SHAOUL SMIRE – Recent works
By: Yonah Foncé
Curator of Muhka
(Guy Pieters Gallery, 1992)
Both the shape and the content of the latest works by Shaoul Smira attract the eye and the mind of the onlooker by a number of significant changes and novelties, the first of these is probably the quite blatant introduction of metallic structures in these works. Needless to say, the scrap, recycled metal stands out in shrill contrast to the traditional oil on canvas technique, the introduction of semiotics in the shape of road signs and various signboards and aggressive verbal messages are among the other elements of these works which hit the eye. This is not an abnormal phenomenon on its own and one could be led to assert that these changes are in line with the pictorial logic which has always earmarked Smira's work. The veritable collision of fragmented images, contribution and gaps are quite typical of Smira's imagery.
The overlapping of various graphisms, the conscious thwarting of every form of narration are at the very basis of the immense complexity which epitomizes the works of Shaoul Smira. This inherent complexity is carries in his most recent works by the use of contrasting materials, the mixture of different kinds of pictorial expression. In order to grasp the somewhat "risqué" nature of these works, we must attempt to isolate their various elements: the lines and the colors do not always match or merge, more so, they sometimes seem possessed with their own striking autonomy.
The "classic" figuration which makes Smira's work so eminently characteristic and which somewhere suggest a narrative continuity – because these figures are reflected here as in "classic" art on the basis of the canons of unity of time, space and handling – is depicted here and there by the use of the cut-up technique. These are complemented by juxtapositions and references to "grisaille" (blacks, grays and whites) painting, monochrome, abstraction, fauvism etc.…
In a nutshell, one could state that the complexity which has always been the hallmark of Smira's works has been enhances and that the diverging use of materials has now reached its strongest form of expression.
Also, radically new is the sway from a poetical content to a climate overwhelmed by feelings expressing the exhilaration of conquest ("Delivery of Victory")' death (the skulls), threat (the interdictory signs), and many others. The voluntary cohabitation of gray and white, sometimes contrasted by a strong color, strengthens this elegist, threatening atmosphere. References to sex and eroticism alternate with hints at death and bodily decay (e.g. the rats). As always, these works are mainly set in and urban background (e.g. N.Y., my love).
We can sum up the trends which appear in Shaoul Smira's most recent works as an expression of the underlying currents already existing in his previous works that have now been further developed and which produce the image of a new, grim sensivity, which can be explained by the harsh current trends or developments such as the war in the Middle East, the rise of crime and poverty in America's big cities, but which also translate the artist's strictly personal, individual worries and emotions. These are not easy to interpret, since Smira consciously short-circuits the direct narrative contents of his works by conjuring superimpositions, lapses and contradictions. But one can muster some basic feelings and impressions from the overall picture of his artistic output over the last two years, which every art lover can complete and interpret for himself at a later stage.
It has often been said that the art of painting has no further reason to exist, since the resurgence of neo-expressionism towards the end of the seventies, beginning of the eighties. By expanding the logic of the pictorial surface and by introducing found objects that convey a sociological dimension, Smira manages to evolve beyond the confines of a self-sufficient pictorial logic.
At any event, the metal surfaces do bestow a new sensibility and a new form of beauty upon his recent works. This recent evolution can up to a certain degree be explained by referring to the specific conditions in which Smira's latest works have originated. As a whole, New York art has become aware of the harsh social realities of American society towards the end of the eighties/beginning of the nineties. Whence, the cool metal sheet as well as the menace implied in the traffic signs. These works exhale a climate of danger. The very contrast between a European – and more precisely a French – artistic sensibility that refers to modern art and these new materials and messages which are specifically actual and contemporary, grants a hitherto inexperienced climate to Smira's new works.
A bevy of styles, materials, subjects and patterns which are the expression of great polysemous, pluralistic and metaphorical reach.
Curator of Muhka
By: Gérard A. Goodrow
"To be free and yet not to lose touch with reality, that is the drama of that epic figure who is variously called inventor, artist or poet.
Days and nights, dark or brightly lit, seated at some garish bar; renewed visions of forms and objects bathed in artificial light.
Trees cease to be trees, a shadow cuts across the hand placed on the counter, an eye deformed by the light, the changing silhouettes of the passers-by.
