On Khen Shish’s Birthday

Text by: Tal Ben Zvi — 2003

Khen Shish’s exhibition Birthday opened on her birthday. Shish, whose works have dealt extensively with the position of the biographical agent and with various aspects of Mizrahi identity,1 chose to place the personal biographical dimension in the current exhibition in the genealogy of the Israeli art  field as an imaginary family biography.

In the gallery space Shish installed scores of drawings executed on stickers, paper  scraps, oak tag, and canvas, so that torn eyes, scratches, black hearts, stems, petals, flowers, and more eyes, burst forth  from each of the Gallery’s drawing-filled rooms. All were executed in swift, ostensibly slipshod, linear drawing that introduced  a unique, personal handwriting typified by obsession and intensity.

In many press reviews about the exhibition, the critics noted a link between Shish’s work and artistic precedents.2 Gilad Meltzer3, for example, described Shish’s affinity with the canon of Israeli painting:

The exhibition emphasized Shish’s profound affinity with the canon of the older generation in Israeli painting, skillfully maneuvering between slovenly eruption and accurate restraint: Shish’s depictions of near-upright, slightly drooping stalks  recall Raffi Lavie’s quivering line and Yoav Efrati’s evasive drawing. The greatest surprise for me was the black flower paintings which resemble Gershuni, but without the morbid historical baggage.

Yoav Shmueli4 also discussed Shish’s handwriting in the context of the Israeli canon:

It is an unresolved work – on the one hand, the traces of her handwriting leave no room for doubt: she is clearly talented […]; on the other, her somewhat parasitical choreographed dance steps with the painterly language of Raffi Lavie, Moshe Gershuni, and Aviva Uri – and, in contrast, the more interesting and surprising steps with that of Jean Michel Basquiat, under her seemingly confident orchestration, are confusing and challenging.

In the sequence of artistic associations between Beuys, Gershuni,  Aviva Uri, Raffi Lavie, and Basquiat, Shish seems to elude her critics. At the same time, the artist’s two works, presented side  by side,  seem to conceal  a code for deciphering  the association between the canon and her works.

The first work follows a 1970s reproduction by Moshe Gershuni. Gershuni originally  decorated Goya’s reproduction5 with red margins, and  on  the figure of the 17th century woman portrayed in it he inscribed the words “Golda Meir” in red. Shish uses Gershuni’s photographic reproduction as published  in the Israeli art magazine Studio. She leaves it as is, but chooses to gouge out the queen’s eyes.

Shish tore Gershuni’s reproduction  out of a special issue of Studio (#143, 2003) dedicated  entirely to the artist, Israel Prize Laureate  for painting, and his refusal  to accept the prize in the presence of Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon. In this respect, Gershuni’s criticism of the government and establishment at the time of the award reception is a continuation of Goya’s criticism when he depicted the Spanish royal court as corrupt;  at the same time, it is also a continuation of Gershuni’s criticism of Golda Meir after the Yom  Kippur War (1973). This chain of criticism, however, seems to remain within the  bounds of the  Israeli hegemonic discourse; this may account for the fact that  Shish tears, sterilizes, and perforates the hegemonic critical gaze, leaving it empty and hollow.

Gershuni’s reproduction was published in Studio on a two-page spread, juxtaposed with another work, also from the  1970s: a white page on which he  inscribed the sentence “The paper looks white from the outside but inside it is black.” Discussing this piece Ellen Ginton6 notes that Gershuni’s logic of  displacement, from  the outside in, is one that conjures up the (politically  as  well as sexually) repressed. The otherness signified in the work remains  under the  surface, and is represented only through language in a  dichotomous inside-outside,  black-white binary  system. Shish tears this  work out of a magazine, perforates a heart shape  in the page, and installs the work on a flickering television monitor placed on the gallery floor, letting the dots flashing on screen bathe and illuminate  the  heart at the  bottom of the  page.

But instead of the invisible blackness which transpires as a mere lyrical option  in the original spread, Shish introduces the “black” face most quintessentially charged with otherness, blackness, and Orientalism. A black stain  appears on the page, a black face of sorts entirely  rubbed out; underneath it, in red letters dripping like blood, she writes “rather  nice,” adding at the bottom, in black: “Golda Pardons” with an arrow pointing at an object resembling either scissors or a phallic image whose testicles are hollowed like the queen’s eyes in Gershuni’s reproduction.

