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Interview with Israel Hershberg on the Perceptual Painters Blog


Catalog essay by Yigal Zalmona, Chief Curator of the Israel Museum for the exhibitions "Recent Work" at the Marlborough Gallery, NY and "As a Passing Shadow"  which traveled to the Israel Museum in 1998.


Man begins in dust and ends in dust . . . He is like the fragile potsherd, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow; like a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, the scattering dust, and a fleeting dream.

(From the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, High Holiday Liturgy)

ISRAEL HERSHBERG paints - 'from life' , as the delicate negotiation between observed appearances and the layer of paint on a canvas is usually characterized. What makes his work so intriguing, so mysterious? Is it the plastic power of his realism that provokes in us this strong desire to understand his paintings? Any attempt to disassemble Hershberg's paintings in order to understand them may leave us with the pieces scattered around us, unable to put them back together. We will know only that the whole is terribly complex and filled with contradiction.

Hershberg is engaged with what is, to all intents and purposes, permanent and absolute. His preoccupation with permanence means that there is a dry, preserved quality to the subjects he chooses at times to depict, objects emptied of the life they once possessed and retaining only their outer skin. Like the stone counter-top that features as a base in some of his paintings, they are locked in place in a kind of petrified parallel universe that knows neither time nor travel. A world containing the remains of temporality without decay (I almost said, without life). A world which could, ostensibly, remain in that state forever, embalmed by the very act of painting.

Yet Hershberg paints something permanent in order to reveal what is actually transient. The entities he depicts are containers; he focuses on the poetics of their outer surface, the covering, the pod. Even the human body is a container, a casing of skin. Thus the world we find in his pictures is an assemblage of shells, and his brush repeatedly points out their incidental, ephemeral aspects: moles, bulging veins, blisters, hairs, stains left by oil and paint. It is true that the artist who paints from nature must engage in a dialogue with the actual, superficial appearance of objects, in other words, he must observe and contemplate their surface. However, Hershberg's realism relies to an even greater extent than usual on the contingency that suffuses the "skin" of reality. His approach is therefore diametrically opposed to the idealistic classical or classicist portrayal of reality, in which ephemeral detail is eschewed and the eternal, the essential, is sought. The subject of Hershberg's paintings is the fact that reality - as perceived by the human eye, at least - is ephemeral. A comparison of his view and that of the seventeenth-century Dutch artists, who also tried to capture "vibrations of appearance," might help define his uniqueness as a painter. During the apogee of precise depictions of natural objects, the subjects painted by these artists were shown in terms of their usefulness, their function. Painters portrayed a reality composed of objects "which no longer [have] an essence, but [take] refuge entirely within [their] attributes," according to Roland Barthes. "The object is always open, exposed, accompanied, until it has destroyed itself as closed substance, until it has cashed in all the functional virtues man can derive from stubborn matter." Moreover, writes Barthes, "man never confronts the object, which remains dutifully subjugated to him by precisely what it is assigned to provide. What need have I of the lemon's principal form? What my quite empirical humanity needs is a lemon ready for use, half-peeled, half-sliced, half-lemon, half-juice, caught at the precious moment it exchanges the scandal of its perfect and useless ellipse for the first of its economic qualities, astringency. "In this world, creation is but a storehouse of useful playthings; God has been crowded out of the object-filled realm of human beings, replaced by "man and his empire of things." There are no empty spaces that might allow for mystery or enigma. In this world without conflict and drama, comfort reigns supreme dictating even artistic choice~: "[Dutch] still-life painters ... always render matter's most superficial quality: sheen. Oysters, lemon pulp, heavy: goblets full of dark wine ..long clay pipes, gleaming chestnuts, pottery, tarnished metal cups, three grape seeds - what can be the justification of such an assemblage if not to lubricate man's gaze amid his domain, to facilitate his daily business among objects whose riddle is dissolved and which are no longer anything but easy surfaces." True, the memento mori painters produced compositions of symbolic objects such as extinguished pipes and post-prandial tables to remind the viewer that life must come to an end. Nevertheless, they painted these subjects with such overwhelming sensuality that their message comes across as mere lip service to morality - and mortality: like the standard warning that graces every package of cigarettes these days.

