by Dr. DAVID GRAVES
Ofer Rotem was born in Tiberias in 1953. He graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Arts in 1981. After graduating, he promptly left for the States, returning to Israel in 2010. Ofer works exclusively with graphite on paper. Pencil, for us laymen. The things one can do with a pencil, it would appear, are astonishing.
In some important respects, drawing with a pencil is more basic than painting, and derives unique significance from this. Sketches are traditionally done with a pencil. Seen from the artist’s point of view, the pencil sketch is the tool for capturing a subject’s initial impression. That last clause is ambiguous in a telling way. The “impression” is dual, for it refers to the impression the topic (subject of the painting) makes upon the artist, as well as the artist’s subjective impression of the topic. On the one hand, it means that the pencil sketch is the way an artist records his own personal first impression of the topic he is studying. This has to do mainly with the artist (subjective). On the other hand, it means that the pencil sketch is the way one captures the impact that the topic leaves upon the artist. It is like the impression a printing press leaves upon the paper. This has to do with the topic (objective).
I believe that this ambivalence is the way Claude Monet regarded the notion of ‘impression’, which is why he decided to accept the initially derisive moniker. In a fundamental sense, all realist painting is a matter of impressions. Consider Monet’s sketch of the Saint Lazare train station in Paris in 1877 (Fig. #). He works rapidly, using lines as snares. He is trying to capture that which is essential to the reality of the scene. He captures the general house-shaped space of the platforms looking out. He is “impressed” specially by the sloped triangular roof, constructed of iron and glass plates. The glass plates run down the spine of the enormous roof, with dark patches on either side. Monet blocks this in, note the top right corner, in particular. The locomotive is a big black machine-monster lumbering in to the station, with frail people scurrying about. The sketch is clearly ‘an impression’. Here we can clearly see the important ambiguity of which we speak. The sketch clearly shows what caught Monet’s eye and left its mark on him (objective and subjective, respectively).
This is a good place to connect with Ofer’s work, for it is the initial phase of his dialogue with reality. Ofer also stood in many a fancy European train station and set out to ensnare the truth of the matter. The truth of the matter, we have found, is never one-sided.The Leipzig train station is one of his chosen subjects (Fig. #). The train station brings a good deal with it to the negotiation table. As a train station, it is a place of considerable hustle and bustle. It is a place of constant movement, of transiency, and yet a stationary place (literally), all the same. It is place of which the multitude of people in it hardly even take notice. As a German train station being portrayed by a Jewish Israeli artist, it brings some more layers of meaningfulness, as the memory Holocaust train transports to concentration camps lingers on. On the other side of the table, Ofer brings his world with him, including the world of a post-Holocaust Jew, displaced for a good part of his life. It is important to note that the sorts of issues that one would expect out of such a dialogue between a realist artist and a train station are the ones Ofer eliminates. A train station is a place of transit where the flow of movement from one point to another in it is paramount, with virtually no regard for the character of the space itself. Ofer empties the train station of people, and scrubs the space clean. The train station becomes a walk-in kaleidoscope of light and reflections. A paradox is born. The place of transit becomes a motionless space. It is at once light and airy, constructed of lattice-work steel and reflective glass. The top, where the light is supposed to come from, is dark and hard-edged. Interestingly, it bears a light-bearing spine that runs down its center to the platforms, like the one at Gare Saint Lazare. The bottom, where the multitude of people stomp on hard stone floors, is light, hazy, soft-edged and highly reflective. A hard, frenetic stone and steel place of motion becomes a light, serene and inviting space of meditative repose.
Monet maintained that he could only draw what he sees, in line with Gustave Courbet’s maxim that painting is a concrete art and can only represent concrete, real and existing things. Ofer, however, is intrigued by the idea that reality is not merely comprised by what is, but also by what isn’t. The people are not there, the hustle and bustle of travel are not there, the urgency of making the train on time is not there, the movement in close quarters is not there. All these are typical for train stations. Not for Ofer. He takes away the obvious, and leaves us with a different take on German train stations. A complicated space is what dominates the scene. Empty up front, where the viewer stands, it gets complicated two-thirds up the way, but all perspective indicators lead to the “light at the end of the tunnel”, that is to the bright sunlit platform where the lone train awaits us. The space is a bit confusing, not only because it is top-hard and bottom-soft as noted above, but because it is multiply reflective. The bottom is a composition of soft reflective forms, reminiscent of a good Hans Hofmann painting, whereas the top is sharply reflective, reminiscent of a Don Eddy hyper-realistic street scene.
