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Michael Kovner paints the surface of the scene, but the heart of his landscape paintings, which are exhibited in the Jerusalem Artists House, lies in the mystery of the location.

By: Smadar Shefi (Ha’aretz) April 13, 2010

With large colorful works and an excellent collection of drawings and engravings, Michael Kovner’s exhibition is a key or bridge to an inner space in which the outside is an attendant memory. The exhibition, which is presented over the entire top floor of the Jerusalem Artists’ House (the first time that the entire space has been dedicated to a one-man exhibition), is not retroactive but, rather, focuses primarily on two periods in Kovner’s  work – the earlier (the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, in which several landscape paintings from 1979 are particularly prominent), and works that were painted in the last four years.

All the paintings are landscapes that were made by direct and prolonged observation of nature and urban landscapes. The process that the exhibition offers from painting to drawing to engraving, with an intermingling of the three types of media, enables the viewer to become acquainted with the syllables of the morphological statement formulated by Kovner. The black line of the drawing is enclosed within itself while the line of the engraving spreads beyond itself and, in the paintings, the densities color of the earlier paintings has been replaced by an almost transparent colorfulness, in which a different treatment of light is submersed .

The exhibition curator, Ilan Vizgan, notes that Kovner is one "of the only ones in his generation who does not turn his back on the Israeli landscape; the Negev, the Jordan Valley, the Jezreel Valley, the Tavor area are all connected to the biblical story just as they are the cornerstones of the Zionist story. Kovner walked them alone with his paper and paints on his shoulder, trying to understand the secret of their enchantment and, within that, the way that he/we belong to them." From that standpoint, Kovner is a local artist who once again proves how much the local is universal.

Vizgan also briefly addresses Kovner’s connection to art history, particularly Cézanne and the Impressionists (the associative memory of Cézanne's series of Mont Sainte-Victoire paintings from the end of the 19th century comes to mind in connection with Kovner's paintings in recent years). There are additional prominent connections to American regional painting and also to the landscape paintings of the Italian Francesco Clemente, who painted a series of watercolors on an isolated mountain in India in the middle of the 1990s.

The viewpoints in the large earlier paintings is that of an aerial photograph or what is called "bird’s eye view." From that viewpoint, the landscape is embraced and the viewpoint is transformed into a kind of broad enveloping sheet. They were painted a few years after Kovner, who was born in 1948, returned from his studies in New York, and after he decided that the abstract was not the path on which he would continue, as written in the exhibition text.

"The Black Road" from 1978 (158 x 168 cm) looks almost like an abstract painting with the broad black line that winds-divides-wounds the graduated colors of green-brown-blue patches that create the landscape. In this painting, as in many of the other works, Kovner makes no effort to imitate reality but weaves the impressions of his observations into a new place. In this place, the observer has the opportunity to see the familiar with new eyes and that is how he creates what Alterman called "the "moment of birth" in observing an "old sight."

"Crater," which is also from 1979 (156 x 165 cm), is a clear painting in which the pangs of separation from the abstract are apparent. Without its name and context, it would easily be possible to interpret it as a work dealing with the values of color and form. The distancing from the landscape is expressed in the touch by way of formalist thinking, by way of insistence on autonomy from story and history, until the view of the landscape also encompasses the veils of story and myth, as in the painting "Black Shadow" from 2007 (120 x 150 cm, oil on board). In the corner of the painting, which appears to be part topographical map gone wrong, part traditional landscape painting from which the details have been drawn out, Kovner wrote, "Perhaps there, in the distance (hardly visible), right in front of our eyes, Abraham is binding Isaac."

The "perhaps," the doubt, blunts the political sting in the image of the binding of Isaac, which has served us since the War of Independence as the image of the doubt inherent in Israeli society about the justification for the cost in the victims and casualties who fell in the war, which is continuing here. The painting, which has an almost sculptural feel in the shapes that arise from the canvas, as though it were a painting opposing itself, gives a sense, with its tactile nature, of fragmentation, dispute, a landscape in which is heard the beating of the drums of destiny. Are three small lines in black actually images, wonders the viewer of the painting, but remains without any clear answer.

In the later works, the viewpoint changes. In the series of mountain landscape paintings, the viewpoint is turned to the greening hills. "Dead End" from 2006 (120 x 140 cm) is like a promise whose nonfulfillment is already latent within it. The small "dead end" sign that Kovner paints gives the painting an irony that contrasts with the serene artistic tone and the brushstrokes of the diluted paint until it seems that there is a memory of watercolors in Kovner's work in oils.

In the two smaller spaces, works on paper are exhibited, most of them drawings and a few of them engravings. Kovner paints according to the drawings that he makes in the landscape, i.e., the painting is a process of refining the drawings out of the necessary distancing that is required to remain with the essence, with the spirit of the place.

In the preparations for the paintings that are also presented in the exhibition, such as a pencil drawing on paper that preceded "Crater" or the engraving that was made concomitant to the "Black Road," we can identify the work processes in the set of various emotions vis-à-vis that landscape which, in the studio, turns into a memory of the landscape, into a reincarnation of what was drawn. In the drawing of the crater, the same narrow strip of sky appears which, more than being placed above, is sort of pushed outside the image of the landscape. But in the drawing, there is a sense of an inward collapsing of the landscape into itself, like a crater that can lead into the heart of the earth, and this feeling is far stronger than in the painting "Crater," in which Kovner has patched together the tears in the earth that form the center of the drawing.

In an engraving that was made in 1979 – there is no way to know whether it was done parallel to "The Black Road" or before it – the same landscape is shown and the same viewpoint as that of an aerial photograph. In the engraving, they become animalistic and frenetic and threatened to overflow the page, as though in the engraving, the magma below was depicted and not the groundcover. Kovner’s perception of the spirit of the place (the "genius loci") is what is revealed in this exhibition and what makes it excellent. He also paints the surface of the area, what is visible, but the heart of Kovner’s landscape painting –be it desert, forest or a green landscape – is found where he realizes / points out the mystery of the place; what flickers behind it all, what can be translated into words on layers, rocks, types of earth, roads and heights. If Kovner’s landscapes express longing, it is not directed at, but rather touches, what is not visible to the eye.

Michael Kovner – Observations: 30 Years of Observing and Painting Landscapes
Curator: Ilan Vizgan, Jerusalem Artists’ House (12 Shmuel Hanagid Street)

Open: Sunday–Thursday: 10:00–13:00, 16:00–19:00
Friday: 10:00–13:00 Saturday: 11:00–14:00

Until May 1, 2010

"The Black Road," 1979
"Black Shadow," 2007
"Engraving of the Black Road," 1979

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