The life of fragments: a red finger-nail, an eye, a mouth.
The elastic effects produced by complementary colors which transform objects into some other reality.
He fills himself with all this, drinks in the whole of this vital instantaneity which cuts through him in every direction.
He is a sponge: sensation of being a sponge, transparency, acuteness, new realism".
Like léger before him, Shaoul Smira is free and independent, although he has never lost touch with reality. Somewhere between figuration and abstraction, he is at home in both genres and combines them freely with one another to create rich compositional overflowing with emotions and empathy for the world which surrounds him.
Although he often revels in the freedom of abstraction, he has never lost contact with the reality of figuration. The human form always takes center stage, is ever present in his art. Yet, Smira's interpretation of reality is never narrative or illustrative. On the contrary. It is deconstructed and fragmented. Forms and figures are superimposed one on top of the other in sensuous chaos, reinforced by his use of collage, whereby bits and pieces of painted and drawn upon paper are layered in apparent disorder one on top of the other. Indeed, it is in this state of chaos that Smira finds the freedom that allows him to keep in touch with figuration without falling into the trappings of narrative illustration.
But chaos is for Smira much more than a mere composition tool. It represents the reality of the world around him. Instead of fighting against it, he embraces it, gives himself over to it.
In his use of fragments, Smira refers on a metaphorical level to ideas proposed by Benoit Mandelbrot, the founder of contemporary chaos theory. It was Mandelbrot who gave birth to the theory of the fractal, a central concept in the new science of chaos, which points to both fragmentation and irregularity. Fractals, which represent a radical break from the Euclidean tradition of idealized forms and simple, geometric structures, describe a process of eternal repetition in which the repeated is never quite the same. Such fractals lead to random patterns of apparent disorder. But it is in this disorder of the fractal that new forms are born. Where order breaks sown, new information emerges. Chaos leads, therefore, not to destruction, but rather to creativity and endless possibilities.
Smira's paintings and collages are not intended to be deciphered or interpreted as coded illustrations; they express fragments of ideas and emotions. His pictures tell no stories but are rather exercises in free association. If there is any story at all, then it exists only within the frameworks of a disordered stream of consciousness. Each figure triggers a myriad of associations, which are then multiplied by its superimposition over and relationship to other figures and the abstract field which surround them.
For Smira, there is no one fixed meaning or interpretation. Every reading is valid. The authority of hierarchical structure is broken down to reveal a harmoniously chaotic ordering of ideas and images. There is a free flow from abstraction to figuration, from order to chaos, and back again.
The process of creation becomes for Smira an act of discovery. Images slowly emerge, only to dissolve again into the Pandemonium that surrounds them. The artist relinquishes his control, allows his works to speak for themselves. The energies inherent within the images with one another to form a harmonious unit. Indeed, harmony is a key factor in Smira's art. Out of harmony is born mutual understanding.
The binding structure is nearly all of Smira's paintings and collages is the abstract field of color, that forms the background. These fields of abstraction provide a forum for the drama of the figures who "perform" on its surface.
Each painting, each collage, is born out of itself. It determines its own origins, as well as its own harmonious apotheosis. Each work of art is both microcosm and macrocosm, single cell and limitless universe.
The role of the artist himself is dubious. Like Joseph Beuys, Smira is a transmitter. His works of art use him, reveal themselves through him. In giving himself over to his art, Smira reflects the chaos of the world around him. And although he is often overwhelmed by this chaos, he recognizes that chaos is the very source of creativity.
For Shaoul Smira, the question is infinitely more interesting than the answer – for true creative genius lies not in the result, but rather in the process which leads to it.
Gérard A. Goodrow
SHAOUL SMIRA'S IMAGERY OF INTIMACY AND COLLECTIVITY
By: Donald Kuspit
What is interesting about Smira's images is that they renew the human point of modernist chaos – that chaos of disjointed spaces jumbled objects, and disrupted appearances – of "surreal" simultaneity of unity and disunity. He retains the hyperdynamic modernist effect – including the rapid interplay of coloristic and chiaroscuro effects – but now as a kind of irksome concordance rather than blatant discord. This signals the constructive rather than destructive use of modernist chaos: chaos as symbolic of a new communal sensibility rather than of individual alienation and estrangement. The condensations and displacements of modernism now articulate a poetry of communal human possibility rather than of grimly isolated human actuality. There is a redemption of human presence in Smira's late modernist style, a redemption under the auspices of the idea of community. The autonomy of art is no longer the deceptive issue in Smira's imagery but the character of human community.
