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By Prof. ARIEL HIRSCHFELD
Ofer Rotem’s pencil drawings do not respond to the accepted reading of the notion of drawing. The rather elusive Hebrew term for this concept chiefly indicates a quick sketch, using lines only, of the outline of the thing functioning as the subject of the picture. In classic Italian art for example, there were four separate concepts for the different modes of drawing: pensiero, schizzo, studio, disegno. The first concept – “pensiero” signified the first rough lines only, a thought of sorts materializing in visual form for the very first time. The second concept – “schizzo”, refers to the evolving advance of the first, a budding out of the bare skeleton of the drawing. The third - ”studio”, true to its name, is the study of things from “nature”; infusing the initial ideas with empirical observation of tangible things. The fourth concept, “disegno”, describes a fully finished drawing on par with any painting.
Ofer Rotem’s drawings are therefore “disegno” in the full classic sense of the notion: a drawing qualifying as a painting (differing from the modernist concept which additionally regards quick, preliminary general sketches as finished works of art. This interpretation however is saturated with late Romantic assumptions. These assert that the nascent, the primeval and the uncompleted are highly valuable and at times more so than any finished artwork). It’s important in my view to emphasize this here because the classic differentiation between drawing and painting (quadra, dipinto) is no less significant. It is only as an outcome of this differentiation that the high, singular value given to the complete, self-sufficient drawing despite it not being a painting can be understood. This differentiation in and of itself bestowed the “disegno” type drawing with its significance. The viewer was alert to the surprising capacity for creating an entire pictorial world without the instruments of color. The “disegno” was regarded as a singularly virtuosic medium and the greatest artists exalted themselves with it. This because it requires a dual adaptation of the imagining power: color too appeared in it through a conceptual translation of the light and dark contrasts. The “disegno” is the basis for the unique value granted to black and white photography today, as an example.
But Ofer Rotem’s drawings are not Renaissance drawings, even if their pictorial independence is undeniable. They are a contemporary “disegno”, stemming from the life experience of a contemporary person. The proficiency invested in them, while originating from the world of classic art, works in contemporary channels. These facts carry a decisive significance.
Rotem’s “disegno” is based on snapshots taken with a digital camera. The photos were displayed before the artist on a computer screen. The act of drawing is not the study of reality but rather a replication of a photograph of it. However, the concept of “replication” requires accuracy. Replication isn’t always a passive activity of transcription or duplication. It actually means “transference”. This incidentally is the Greek meaning of the word “metaphor”. In Rotem’s replication act as well, a complex process of transference is occurring, creating a new metaphorical space, captivating and powerful. The transference is in this case a multifaceted adaptation of the photographic image: the study and restructuring of the image’s appearance on paper using only a pencil. The photographing act prior to the drawing is therefore the “pensiero” – the choosing of the subject. The “schizzo” and the “studio” here are correlated actions within the sequence of cognitive processing hidden from our view.
And yet Rotem’s drawing works contain an additional component that cannot be explained through the classic positivist succession (the emergent progression leading from a constant notion of actuality to contemplation and to creativity). These drawing works, which at first glance seem to be exceedingly fastidious representations of landscapes, natural or urban, forest parts or a swimming pool, contain diminutive shapes, miniature pictures, and image fragments entirely lacking within the actual landscapes that were photographed and replicated. For Rotem, the drawing phase in and of itself, i.e. the act of drawing with a pencil, is a phase into which merges a cognitive channel entirely different from the analytical channel that’s dealing with the transference of the photo to the drawing. In this phase, along with the motion of the fingers and palm of the drawing hand constructing the small segments that the photograph is made of, a different plain emerges, one that has no name more fitting than “the imagination”, and it inserts itself into the particles of the intricate views. I find it relevant to note here that the meaning of “imagination” in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary - “the power of representing things absent to one’s self or others”, is the suitable one for this discussion.
This process is not at all simple; i.e. – it’s not a matter of “incorporating” “motifs from the imagination” into a “factual” or “realistic” alignment, because the enlargement and the intensified observation of the photographed reality parts expel these views from the realm of “factuality” or “realism” even before any material from the imagination enters them.
