Impaired Beauty and the Dark Side
Text by: Emanuela Calò — 2007
The master narrative underlying Khen Shish's works is the great oscillation between beauty and the ongoing attempt to mutilate it. Her obsessively recurring image bank is subject to constant metamorphosis. In the images' various incarnations she touches on the beauty and majesty of golden crowns and flowers, and concurrently – on distortion, flaw, and diversion; on that which looks like a violation of beauty and perfection. Shish's flowers are often wilted, with drooping inflorescence; the crowns are inverted, the eyes – wounded, the hearts – reclining (as if they had stopped beating), the houses and trees are devoid of foundations and roots, hovering in mid-air.1
The images are reincarnated into one another: eyes transform into images of eyelets, which are, in effect, electric wires for light bulbs, which are sometimes nooses, that are also leaves or flowers that have turned into tears. Sprawled hearts transform into distorted young girls or female dwarves. These are nightmarish-apocalyptic, disconcerting, castrated images – trees on crutches, a black sun, burnt-out bulbs and houses, gouged out or covered eyes.
In some respects, Shish continues the ostensibly wild and undomesticated (child-like) line distinctive of artists such as Aviva Uri, Raffi Lavie, and Moshe Gershuni. As noted by Yoav Shmueli, however, "Khen has a unique, spectacular painterly handwriting that is etched and signed with indisputable madnesspassion and beauty."2 Her ability to create an entire world, drama, pathos, breathtaking beauty – from a single line expresses the romantic belief in the power of the single, reduced line to say something meaningful, in the unmediated directness of painting, the risk inherent in over-exposure and going all the way.
Shish's journey takes place in the unmapped areas of the psyche, in sites of anxieties and fantasies, in biographical, emotional and political realms. It involves, inter alia, "suicidal" artistic acts such as burning works which she feels no longer represent her, anxiety attacks accompanied by obsessive hoarding and multiplicity, followed by acts of emptying, and a belief in total-radical acts associated with self-mutilation and violence.
In this respect Shish's work calls to mind Michael Landy's Break Down (2001), a radical-obsessive installation where he systematically shredded and destroyed all of his possessions, previously sorted, labeled, and catalogued, in a shut down C&A department store in London, as an act of protest and criticism against Western production and consumer culture.3 Landy's drawings for the series of etchings Nourishment (2002)4 executed over two years, depicting wild flowers and weeds growing in desolate urban sites, recall Shish's days of wandering in Safed. In the case of both artists, vegetation and "low," undomesticated nomadic-materials are linked with botanical plants and medicinal, sedative herbs. The manner in which Shish binds together wilting and growth continues a tradition typical of Israeli artists such as Larry Abramson, who "moves in circles of yearning and desolation," beauty and destruction, as well as the botanical drawings of the Bezalel artists, Leopold Krakauer's thistle garlands, Anna Ticho's flowers and landscapes, and Moshe Gershuni's flowers of remembrance.5
In Shish's works on paper, the fusion of preliminary and independent drawings of images recurring in her oeuvre is conspicuous. The drawings too focus on a process, on change, metamorphosis. Her drawing installations bring together small, intimate sketches of direct gestures to form a dynamic, resilient reservoir of drawings under constant change, perpetual addition or subtraction. The drawing installations are akin to sketchbooks, an aggregate of multiple studies brought together into a single concept. Like all of Shish's works, they too combine a distinctive, automatic, expressive, personal handwriting with the conceptual. While obsessive and spontaneous, they are nonetheless spawned by awareness of their open, amorphous, modular quality, and form a part of her oeuvre which transpires on the line between reduction and multiplicity.
The drawing installation Light, please (2002) in the collection of Tel Aviv Museum of Art, consists of thousands of drawings, including images of flowers, light bulbs, houses and hearts, in a range of drawing materials and styles. The installation indicates a search for the right, personal line, while introducing an approach skeptical of the very possibility of realizing that line. The multiplicity of drawings and their juxtaposition revalidate them, reinforcing their meaning and offering different emphases.
Shish's installations, mainly the paper ones, express a modernist perception of installation as an articulation of the inner truth of the "dreaming" subject and his unconscious wishes, and the romantic perception and aesthetic regarding the notion of the unique "self" involved in it. At the same time, they challenge the very relevance of this aesthetic, raising questions about the definition of personal identity and the distinctions between interior and exterior, the ego and the world. Drawing away from these modernist conceptions leads to a perception of installation (and the dream it represents) as a mirror of society, not only as an expression of personal escapism.
The spectacular, expensive installations often filling the spaces of contemporary art museums (such as Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, London) signify the "surrender" of the genre – that began as an avant-garde, noncommercial practice which subverted the foundations of the art market – to institutional culture industry.6 Khen Shish's "poor" drawing installations offer a contrast to these dramatic, ambitious, mega-budgeted installations. They present a combination of the unconscious dream and private inner truth with dreaming as the origin of revolutionary social insight.
See: Ruti Direktor, "On Excess and Renunciation," exh. cat. Khen Shish: I was Kidnapped by Indians (The Art Gallery, University of Haifa, 2006), pp. 76-67.
Yoav Shmueli, "Untitled, 03," TimeOut, 2 July 2003, p. 90 [Hebrew].
Judith Nesbitt and John Slyce, Michael Landy, Semidetached (London: Tate Britain, 2004), pp. 70-71.
Ibid., p. 62.
See Tamar Manor-Friedman "The Rose of Jericho: A Dormant Parable," exh. cat. Larry Abramson: The Rose of Jericho, trans. Peretz Kidron (Jerusalem Print Workshop, 2004), pp. V-XV.
This discussion draws on Ellen Ginton's essay, "'The Eyes of the Nation': Visual Art in a Country Without Boundaries," exh. cat. Perspectives on Israeli Art of the Seventies – 'The Eyes of the Nation': Visual Art in a Country Without Boundaries, trans. Vivianne Barsky (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1998), pp. 306-302.