I emphasize the importance of collectivity rather than individuality for Smira's images. It is this that gives them their difference. They are not nostalgic for the communal experience but seem to reflect an actual experience of its intimacies and intricacies.
Smira communicates the bitter-sweet intimacy that is the living core of collective existence. His works show a great emotional complexity and pictorial sophistication as early modernist art Smira's modernism becomes a means of finding tranquility within the untranquil modern situation, and to articulate it with dynamic modernist methods. This is the core of his art. Modernism for Smira is not a compensation for lost intimacy as it was for early modernism, but the sign of a possible new one.
In Smira's symphonic series Fiction Without a Story a state of dynamic tranquility is portrayed. Smira gives the human a new sense of sanctity by suggesting the tranquil intimacy is possible only through collective existence – on which human destiny depends as Simone Weil argues – is based on an interlocking "system" of human intimacies. Of course, it is not so simple, for the intimacies Smira depletes are full of ambivalence. It is as though he is rendering the transformation of private intimacy into public community – rendering the in-between state in which no relationships are settled.
Smira's paintings have a turbulent, delirious quality in part because of his figures and the overt sensuality or his surfaces. Discontinuity becomes an instrument of sensuality separateness and difference seem to imply merger rather than irreconcilability. Not that estrangement has been banished from Smira's would be pictorial paradise even in the works ostensibly about tranquility, there is an air of tension between the figures. Indeed, they seem bound by their estrangement. Differences are in the process of being overcome – not absolutized, as in standard modernism – yet they remain.
In a sense, Smira's "problem" is to show that individuality can be "healed" by eroticism – pictorial eroticism, as well as the eroticism that reflects the binding power of collective existence as lyrical and moral poetry, they unite the past reality and future possibility of human relationship. The human relationship is indeed the alpha and omega for him; it, rather than any individual, is finally what is sacred in life while articulating the ambivalence of human relationship as well as the various forms it takes, Smira never loses sight of its fundamentality, and its role as the source of universal feeling of community.
Smira depicts ideal possibilities and hope in intimate human relationships rather than the frequent unhappy actuality of the isolated, alienated individual – showing us one way out of the modernist dilemma.
By Frans Boenders
(Gallery Guy Pieters, 1985)
A lot of contemporary art breathes endless boredom. Ropes are stretches, clinkers laid, relations shown, dustbins tipped over, holes drilled, nails hammered. The cheerless return of the identical is king. The bit of soul that was left has been removed, launched into conceptual eternity, strung up, drowned it the waters of repetition. This is not the land of the living, but of dead objects. Bland materials that most people would simply ignore in everyday life, are exhibited in museums as sacral objects. Metaphysical heaps of sand. Ontological iron bars. Supernatural concrete. Moral philosophical feces. Products of obtrusive didacticians and other failures in teaching. Things out of which the last bit of imagination has been squeezed. An artist paints the days of his life – in the most blunt and literal sense of the word: white dates against a black background. With compulsive precision another artist draws tiny figures one next to the other, line after line, painting after painting. A third one paints endless series of letters. Yet another one keeps on scratching the same cross.
No wonder pure painting has returned to fashion. Anyone who considers this late-twentieth-century phenomenon a step back into the history of Western art, mechanically thinks along the lines of a rectilinear art-historical evolution. It is more tempting, of course – and probably more appropriate – to regard the welcome return of painting as a liberation from the chains of what had developed into a compulsive urge to theorize (although this very theory had taken the shape of anti-theory). This much is sure: when Shaoul Smira paints, he snaps his fingers at theories of art. He never thinks up an image that expresses a specific consciousness before making a painting. On the contrary, he starts from an image that fills his mind, haunts him; of which the painting then becomes, more or less successful, the pictorial realization (actualization).
This is but another theory, of course. Yet, it offers the advantage that it did not spring from the mind of the painter himself but from that of a critic. People who both develop theories and produce paintings to match, are always right. Although – when we come to think of it – their brainchildren are but pictorial tautologies'.
