, yellowish, scratched surface, which reminds one of exposed, bruised, irritated, infected and branded skin. The scratches invade the painted photograph and bruise it. Haya Ran’s burrowing into the canvas signifies her attempt to figure out where the boundaries are. “Don’t go Any further” is a phrase she heard many times in her childhood in a variety of contexts. Now it signals her ability to go far and beyond, back in time and deep into herself. Both Don’t Go Any Further and Let’s Not Talk About It, which belong to the same series, deal with myths of the Sacred Land and the Holy Mother. In the latter, formatted as an iconic triptych, Haya Ran duplicates the Tel-Hal Roaring Lion , and places it higher than the seated figure of Mary, the Holy Mother, holding a wounded Infant with a bandage on his face and a small Israeli flag in his hand. Angels placed at the bottom of the painting watch the Holy Mother. The sun rises behind her back and over the landscape of Tivon, the town where the artist resides. This is another connection that she makes between the general-collective discourse of femininity, motherhood, nationality, and masculinity and unresolved personal issues, which she persistently hides from the spectator. The painting adheres to its role: to be in constant control between “Let’s not talk about it” and “Don’t do any further.’
Another photograph that Haya Ran used as a source for a series of paintings is of a group of children in Gan Malka (Malka’s nursery school), which she herself attended as a child. The paintings in this series, done in 1995, are of fragments cropped from this class photograph. Each of these paintings present one isolated child or a group of children placed at the bottom of the pictorial surface, a wooden board painted in a mixed technique of oil and tempera. This classical technique is associated with icons and has religious connotations. The choice of technique is, therefore, a part of the message, applied in this case to a new secular context. The background color, like heavy clouds, surrounds the figures and seems to press down on their heads.
Are they children? grown-ups? martyrs? Is Gan Malka (a name, meaning queen) indeed Gan Malka (a verb, meaning to beat)?. The deformations in the children’s faces are not incidental, and they remind one of and influenced by the methods used by Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon. Have Ran does not settle old scores with her nursery school teacher, nor does she take a critical, or otherwise biased and nostalgic look at her childhood. The class photograph is but a particular case that signifies an issue of wider perspective: Haya Ran’s class photo is one of a sea of images in the reservoir of the national collective memory, In this reservoir, art (society) looked at the group, the heroic and the collective in terms of making the dream of a homeland come true. The single individual was virtually ignored and erased from the scene. “I try to reach back and figure out what happened to us then as individuals.” The children’s clothing in the paintings, faithful to the ones in the photo, conveys innocence. The faces, though, are grim and tortured. This duality is disturbing and imposes a pressured and stifling atmosphere. The children seem to peek out from the bottom of a box, as if they were objects or some paraphernalia in a chest of mementoes. Christian Boltansky’s early works affected Haya Ran’s attitude towards her on-going quest into personal and collective childhood memories. In earlier works such as Rachela, and in the first two Gan Malka Paintings, Haya Ran painted four beams, which form a wooden frame decorated with personal symbols. Later paintings no longer have that frame, but the gloomy feeling of imprisonment remains — the result of getting too close and penetrating the black box.
Still-life in a Case
The series Vessels, painted in 1996, evolved from an earlier 1994 series entitled Sabina is Waiting for the Angel. In the earlier series, as well as in other earlier works, Haya Ran used the vessel image and an image of a woman called Sabina whose life passes by while she is curled up in a self-made coffin. This metaphor, highly reduced and stylized, is used in that series in a variety of ways. The works themselves represent the narrow confining boundaries of the image. The paintings are miniature in scale and reminiscent of Renaissance or Pre-Raphaelite painting. They incorporate actual glass cases filled with organic degradable materials such as dry leaves, velvet scraps and statuettes of gilded angels. A Baroque, decadent atmosphere of beauty and death intensifies the feeling of nothingness and loss of time. The series Vessels include five oil and tempera paintings which resemble fragments or frames clipped from a motion-picture film. They all depict the same young, light skinned, red headed, naked woman. Her classical beauty reminds Haya Ran of Ophelia after her death. In the first three paintings, the woman is trapped in a rectangular vessel, whose blue color suggests water or some preserving liquid. The vessel in the first painting is located at the bottom of the picture, and is moved higher and higher in subsequent ones.