These little upside-down and inside-out renderings are typical of Ofer’s dialogue with the world. The Dialogue starts with Ofer’s choice of medium – the graphite pencil. Straight off the bat, this means that Ofer is going to reject one of the major visual contributions the world has to make in the context of art: color! Color is obvious, Ofer might say. In fact, he says, color “muddles his pond”, and gets in the way of what he is after (see his text “About My Work” in the Appendix #). Color has to do with feelings and emotions, which are the prime target of the expressionist painter, but not the realist. As Ofer wrote in the preface to his 2011 exhibition ‘Travelogue’, light and dark form the basic elements of vision. Light is presence (waves, particles, energy), darkness is absence thereof. This illustrates the very idea of being and nothingness. This polarity/duality, thus Ofer, permeates every instance of our lives.
We can now see that, from the very beginning, Ofer’s artistic process is founded upon a deep sense of a dialectical dialogue between him and the world. By choosing to work exclusively in black and white, he chooses to face off against the world on its most basic level: light and dark. But Ofer is inverted with respect to the world. For Ofer’s pencil, what is on the paper is not in the world, i.e. black graphite which is the analogue of darkness. On the other hand, what is in the world – light – is not for Ofer – blank white paper. A true dialectic is at work here, and from the very outset. Where nature is active (shining light) Ofer is omissive (does nothing, leaves paper blank), and where nature is omissive (shadows, no light) Ofer is active – drawing with black graphite. Ofer actively draws what nature hides, while leaving alone whatever she lights up…
For Ofer, the Dialogue runs deep. He photographs his topics, and uses the photos as sketches. What is “out there” is covered, no need to worry about that. Ofer wants to see how what is out there has been structured by light into a vision. This vision is a tricky thing, for it is determined by the objective fact of whatever is out there, while being perennially interpreted and defined by the subjective mind. Both sides of the Dialogue are bi-polar, to borrow a term. Both sides bring their own version of light and dark, presence and absence. From an existential perspective, this feeds a debate concerning what there is and what there is not (being and nothingness), which is carried out, in turn, as the dialectic between order and chaos from a metaphysical perspective. Ofer utilizes the perceived order and chaos out there in the world to achieve a convincing image of external reality. His forests look like forests, his sea looks like the sea, his train stations look like, well… This is to be expected, for Ofer is explicitly aware of the fact that his mind is constantly structuring and interpreting whatever is out there. Whatever order and chaos is out there, it must negotiate with the order and chaos of Ofer’s perceiving mind.
The fact that the human mind is biologically evolved to make sense of things by structuring, ordering and interpreting them is one of which Ofer makes good use. One does not necessarily need to draw a table. (In fact, most artists think one should avoid that, as one should avoid drawing any concept, word or idea). Instead of drawing a table, one would be better off drawing the appropriate arrangement of lights and shades which ipso facto define the table visually. By drawing the light and shade (or the color patches, if one paints like Aram Gershuni) one achieves a much more convincing realistic image. Also, by correctly structuring the form through its light/shade relations within the overall context of the scene of the painting, the brain is more than likely to take over and automatically interpret a structure as a certain object. For instance, a light-reflective, horizontally-oriented rectangular form is more than likely to be interpreted by the mind as ‘a table’, when placed in the context of a coffee shop. Ofer calls these “instantly recognizable and meaningful forms”.
Thanks to this capacity to instantly recognize a certain form as being ‘a so-and-so’ in a certain context, we can get an idea of what’s out there almost immediately. In the context of a picture of a forest, long strokes flowing up from the ground will be immediately recognized as grass, clumped small forms are leaves, thicker scraggly forms are branches and so on. This interpretation will occur automatically, so as long as Ofer maintains enough formal information – upward lines, scraggly forms, clumped little objects – he can rely on the viewer’s mind to automatically see grass, branches and leaves. He goes on to say:
“Thus, I’m free to represent things “out there in reality” via shapes quite separate from the idea of what the things represented should look like or “really” look like. From a distance the images will look like what they claim to be. From closer up, and closer still, they will look like something else completely. Perceptual realism gives way to what I’ll have to call, for lack of a better term, “gestural realism”.”