The phrase “rather nice” immediately connotes the Israeli Black Panthers. Shish’s words are like a self statement in feminine form referring to  Golda Meir’s claim against the Black Panthers at the  beginning  of the Mizrahi struggle, that they are “not nice.” In response to Gilad Meltzer’s description of her works as “Gershuni, but without the morbid historical baggage,” Shish inundates the works with a historical narrative of repression, charging the historical narrative with the feminine semantics, thus transforming the  male  Black Panther into a tigress. The scissors or empty testicles indicate castration of a masculine sphere, a realm of canonical language, the paternal language embodied by the dynasty of Israeli art reviewed at length above.

From the pair of works, by Gershuni/Goya and by Shish, installed at  the entrance to the gallery, the gaze splits into  several rooms and scores of piercing black eyes, black hearts, and countless scribbles and lines generating a chaos of sorts with inner logic. Dalia Marcovitz7 analyzed this logic in her review of the exhibition, with reference to Franz Fanon’s writing:

In  the dialectic created between the white and the black, the black gaze undermines itself. It attempts to swallow the white as a model for imitation. At the same time it digests its inferior reflection as assimilated in the white world. The norms of observation dictated by the world seem not to apply to Shish’s eyes. The submissive, servile gaze which strives to assume the appearance of the other is replaced by dozens of piercing eyes […]. Khen Shish strives to free the gaze of authority, the “gaze” that has transformed into the domesticating, sublimating “self  gaze.” The eyes in the exhibition respond to this call. Manically and powerfully they roam around the space, directing a black gaze at Israeli society.

In another critical essay, Ruti Direktor8 addresses the  critical option of contemporary art as manifested in Shish’s exhibition and in Eli Petel’s exhibition “Neo Soul” concurrently exhibited at Dvir Gallery:9

Both Eli Petel and Khen Shish seem to take suicidal artistic measures – Petel in his choice of bizarre photographic themes  and the ostensibly non-artistic mode of painting; Shish in her brush with the banal and kitschy and in the romanticizing  of drawing as  a continuation of the body and  the self. Both their appearances  rub shoulders with the non-high, less-artistic, less-sophisticated. Both indirectly touch upon Israeliness.

In the concluding paragraph of her review, Direktor asks whether Mizrahi identity may be regarded as  a metaphor  for  progressing in a side path of art, one typified by relinquishing a standard appearance. In a sense, Shish’s erupting, excessive linear drawing is not a side path of Israeli art,  but rather its re-definition. Shish in fact creates a stamp of approval, at once adoptive and defiant. The sole line repeated on each page indeed operates within the glorification of the line as part of the tradition of modern drawing;10 the latter, however, is confronted with both  a chaotic multiplicity and with eruptions of words and sentences: ‘Golda Meir,’ ‘Golda Pardons,’ ‘rather nice,’ ‘tigress,’ ‘honey,’ ‘Lag Ba’Omer, may you burn,’ ‘space,’ etc. – each individually and all together take the viewer far from the modernist world into an individual, at once cultural and political, semiotic sphere.

  1. For an elaboration on Khen Shish’s works in the exhibition Mother Tongue, see: Tal Ben Zvi, “Deferring Language as a Theme in the Work of Mizrahi Artists,” in Eastern Appearance: A Present that Stirs in the Thickets of Its  Arab Past, ed.: Yigal Nizri (Tel Aviv: Babel, 2004), pp. 184-154.

  2. The link between the artist’s personal handwriting and canonical artistic sources was first indicated by Naomi Aviv in the text accompanying the exhibition.

  3. Yedioth Aharonoth, Arutzim supplement, 4 July 2003 [Hebrew].

  4. Yoav Shmueli, “Untitled 03,” Time Out, 3-10 July 2003 [Hebrew].

  5. Detail from Francisco Goya’s portrayal of the  royal family: a portrait of the  Spanish Queen, Maria Louisa.

  6. Ellen Ginton, Perspectives on Israeli  Art of the Seventies – “The Eyes of the Nation”: Visual Art in a Country Without Boundaries, exh. cat., trans: Vivianne Barsky (Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1998), p. 296.

  7. Dalia  Marcovitz, “Khen Shish: Birthday,” Studio 149 (December 2003 - January 2004): 165-166  [Hebrew].

  8. Ruti Direktor, Ha’Ir, 3 July 2003, p. 78 [Hebrew].

  9. Both Eli Petel and Khen Shish participated in the exhibition Mother Tongue. For a discussion of their works, see the exhibition catalogue (n. 1).

  10. On the awesome reverence for the line in the  history of art,  see: Aviva Uri, “The Line,” in Aviva Uri, exh. cat., eds. Galia Bar-Or and Jean- Francois Chevrier (Ein Harod: Mishkan Le’Omanut Museum of  Art, 2002),  pp. 217-221  [Hebrew].