This is the first point worthy of a lengthier deliberation around Ofer Rotem’s drawing enterprise. I’ll try to clarify this by examining a detail from “Gila and Pool 2014”: the drawing, which lays before us a detailed and exceedingly virtuosic representation of a swimming pool floor as seen through a layer of clear water, actually lays out something that we find wholly insignificant when it’s a part of a photograph. The fact that water deflects sun beams differently and distorts angles and proportions in submerged objects is known to us as part of our earliest life experience. This, we recall, is the fact utilized by the ancients to prove the eye’s perceptual flaws. The photographs showing us the distortions of forms in objects submerged in water are not at all palpable to us as representing something meaningful. They display the obvious which does not require any thought. This was presumably the case with the photo used as the model for this fascinating drawing: a swimming pool with a ceramic tile floor forming a geometrical crisscross design. The fact that the crisscross lines are distorted in different forms due to the fluctuations of the water surrounding the figure standing in it is completely understood and therefore attracts almost no attention. In the drawing however, the floor lines twisting around the figure stand out as the main event, endlessly captivating the viewer’s mind.
What happened here? Ostensibly nothing was done here besides an exceedingly meticulous replication. It is here however that the metaphoric facet of this replication is revealed, the same profound pictorial dimension that gave the classic “disegno” its stature and prestige: the medium’s grappling with the illusive object suddenly awakens it from the slumber of the obvious. The simple medium of the graphite pencil, old, cumbersome, slow, safeguarding relationships of affinity and pertinence with the fingers of the human hand, activates the view of things altogether otherwise: the eye follows the lines not as if they were a reality part but as lines that have emerged out of an unhurried act of observation and creativeness. The lines that look so ordinary in reality suddenly appear enchanting in their never-ending deviations. The obvious has become obscure. The weave of shapes appearing in the water has turned into a meditation on the weave of shapes appearing in the water.
Sufficient proximity to this drawing will reveal that the magnification brought about by Rotem’s scrutiny of the photograph has done even more. This isn’t a higher “resolution” in customary photographic jargon, but an ever expanding disclosure of sensitivity to forms giving birth to other forms. The drawing reveals the breakup of reality into undeciphered particles extant in ceaseless metamorphosis. These particles are not in the realm of “pixels”. That is they are not identically-sized information-units indifferent to what is said via them, being instead rather akin to molecules inside a large formal occurrence. I’m careful not to say “organic event”, because it’s not at all clear that the “whole” here is coalescing around any particular vital idea. Rotem’s drawing dismantles the views into progressively smaller formal events, and the viewer facing them wonders - are “the whole”, “the picture”, “Gila and Swimming Pool”, alike an encompassing mind grasping the particles of being, or are they the viewer’s naïve-optimistic optical illusion. Therefore – the look directed at the drawing again turns into an active force, alert, vital, and aware.
And here we find the second point requiring an explanation: the integration of the imagination into the drawing. If we look closely at the largest tiles in “Gila and Pool”, the ones nearest to the bottom of the drawing, we will detect in the third tile from the left, inside the grey tile markings, a powerful quote of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, and if we turn our gaze a little to the right we will discover amid the tile markings a no less powerful quote of Vincent Van Gogh’s well known self portrait with a pipe. And if we keenly scrutinize the other tiles we’ll find more and more familiar forms of masks, various creatures and leaves. Still, the outcome of this is even more fascinating: the focused gaze these figures generate teaches the eye to search for and to find more and more signification-forms and to discover sequences of becoming from primary forms to finished forms, some of which carry a customary meaning. “The Scream” and “Van Gogh” are but a key to an additional plain of occurrence in which not Ofer Rotem’s imagination blends into the image but the imagination of the viewer. Something childlike and playful is mixed into the act of observation, alongside a new act of interpretation: what is this plain, concealing creatures and remembrances? What is its relation to a reality broken apart into its particles in this fashion?
The quivering water surface in the drawing is an entryway to a hidden world: countless contradictory movements transform before our eyes into a drama of forms. Layers of consciousness and sub-consciousness permeate each other. Reality, or what’s left of it in the drawing act, is flooded by countless cryptic materials coming in from myriad directions. There’s something disturbing in the acute tension between the amused ripple of the photographed “story” in the drawing’s background and the playfulness emergent from the drawing process itself. The voice of the “mediator” or “storyteller” (= the artist) adds an orchestration that undermines the represented world at its core.