At a first glance the paintings appear aesthetic and pleasing, but as the spectator ‘dives’ into the painted water he realizes that the opposite is true: the world reveals itself as engulfing, demanding, constantly on the verge of a hysterical fit, inexplicable anxieties and extinction. The vessels are small, and the liquid in them does not last long. The female figure is unaware of peeping Toms; she is immersed in her world, both physically and metaphorically, and tries to enjoy the liquid in her vessel while it lasts. The form of the vessel, rectangular and shallow, suggests a range of associations from the crypt through the womb to an aquarium and a peep-show case, a screen or a water meter. “Time is also a vessel that diminishes” says Haya Ran, “It sets us on the hopeless search for Truth. We try to hold on to it, while we are trapped in its vessels, whether we want it or not.”
In the last two paintings, the vessels are elongated and placed at the top part of the picture. They form a horizon or a coast line, so to speak, over which the woman, who is rendered ape-like, tries to leap.
The Vessels series presents a sequence of postures beginning with a curled up, fetus-like posture, developing into kneeling on hands and knees, and then into leaping and possibly flying, which does not occur. In turn, the figure resumes its curled pose, but this time she is calm and serene as if she has come to terms with her situation. In Haya Ran’s earlier work, flying does occur; female dancers rising on one leg in a gliding posture, and an angel hovering above them holding a string tied to their legs. These vessel paintings and the model’s postures are reminiscent of the work of Eduweard Muybridge, who, toward the end of the nineteenth century, photographed sequences of humans and animals in motion.
In this series, Haya Ran pursues simplicity and cleanliness, while in quest for the nucleus of the inner truth, the bitter pill which is concealed among candies with seductive wrappings. She says: “There is death-like life which is worse than physical death. For example, nuns in a convent, who choose to become encased in vessels, limit the boundaries of their experiences and sexuality. Sophie Calle wrote: “I found a husband, but deep down I lost my confidence.” For Haya Ran, the women in the convent, as well as the figure of Sabina who is waiting for the angel and ‘buries herself’ while still alive, represent a horrible existential situation. This is a human condition which is similar to ‘Vanitas’ images – marvelous still-fifes which show signs of withering or decay, a micro-cosmos whose mummified beauty is both seductive and terrifying.
The dark background creates a frame within a frame. The vessels seem to float on the background just as the figure floats inside them, defying gravity. The seemingly black background is, in fact, made up of transparent layers of blue, red, and green. Moreover, the glossy surface of the paint creates an illusion of a black glossy mirror in which the spectators are forced to see dim reflections of themselves, inevitably become a part of the image and thus told that they are peeping Toms.
As stated before, the black mirror trick appears in a large number of Haya Ran’s paintings. This supports the claim that the seemingly empty dark parts of the background are, in fact, significantly full. That calls to mind the Rabbi Nachman of Breslau story about two painters who were hired by a king to paint on his castle walls. One painted a realistic painting, faithfully depicting the birds, trees and flowers in the king’s garden. The other coated the wall assigned to him with a glossy black paint and kept covering it with a cloth. Then came the day for the paintings to be exposed. The king was thrilled with the first one, but even more so with the second, for the black glossy paint had mirror qualities and vigorously reflected both the other painting and the exquisite garden itself, which could be seen through the window. Haya Ran combines both approaches: the mimetic and the conceptual. Defying ideological boundaries, she takes the post-modern liberty to move from one to the other. This motion touches upon the same question of boundaries (of painting, memory, individuality, femininity, etc.) which is so crucial to Haya Roan’s artistic quest. The picture plane is the arena where she can blurr, expand, erase and redefine these boundaries. The binding, didactic phrase, “Don’t go any further” became the challenge and the motif that set her off on her adventurous journey to the horizon, which reveals itself to her every day, both near and far.
Drawers open and close, and we, as we peek into Haya Ran’s vessels and containers, gain a moment of grace and enlightenment as we reach that inner, subtle, vulnerable place where, as she puts it, “The words get soaked.”
Haim Maor is an artist, a lecturer at the Ben-Gurion University and Director of the Visual Arts College in Beer Sheva.
English Translation: Varda Ben -Tai