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By Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer

Michael Kovner paintings at Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland fuse a love of nature with subtle hints about politics By Steven Litt, The Plain Dealer The landscape paintings of Israeli artist Michael Kovner, on view in a quietly mesmerizing exhibition at the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland headquarters in Beachwood, possess many fine qualities. Among them are a powerful sense of light, a vibrant sense of color, and brushwork that seems to tremble with emotion. But perhaps most striking among Kovner’s artistic virtues is his ability to portray hills, valleys, plains and trees as if they were tactile objects over which one could run one’s hands, as if savoring the touch of every rise and hollow, every branch, every leaf. It’s easy to sense that for Kovner, Israel is something precious - even a miracle. His works can easily be read as anthems in paint, the visual equivalent of patriotic hymns. They seem to suggest that the Israeli landscape is something to be literally grasped and held dear. In fact, the artist’s biography lends itself to such interpretations. Kovner was born in 1948, the same year Israel declared independence as the Jewish homeland and had to fight for its survival in the face of a multinational onslaught by its Arab neighbors. He is the son of the leading Israeli poet, Abba Kovner, who led partisan attacks against the Nazis outside Vilna, Lithuania, during World War II and who later fought in the Israeli war of independence. During his own stint in the Israeli army, Michael Kovner served in a unit alongside two future prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. But Kovner’s most profound formative experiences may have been those of his childhood at the Kibbutz Ein Hachoresh in central Israel, where he and other children were allowed to wander “freely, barefoot among the fields, searching out and identifying birds, insects and other wildlife,” as he states on his website.


“As a young boy I was deeply attracted to the physical beauty of the world and wanted to give expression to that love through painting,” Kovner writes. In other words, Kovner may be motivated more by a deep affection for nature, as revealed in the Israeli landscape, than by patriotism. Art history itself is another major driver of his talent. After his military service, Kovner left Israel to spend three years at the New York Studio School, where he immersed himself in the study of painting under luminaries including Philip Guston, Steven Sloman, Jack Tworkov and Mercedes Matter. Guston, an Abstract Expressionist who turned to figurative images of cigar-puffing Klansmen, dangling light bulbs and piles of shoes in the early 1970s, was particularly influential on Kovner. To spend time with Kovner’s landscapes is to become convinced that a Zionist reading is neither completely fair nor entirely accurate. Kovner is instead trying to do something more subtle and rich, namely to reconcile the idea of Israel as contested territory with an exploration of nature and of pictorial ideas rooted in the history of modern painting. Kovner’s casual and fluid sense of touch owes a debt to Guston’s rich brushwork. His tendency to exaggerate and simplify the gestural shapes of land forms and trees carries a suggestion of early-20th-century German Expressionism and perhaps even the New Mexico landscapes of the American modernist Marsden Hartley.

Beyond that, Kovner’s artistic roots are primarily Mediterranean and French. His use of cool and warm tones to sculpt the shapes of hills and hollows in a way that appeals to a viewer’s sense of touch has origins ultimately in the Riviera landscapes of Paul Cezanne. Kovner’s palette, shot through with cool turquoises, hot yellows and smoldering oranges and reds, also nods toward Pierre Bonnard, the French Postimpressionist who also spent much of his life in the south of France. And Kovner’s superb charcoal drawings of trees, with their curvaceous, sinewy forms, bring to mind the languid nudes of Henri Matisse. Such influences are all apparent in Kovner masterpieces such as “Old Railway Station Outside of Jerusalem,” which is less an ode to the idea of Israel as the Jewish homeland than it is an exploration of land forms, vegetation and three-dimensional space. It’s a painting for the sake of painting, in which the subject is more or less incidental. At the same time, traces of the conflicts that have torn at Israeli society are palpable in certain works, even if they are subdued. For example, a painting of Abu Tor, a mixed Arab and Jewish neighborhood south of the Old City of Jerusalem, is an image of coexistence in a landscape painted to suggest a restrained turbulence. The picture depicts a sun-burnt hillside carved by roads and walls. A promontory at the bottom of the scene is edged with blocky apartment buildings, suggesting a cozy domesticity, while a Christian church looks down from the horizon high on the upper edge of the image. A blue-green bus, which would be recognizable to locals as a vehicle used by Palestinians, traverses a road on the distant slope. Jews,

Christians and Palestinians are all at home in a landscape that seems to rumble beneath them. In “Judean Desert,” the land forms break free of manmade structures as waves of peach-colored hills recede toward the Dead Sea in the far distance and blazing, low-angled light bleaches the desert in the foreground. The beautiful and barren terrain appears to tolerate only grudgingly a settlement of blocky dwellings on a flat patch in the middle distance. Images of fish ponds nestled amid valleys outside Beit Shean, Cleveland’s sister city in Israel, suggest a different kind of tenuous relationship with the land. Without hammering home the message, the paintings evoke the idea of Israel as a country that must make the most of every square inch of arable land in order to feed itself, either with crops or sources of protein such as fast-growing fish. a wide audience with eight large canvases, nine charcoal drawings and 16 small gouache studies from 1986 through 2011, the Kovner show is small, but it’s big enough to convey the power of the artist’s work and to stoke a strong desire to see more. Several works are on loan from local collections, including that of the federation itself, indicating that Kovner has a strong following in Northeast Ohio.

The show is part of a larger effort by the federation called the Cleveland Israel Arts Connection. The program - whose goal is to introduce Northeast Ohioans to top-notch contemporary art, dance, theater, film and literature from Israel - was initiated by Stephen Hoffman, president of the federation, and by philanthropists Roe Green and Erica Hartman-Horvitz. It is also supported by Gallagher Benefit Services Inc. and Northern Trust Co. The exhibition creates a reason for the general public to visit the new federation headquarters at 25701 Science Park Drive in Beachwood. The organization moved there after its controversial decision in 2008 to leave its location on Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland in a building designed in 1965 by important American architect Edward Durell Stone. The gallery in which the show is installed is named for Green, and it’s accessible by appointment and during highly limited regular hours. Although the show is on view through Sunday, Jan. 15, the only remaining time during which the public can visit unannounced is on the show’s final day, from 2 to 5 p.m. Karen Wyman, the federation’s senior associate for marketing and communications, said the federation plans to hold at least four shows a year in the gallery. If the quality of succeeding shows is as high as this one, the federation will have to consider ways to make the Roe Green Gallery more accessible on a regular basis. If the mission is to share the excellence in contemporary Israeli art, it makes little sense to make such work difficult to see. Kovner’s art is an excellent kickoff for the gallery. In fact, it’s so good that it deserves the widest audience possible

Published: Sunday, January 01, 2012

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