The principle described hereinbefore is an opening to a radical destabilization of the perception of the drawn reality in its whole. See for example the drawings named “Sedona”, “Kadima”, and in particular “Muir 4”. From a few steps away the drawing appears as an impassioned tribute to the mysteries of nature; a tangled part of a forest, teeming with growth, exfoliation, rot, shadows, insects and reptiles. The formal might of the tree trunks presentation, the branches and the fern leaves is sensed as a Romantic musical chord, striking and mysterious. However, moving towards the drawing, every step reveals new forms within it, until close up the eye detects a packed theater of characters approaching in a disguise never seen before. These are not allusions to famous artworks but entire spectacles presented by a devilish impresario. Here you will find an Easter Island head disguised as a rocking horse (with a quote from a Mondrian abstract on its facade!), an irate Native American totem pole hooked up to a ship anchor, an adorable puppy decomposing into a skeleton that turns into a root, a German dwarf inverted on his head, a turtle going on its way abandoning another turtle overturned on its back, a small soccer ball, a chain and a lock, a monster wrapped up with a net, a comical marionette gripping a whip with arrows shooting out of its body, a goblet full of singing midgets, sexual organs, inverted birds, a painter’s pallet and even an exact replica of god in Michelangelo’s “Creation” (appropriately in the top right hand corner). This list is very incomplete and in particular – it appears only at very close range. From a slightly further distance figures and other things will appear – mostly skeletons and giant insects.
What follows from this is that the drawing as seen from a distance of a few steps is just one layer in a multilayered structure in which every layer carries a meaning that does not ruin the other layers, but rather exists beside them, concurrently, as in a polyphonic structure.
Polyphony in music reached its highest peak in the Baroque period, and it was then that its ambivalent potential was vigorously expressed. The voices presented a multitude of emotional stances relating to the subject of the verse. This is also the polyphony’s significance as an idea imparted to literature (as in Bakhtin’s renowned treatise on Dostoyevsky’s oeuvre) or to other art forms. A drastic ambivalence arises in Rotem’s drawings in relation to the notion of reality which supports itself on photography. The concealed layers that gradually appear to the viewer destabilize the exclusivity of the initially revealed reality and place it in a continuous context of other voices and in fact - with additional reality layers.
This is Ofer Rotem’s unique Baroque quality. Baroque isn’t just abundant virtuosity in relation to the medium, but also the binding of the virtuosity to a prototypal metaphysical world view. During the historical Baroque era it was acerbic pessimism entwined with an intense visceral desire for the sublime, with the desire for the sublime locked into an incessant struggle with a desire no less intense for the flesh and for the senses. Contemporary Baroque (as in Tarantino’s films for example) exposes under the “general” look details and minute details of human devices, affairs and organs, which present the viewer with another dimension, hidden from the eye, that’s indifferent to all notions of storyline and meaning. Ofer Rotem’s many voices do not easily surrender to consistent psychoanalytical interpretation or to any other coherent literary explanation. However it’s evident that the imagined layers populating the world portrayed in the drawings furnish reality with a different way of being, removed, anarchistic in its extreme heterogeny.
The poetics of Ofer Rotem’s drawings owes a great deal to the concept of the grotesque, and particularly to its original denotation in the world of 16th century Italian art. This concept was derived from the Italian word grotto which means cave. The intent of the adjective grotesche was to indicate embellishments (usually in fresco) that were done in the style of the wall ornaments in the Roman villas and palaces of the Augustinian era. in the 16th century some of these ancient palaces began to be unearthed. Naturally, they were buried under piles of ruins and were as caves. The concept’s intention however was more precise: the ancient roman wall ornaments were made of a unique weave of plants, animals and humans. These were metamorphic forms rich in colors and shapes which started a revolution in thinking about the craft of decoration and the organization of the home setting. The Italian artists who specialized in this style (Raphael among them) reacted most attentively to the expressive and poetic potential inherent in the idea of formal reincarnation. The rapid transition between stem and wing, between an onion and a woman’s body, between a bird and a tree branch, evolved in their hands to fantastical creations in which entire rooms and halls are overlaid with transmutations of life and flora as riddles of sorts. It’s evident that the ancient Greek and Roman thinking about hybrid creatures like the Minotaur, the Chimera or the Gryphon and the array of nymphs, tritons and satyrs stands at the foundation of this Roman decorative innovation.