Their paintings function as evidence of their own approach of painting, which means that anyone cannot agree with their approach, will automatically dismiss their paintings.
The bona fide critic will construct his theory on the basis of existing paintings. It is not because he makes a mistake which others sport, that they should reject the painterly act behind it, i.e. the objects of his critical opinion. This does not really apply to Shaoul Smira's work.
My text is a more or less reasoned approach of a painted oeuvre the mistakes I am likely to make will never really affect. It may, however, profit by my presumptively correct remarks.
We should definitely be grateful to Smira for producing an art which – unlike so much art from theoretically oriented artists – is not the materialization c.q. reproduction of a specific idea.
Typical for a lot of figurative painting are its narrative contents. Having been dismissed, for decades, as people who – apart from a more or less profound play with lines, colors, volumes and subjects – had nothing to convey, it now seems that the painters are literally and generously spouting years of pent-up impressions into their paintings. They tell us about their own life, in the world they move about and that moves with them, the re-discovery of old myths, epics and religions with heroes the vicissitudes of which are, once again, being introduced on the stage.
Whether Smira follows this fashion? I doubt it. Painted stories claim specific condensations, the invention of the step-by-step evolution with a beginning, a development and an end. Smira's painting do not seem interested in this type of fiction. All they want to do is visualize the actual intensity of a specific process.
As I already said, Smira starts with an image, which implies the image in question has not been subjected to a certain condensation yet. Smira wants to show the very evolution of life, before it has taken a specific course, let alone reached a conclusion. That is why his work is full of trepidations, vibrations, marks and other nervous brush strokes. All this is but the moving paint that tries to wriggle its way out of fixation. Often, the faces are doubled or drawn out. Characters stare into vacancy, but also to the left or right. What else can this be than the victory of mobile seeing over immobility? Smira is the painter of effervescent life.
People who really live, do not write a story.
Stories are written when real life has ended. Stories are imagined, they are through up after (life) or before (life). Life itself, however, is but a fast-flowing stream. It has no coherence or meaning. It unfolds. Not only single moment resembles the previous or following one.
Of course, paintings can never do away with the distance between static representation and the "living" image. They choose elements from the enormous complexity of the temporary, which they put down for posterity: i.e. for as long as the paint will stick to the canvas and the colors will more or less keep their original intensity.
As opposed to the leap the moment itself takes, the painting "perpetuates" the image of the moment. What a paradox!
To call today's new, lyrical painting narrative may create misapprehensions. In the first part of the seventies, a number of post-minimal artists were known as "narratives". They, (Davis Ashevold, Didier Bay, Bill Beckley, Robert Cumming, Peter Hutchinson, Jean Le Gac, Roger Welch) reacted to the impersonal and detached aspect of conceptual and minimal art and borrowed various elements – "models" as they called them – from everyday life: photos of houses, people in their environment, comic strip characters, souvenirs, maps etc. to which they then added texts and comments. These "narratives" worked in exactly the same as the "conceptuals", in fact, as for both groups, it was not making but imagining a work that counted. The "narratives" did make overtures to life, though, by not giving a wide berth to the story of what they had seen in life.
Sadly enough, however, they kept plodding and ploughing in the shallow water of banality. Since they condemned both skilled craftsmanship of drawing or painting and what I will call poetry for convenience's sake, their fundamentally unlimited interest in life never actually extended into truly touching art.
Smira is not narrative in the sense that he comes up with texts about or comments on life. The image in his paintings has to speak for itself. In an interview with critic Hugo Bruton, Smira denies all narration in his paintings: "The painting is made in a process, a system, a complex of actions in which the story itself does not come to the fore. I know I am not a narrative".
Although appearance may point this way, Smira does not disclose himself as a (nother) painter who explains his oeuvre, but as someone who quite rightly disagrees with seemingly correct and neatly fitting explanations of his work.
The spontaneity of the image Smira shows us in his paintings simply excludes the logic of stories such as these. In the same way as our consciousness, on a non-discursive level, is intersected – besieged – by flashing images, Smira's paintings seem to confront the viewer with semiconscious images (complete with their typical fanciful (apparent?) irrationality) for hi, to identify.