In a sense, it is as if Ofer decided to counter the mind’s capacity for automatic recognition with a form of what the Surrealists called ‘automatic drawing’. In this case, the hand is free to draw whatever happens to emerge from the artist’s subconscious. Thus, while drawing foliage, for example, Ofer would start allowing his hand to freely draw random shapes.“The spontaneous movement of the drawing hand is meant to replicate or mirror or connect with the chemical and biological forces that shape and govern organic forms”, says Ofer. Hence, foliage becomes an intricate lacework of organic-like forms, following a basic kind of unarticulated stream of consciousness employed by Ofer when he is “in the zone”, (that is, completely immersed in the development of the image). See, for instance, the dry, mulchy ground surrounding the tree trunk in ????? 201? (Fig. # and detail Fig. #).Another good example is the reflections in the water in Yarden 2015.
Over the course of a few years of concentrated work, Ofer’s Dialogue with the world intensified. The random forms that emerged from his subconscious and flowed through his arm to the paper became more and more determinate. Forms that started off as being organic forms of his mind corresponding with organic forms in nature, started to undergo a metamorphosis. Ofer’s cultural world entered the scene, and his stream of consciousness started to include identifiable objects. Thus, in the water refractions at the bottom of Gila and Pool 2014, in the bottom row of tiles, one finds such images as Van Gogh’s self-portrait with a bandaged ear, Monk’s screamer (although not quite screaming, as he appears to be surprised at finding himself in the pool), and a naughty sort of pig-nosed bandit. As thisprocess progressed, Ofer got more and more adventurous, and pushed his agenda upon the landscape with a vengeance. In his Beit Keshet 2016 (Fig. # and Fig. # detail), one finds Monk’s screamer (this time screaming), Klee’s old man and one of Picasso’s demoiselles all side by side in the foreground foliage. With them, one finds fairies and dragonflies, a gilded cage, a woman with a rifle, a mobius loop and I could swear I found Israel Hershberg’sStill Life with a Cow’s Tongue in there. Ofer goes quite off the rails in there.And yet, as wild as his imagination got in the intricacies of the landscape’s nether regions, Ofer never lost sight of the reality of what was out there. His light rings true, one immediately sees a realistically convincing scene. So much so, many a viewer commented on how they look like photographs at first glance. Ofer’s forests are forests, his water is water, his trees are trees. And they are all composed of shapes and forms born of Ofer’s streaming consciousness. Quite the balancing act.
This balancing act between the objective “out there” natural scene and the subjective “in here” stream of consciousness is at the very heart of Ofer’s art. From Ofer’s perspective, the dialectic is clear enough, as he wields his pencil both to render objective light and shade, and to bring forth the subjective strands of his wandering consciousness that weave the image into a complex, and convincing whole. The technique has become quite polished. In his most recent works one can see how his imaginary stream of consciousness forms dominates the creation of the landscape. In other words, the subjective effectually creates the objective. A good example is his Emma(Fig. #, and Fig. #, detail), depicting his daughter Emma sitting on a patch of rocks in the sea. The entire rock patch as well as the shallow waters in the foreground – that is roughly three quarters of the entire picture – are clearly “woven” out of endless strands of Ofer’s imaginary forms. It is not so much a matter of curious figures that appear out of a chaos of foliage, like in Beit Keshet or others (even though one can find a keyboard, a sleeping cat, and Daffy Duck in Emma), it is a matter of how Ofer constructs the objects, like the rocks, in the drawing. One can clearly see how Ofer’s exploratory pencil wanders across the surface, “weaving” rock out of random shapes as it goes along. Ofer no longer draws rocks and water, not by a longshot. But his rocks are as rocky as they get and his waters are as wet as can be. The result is an image that is at once acutely realistically convincing (not passingly so, but strikingly so), while at the same time being dreamlike, almost hallucinatory. It is as if it is clear to the viewer that this realistic image has been fed through some sort of polishing machine. That machine is Ofer.
 From “An open letter to a group of prospective students”, in Charles Leger, Courbet, Paris, 1929, pp. 86-88.
 Compare this notion to Monet’s notion that a landscape is context…
 See Appendix #
 Dr. Doron Lurie, former Curator for the Old Masters and Chief Restorator of Tel Aviv Museum, likened Ofer to English Victorian painter Richard Dadd, who also filled in his scenes with fantastic figures. See his essay “The Bridge, the Railway, the Pool, and All the Rest” in the catalogue to Ofer’s exhibition at Tel Aviv Museum, 2016.
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