In the 19th century, following the recent entry of Romantic authors into the realms of the dream, the nightmare, and the diabolical world of legend, the concept of the grotesque became a signifier of horror, dread and sniggering monstrosity. In the 20th century this notion has rambled on towards the terrifying realities of actual human existence. World War One transposed the grotesque from the confines of legend to everyday reality.
Rotem creates grotesque effects in his drawings in several strata: In and of itself the dissonant joining of the serene and primordial landscape objects to the figures and articles that are hidden within them is grotesque in a very modern sense: the sense we recognize from Kafka’s writings; the enforced proximity of things utterly alien to each other. And on top of that: the joining of objects so heterogeneous; absurdly heterogeneous, in one batch, lacking a plot or a causal order and even ignoring the laws of space, gravity and perspective, is grotesque in the same Romantic sense of the notion: the threatening, the demonic. And above all that: the classic grotesque in a contemporary and surprising form: a weave of flora undergoing transformations to other things. They lack of course the amused splendor of the wall decorations in Rome, but they respond to the very same principle: to grow one thing out of another.
What’s captivating about the overall appearance of such a drawing is that there is no friction and contradiction between the various plains of reality, or between the different voices of the polyphony. The many figures and objects existing in the thicket blend within it in complete harmony.
Here it should be noted that there is not much similarity between Ofer Rotem’s work and that of M.C. Escher. Escher’s famed drawings are all found on a very cerebral plain and the act of drawing in them is made from an unambiguous and obligatory geometrical blueprint. Even if the effect created in his drawings contains a clear contradiction of one geometric system or a particular method of spatial design, they are founded on a geometrical structuring of the concept of space. Also, the contradictions within them occur on the intellectual plain only, which doesn’t deal with reality but with thoughts about the measurable forms.
It is on the other hand worth mentioning an almost forgotten English artist of the Victorian era, Richard Dadd, in relation to Rotem’s drawings. Dadd turned the world of fairies and goblins teeming in the woods (e.g. in the version familiar to us from the Shakespearian “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) into the core of his work. Dadd reached fascinating forcefulness in the odd genre he developed, far overreaching what is known to us from the illustration discipline in that era (Arthur Rackham or Edmond Dulac, to mention the most renowned of the illustrators of fables). Something dark is stirring in Dadd’s artworks specifically because of the botanical and anatomical accuracy in the way nature is portrayed. The realism of the fantasy under his hands endows it with an unsettling presence, far from the mischievousness customary in the world of illustrated books, and certainly from the wondrous playfulness of Mendelssohn’s music for The Shakespearean “Dream”.
There is no need to elaborate on the disparities between Dadd’s art and that of Rotem. What they share is interesting however: The artist seeks to plant the figments of his mind in a tangible and familiar setting. Richard Dadd too asserts, as it were, that you need to get very close to nature in order to see the tiny creatures inside it, only he does it in our place: the picture is a close-up exposing the realm of the fairies.
Opposite the world of forest fantasy Ofer Rotem positions a drawn confrontation with the city in its most pungent, technological sense - the German train stations series or the Tel Aviv streets series. In both series Rotem is stringent about a noisy public space, impersonal, transport oriented. The spaces constitute points of lost personal uniqueness; in them, the human loses every reminder of her exclusivity. These are the spaces in which the human is a part of a huge mass of urban society that frequently travels from place to place.
The alienating effort applied here to the photos of the urban locations which served Rotem in his drawings is very different than in his nature drawings. Here Rotem is dealing not with the perception of phenomena but with its meaning.