The energetic impulses his mind – which is more precognitive than it is subconscious – produces and rejects lie at the basis of his paintings. It is not possible – nor it is necessary – for the viewer to perform the same associative leap as the one that yielded the image. Yet his paintings do form a challenge for the imagination of he or she who looks at them.
The moot point, however, remains whether Smira actually knows what contents his images are derived from. To what extent does his religious Jewish background influence them? what is the part his Middle-Eastern childhood, which he spent in Iraq, plays? How consciously cosmopolitan does he want to be? Is he striving for eclecticism, or is this his "natural" style?
The emotional riches that emanates from his paintings originates in the tangle of Smira's memories, desires, conflicting affections, the wish dreams and phantoms that lay snare for the not yet ordered consciousness of everyone, yet are mercilessly driven into neat sections as a consequence of stringent training, logical thinking and the development of what – with an incredible amount of bias – we call "common" sense.
People who experience undifferentiated mental life in a childlike fashion and keep in direct touch with the swarming imaged of their consciousness, may never even wonder what Smira's paintings actually mean.
Are the characters courting or embracing each other in despair? Is a particular figure vomiting because he is drunk or in existential disgust? Does the grey man behind the swinging child represent a nightmare or a protective god? Are the two figures in the foreground the children of the magna mater-like woman in the top right corner and has the rudimentarily brushed man to the left been cast out of his family – and why? Do the smart women with their familiar animals represent the pastoral Kibbutz members or do they generally symbolize the link man-animal, as two of god's creations?
These are questions the viewer asks himself as he looks at Smira's paintings. There is little point in giving answers to them, though. It is the image, nothing but the image that counts.
The image in the paintings, or should I say the image of the painting, or better even: the image-painting, is made up of various fragments. First of all, there are the imitations of people, animals and objects. Consistently with the intuitiveness of his images, Smira's image-paintings are not overly realistic, not too much into providing life-like imitations.
Of course, the naked woman on the rudimentary chair has the necessary attributes to be recognizable as a female nude. They have been reduced to the bare essentials though: long wavy hair, breasts, the curved stomach and thighs, the way in which her left arm happens to cover her pudenda. Not one living woman, however, has the same deep blue skin as Smira's nude. What on earth is she doing, sitting on that ramshackle chair in a nondescript room? The man with the monumental Bakunin-head to her right is kept equally vague; Smira does not even hint the kind of relationship that exists between the two. Psychology is the least of Smira's image-machinery concerns.
Making an image also implies dividing the space into which it appears. Composition, however, is among the most reasoned and pondered elements of any painting. In view of Smira's intuitive approach, this is not one of his strongest points. Because of the leap the artist's association take, this image – which, inwardly, is perceived in a flash – can never be really completed. Even during painting, it is tangibly present, and makes itself felt, by leaps and bounds.
In a lot of canvases, this results in an almost panting fullness, as if the painter was unable to resist the myriad of ideas that invaded his mind as he was creating the image-painting.
As opposed to what the above-mentioned inspires, but disorderly procedure may suggest, Smira's incredibly dense paintings are among his most beautiful creations. One of them shows a wanton, luscious woman on some kind of settle, again with this ultramarine blue skin. She is surrounded by a number of heavily gesticulating men in various stages of dressiness or nakedness who are, most definitely, ready to jump. Here too we see the vague head of the senior father figure, like the Lord God who, strict and supreme, chases Adam, but mainly Eve, from paradise. And do we not spot Sigmund Freud on the left side, with a convulsive line around his troubled mouth? Everything is possible, nothing a must. One thing is certain, nl. that this supposed and fantastic characters make this painting so semantically dense that it simply has to have more than one meaning. Equally certain is the fact that the "weak", or should I say negligent composition does not affect the profound, touching beauty of the multiple scene.
Now that I have broached the subject of creating an image… would Smira's image-paintings make sense without color? Smira's compository use of color offers ample compensation for his lack of neat composition.