How different this world is from the enigmatic scenes found in Hershberg's paintings, notwithstanding the shared interest in appearances. There is nothing easy or comfortable about these pictures. The sprats suggest a pile of corpses, a humiliating mass grave. The cow's tongue and the dry sunflower lie on the studio table like the body on the stage as the tragedy draws to its inevitable close. In Split Hoof, the appearance of the subject not only confronts the viewer, it assaults him. Hershberg's raw flesh, shriveled leaves, rivulets of blood, his discolorations and moles on the skin of a naked man - this is no easy surface to take in at a glance. Here, the vivid details are testimony to take in at a glance. Here the vivid details are testimony to an uncompromising struggle with reality. Some sort of drama seems to be underway. Conflicting forces are at work: replete with aesthetically repellent images, the pictures have great beauty. The delicate compositions, the crucial placement of the objects, arid the divisions of lights and darks are counteracted by the unusual selection and isolation of the subject. Repetition and duality constitute the visual realization of Hershberg's pervasive ambiguity, and he frequently paints couplets - two pears, two lemons. His pictures develop from the confrontation of opposites. The most striking conflict in these paintings derives from the relationship between shadow and light, which constitutes a central theme in his work. Metaphorically and literally, light endeavors to reveal, while shadow attempts to engulf and hide. It is the outcome of the struggle between these two forces that determines the details of the visual tableau given to the viewer.

The blatant physicality of Hershberg's painting is conveyed through a plethora of significant details, down to the very "filth" of bodily discharges and blemishes - sweat, pimples, stains - and through the sensuousness, and even eroticism, of some of the objects depicted (usually metaphors for femininity), yet these highly tactile pictures are laden with spiritual intensity. Despite their immediate physicality, his depictions convey the ephemeral fragility of the subjects he paints and their manifold parts. The sunflowers, pinecones, and artichokes actually comprise dozens of tiny components, a kind of conglomeration of nothings that nevertheless results in a powerful and singular visual presence. The subject is suddenly illuminated, like a nova alone in a vast vacuum of darkness. Its presence is tenuous - an apparition. Hershberg likes to think of the fragile existence portrayed in his work as a kind of-circus tent. In reality made only of thin canvas and poles, when in place, the tent has an imposing presence, a physical grandeur. Yet there is an acute awareness of its inevitable dismantling, a simultaneous cognizance that this structure is not here to stay. Its presence, like Hershberg's subject, is tenuous and seems to be in danger of vanishing at any moment.

We' are strongly aware of the selection and isolation of the subject as a result of the empty space around it. It is as though this space has been cleared of any extraneous elements in order to concentrate all the visual energy on what appears to be the "central" object. If that object is a core of tangibility, the so-called background in turn has its own spatial significance and physical weight. It is like a framed segment of infinity. The object seems to exist in an almost abstract space, a landscape with intimations of sublimity. It is the poetry of the empty space that reinforces the visionary quality of these works. What has been painted is poised in a vast silence and will never be painted again.

Hershberg's concentration on the subject - on all of its possible qualities, not just its form, and his subsequent transformation of that concentration into a painterly subject in its own right, eliminates any sign of strain in the finished work. The painting seems always to have been there. There is no indication of the tremendous investment of
time, of the labor of the eye and the hand; instead, the result of their activity is laid out on the canvas like some sort of wondrous wake left by a miracle. The artist's concentration on the subject, the very physical act of observing, also carries a significance beyond the realm of observation. His representation of it plucks the object out of a holistic, empirical, neutral reality and situates it on his studio table, a kind of dissecting table. There it lies, an offering on the artist's altar, waiting to achieve its intended essence, that is, its significance.

Yigal Zalmona
Yulla and Jacques Lipchitz Chief Curator of the Arts, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Translated from the Hebrew by Anna Barber

The quotations from RoIand Barthes are from "The World as an Object" (1953), in Critical Essays, trans. R. Howard, Evanston, ill., 1972, pp. 5-6.

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