“Koln 8”: an upward look from the bottom of a staircase that’s parallel to an escalator. A large glass ceiling supported by arched metal beams – a post modern realization of the iron and glass domes typical to the train stations of the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Glass walls, digital timetable displays. Left of the staircase – a tiled wall, adorned with a pattern of leaves, polished as glass and reflecting the views around it while filtering out many details and leaving only gray abstractions. The digital timetables too reflect the views above them but their dark glass dims the view. People are frozen in their place at the instant of the snapshot. Their portrayal leaves them anonymous and schematic.
It’s hard to imagine a more expressive drawing about a contemporary train station. Here is elucidated with a new and distinct power the force of the revision that the drawing administers to the photograph at its footing: this photograph is nothing but an indifferent report, bored and boring, about a train station in a European city. With all the formal attraction residing in the reciprocal echoing of the structure’s components – it’s not enough to capture our awareness which falls asleep at its view. The drawing on the other hand turns every part of this view to a manifesto of human loneliness. The meticulous, sensual and caressing effecting of all the details of the disclosed space: the stairs, the disengaging foot of the ascending woman, the handrail and its reflection in the polished wall, the duplication of the man on the right in the wall tiles, which are not entirely continuous, the screws, the rods, the light fixtures, the data details on the timetables etc. – all these construct a different view directed at this space. This view reveals a presence blind to the human occurrence passing through it. The hand holding the graphite pencil and scrutinizing every screw, every angle and every light-refraction doesn’t vanish. The act of the drawing is present and activates the consciousness differently. The unhurriedness and the extreme intensity of the drawing act get attached to the view. Or vice versa: the view unites with the motions of the drawing act and the drama of hard precision inherent in it. This isn’t about virtuosity for its own sake. As in any classic “Disegno” – it’s the wonder of the transit of the views through the consciousness to the drawing hand that’s affecting us. And here – the terrible gap between the extensive sensitivity of the drawing act, with the efforts invested in it, the technical cunning, and the interesting deliberations as to the representation of the epistemological and perceptive challenges the photograph summons before us, and between the objective stillness of the station space. It is satiated with presence yet on the other hand – as still as perfect absence.
Ofer Rotem is enraptured by the refraction of views in glass, in full and partial reflections, in odd duplications that create interlacing views (acute examples are the drawings “The Hashmonaim” and “The Yarkon”) and he is engrossed by the complex challenges these optical adventures position opposite the drawing technique. Still it’s precisely these visual juggling acts that lead him to expression. While photographing these things would disclose these reflections as a spellbinding optical maze, the drawing transforms it into a space that grows around the human to cancel her significance. Not the observing and understanding human is the essence here, but rather a space existing for itself, engaged with itself, replicating into spectacular views that have no viewer and which no one can take in or understand. The absence of meaning becomes here a dramatic presence; the drawing is bustling with perfectly blind activity, like a television set showing a suspense filled action movie in an empty room.
A brief thought on virtuosic drawing in the digital age
In “View from Under a Bridge” Ofer Rotem reproduced a photo with an intense ray of light in its center penetrating through a gap between two segments of a bridge and falling onto the river’s water surface or the canal below it. He slowly and with much difficulty crafted something that an advanced printer would do easily and rapidly. It’s even possible that the printer would produce a picture no less interesting. Here, more than in any other place he positioned himself in competition with the machine he takes over from in the process of photography and printing customary today.
It seems to me that this statement conceals in its midst a matter essential to thinking about art in the technical reproduction era: the human takes it upon himself to make with his hands, with humility, with force and with endless patience, what the machine makes unknowingly, fast, with no intent and with no cause. He takes the endeavor from the machine in order to make it with his hands. The machine does not excel. Only the human can excel in what he does. A car travels a distance of 42.195 kilometers in much less than half an hour. However a marathon runner who crosses this distance in a speedy run in a little more than two hours has taught his body to perform a rare feat of swift movement through distance. This is virtuosity in its full spiritual sense. And so – it is precisely in this specific contest that Ofer Rotem is staging against the machine that the human element is articulated against the mechanical. The endeavor does not belong to reality but to the will, to the hand, to the hand’s shortcomings, to defeat and to non defeat. To draw a ray of light that emanates from high above and pierces the water with a graphite pencil is a great and splendid act of a human view in its actual being as a view of a living and abating human; a view that redirects existence from the obvious to the incredible.