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Group Portrait

Julie M. Gallery, Tel Aviv

April 30 - June 6, 2015


Many gazes are directed at the viewer in Tali Ben Bassat’s current exhibition. Groups of youths, mostly men but women too, one couple, and several individuals fill out the gallery space with their strong presence. After working in a variety of other mediums for many years, Ben Bassat has once more started to paint in oil on large canvasses, and she seems to relish the paint and its materiality. Her images take up the entire canvas – and the lead actor is the paint, ruling the stage with free brushstrokes that run the entire gamut from density to airiness.


The images were drawn from fashion photographs. But having been restaged and portrayed life size in vivid color, the figures “model” themselves once again, this time for our benefit. Ben Bassat’s engagement with fashion goes back as far as her first exhibition, “Clothes” (Limbus Gallery, Tel Aviv, 1996). But these images were body-less and focused on representations of the female body through clothes alone. Clothing imagery has reappeared in her work over the years, but only as minor elements, not as a central theme. For instance, in the series “Looking at Eva Rothschild,” 2006-08 (Julie M. Gallery, Tel Aviv, 2012), engaging with the experience of watching art works, she depicts female and male figures in a variety of outfits, demonstrating a variety of taste and design trends.

 

What do the figures depicted in the current exhibition wish to express? Do they intend to engage in a dialogue with the viewer, to present us with a reflection of our times or society, or to represent an individual facing a group? Most of them are depicted standing frontally, emitting a kind of urbanity which may be related to either the present or the past. One group of youths is portrayed in several paintings, in winter garments. They are cut off from their surroundings, attuned to themselves alone. Their figures are depicted in a bleak palette and are informed by repetitive patterns – for instance, the shirt collars, the dangling arms, the leg strips, and the forward-turned gaze, which conveys a certain degree of melancholy and despair. Their faces oscillate between disclosure and concealment, between exposure and a sense of exclusion. Often, Ben Bassat erases and distorts facial features, leaving only a shadow or stains that merge together and suggest body parts. The incomplete, empty faces seem to search for some deeper psychological meaning. It is an emptiness that strives beyond representation and frees the figures from specific identification and an affixing, petrifying gaze. Another group in the exhibition is of four young men in blue, whose stance and composition recalls Picasso’s iconic Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), but in a male, macho version (In 2012 Ben Bassat produced The Dames of the Night, a feminine reference to the same painting). The youngsters stand confidently, facing forward, their faces constituting a stylistic scale that extends from expressive stains, through masking, to erasure and abstraction. Ben Bassat’s interest in depicting groups has already become evident in previous exhibitions, in which one may have encountered, for instance, groups of girls, delinquents, or viewers looking at works of art.

The alienation conveyed by her figures stems, among other reasons, from the fact that despite being part of a group their attention is turned outward. In this, they recall the “selfie” culture of social networks. The figures seem to be posing for self-photography, aware of the moment and of future viewers who, by watching them, will validate their existence. There are also some individual figures among the groups, as well as one couple, who, standing apart from the crowd, gains both the viewer’s attention and that of the painted group. But here, too, while the female figure closes her eyes and her entire attention is turned to herself and the kiss, the man looks outward, maintaining direct, conscious contact with his surroundings.

 

Ben Bassat’s painting practices seem to be an homage to modernism, displaying a desire to return to the generative moment when painting was set free along with its constituent elements. In this series, she further expresses her attraction to avant-garde tendencies, which has been evident in her works in recent years. This is attested to by the large planes of color, the free brushstrokes, the flatness and the stains, which are all compounded here by the traditional medium she employs – oil on canvas – which seems to celebrate its very existence. In the transition from fashion photography to painting, the former’s glamorous, commercial aspect is expunged and the models’ meticulous beauty is made indistinct in favor of this play of color and stains. The real-life figure disappears and is replaced by an expression of an inner mood. At the same time, however, a sense of detachment, emptiness and alienation between the figures seems to preserve the artificiality of a staged fashion shoot.

text by Iris Mendel