In the painting I have just described, the emotionally laden blue of the nude acts as a waving strip that both links and separates the top and bottom half of the painting. The motely, many-colored group of five men, is entirely geared to this wanton wave. Their very colors shape Smira's paintings. Colors does not embellish his work. He does not feel existing contours with color. Color is how Smira views effervescent life. The intense, complex image that bewitch Smira's consciousness quite logically call for bright, violent colors. Ultramarine, chromate yellow, geranium red, painful purple next to jolly greens – Smira loves to use these colors. They underline, no, celebrate his ecstasy over image-painting. They stress, no, enhance the mysteriousness of his scenes. Smira's paintings are nothing but polychrome boosted emotions.
Nothing is more subject to change than our emotional life. The changing mood man is a fool to have made him distrustful of that part of his personality which, next to terrible disappointments, also brings him intense joy and ecstasy. Our western culture, as it is today – i.e. focused on rationally controlled emotions, intellectualism and "common" sense – has stiffened and bled the original flexibility of emotional life to death.
A number of critics who approach things from a psychological angle, talk about the emotional armour, the case that makes it impossible for the West-Europeans to develop their potential capacity of having profound erotic, sexual and mystic experiences. If, as many moralists claim, our era is indeed characterized by pitiless yet indifferent cynicism, the only way to escape complete emotional death is to rediscover childlike happiness.
Shaoul Smira's images of endless surprise, voluptuous warmth and wild enthusiasm show us the road back to happiness, to the paradise each human being has inside himself but that, for God knows what reason, is usually buried under thick layers of ferro-concrete emotions. Smira lives in a world where the laws of gravitation no longer apply. The people in it (quite a few, in fact, who swiftly move about in each other's close vicinity) never get tired or depressed.
They seize every opportunity to escape the slowness of the earth, sometimes only for a brief instant, in a fierce rhythmic explosion, and at times even manage to completely free themselves into a state a state of gliding or flying no physical law can explain. But even if, like everyone else, they simply walk alone the pavement, they do so with the straddling enthusiasm of somebody who would rather jump than walk.
In using his image-paintings to deny and openly fight the cynicism of our era, Smira's art develops into some sort of resistance. It is an art of a special kind, for it undermines according to the unpredictable laws of imagination and joy.
The expressionist roots od Smira's art are, without any doubt, his major mentors: Picasso, Chagall and Bacon, but his violent lyricism also enable him to participate in today's comprehensive wave of wild painting. As opposed to that of the neue Wilden, however, Smira's world is never aggressive. His favorite emotions are not cynicism, rancor, grimness and the like, but openness, confidence and nervous and nervous tenderness. The latter may cause some surprise. Does tenderness not presuppose peace and a need of harmony? Smira cannot find peace, his inner urge plays him too many false tricks to let him do so.
This much is sure: his pining for harmony appears more than clearly from the endless pathos that has his characters jumping. Why is Smira drawn towards effervescent life? Because, like all emotional people, his heart will not find peace until – well, maybe I should let the reader carry on, in the spirit of Augustine's Confessions, if he likes…
THE DESIRE OF THE PLANET EARTH
(The American Culture Center, Brussels, 1993)
By Frans Boenders
Planet Earth suffers these days. At the end of the century and of the millennium, vast parts of its surface are set aflame. War and pollution, famine, hate and abject poverty are the rule, not the exception for most human beings today. They are denied a minimum level of humanity. A happy life is universally thwarted. Love of virtue and of one's neighbor, the natural way, health and peaceful death become unattainable ideals for half of mankind. Disorder reigns. The impulses of evil are on the increase. To many, annihilation seems likely.
As there is no longer a spiritual heart to be found in the outer world, artists withdraw into their inner world. Cut off from their roots, impermeable to mythology, religion, ideology and solidarity, they invent a private symbolism. Others join an impenetrable formalism or take refuge in what has been left of the avant-garde: the new academism. Rejecting the utter chaos of the world outside, the lock the door upon themselves – as the Belgian symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff, a century ago, imagined Christina Rossetti's verse. Meanwhile, the new fin the siècle has been firmly established.
Shaoul Smira's images do not reject the chaos of today's world. They rather accept it and use it as the starting point for an impressive process of esthetic and ethical fermentation. Did not the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein rightly suggest that esthetics and ethics are one? Shaoul Smira neither isolates nor embellishes his work. He does not grant it a doubtful autonomy. Rather he tries to reconnect it with the feelings and endeavors of a (largely lost) human community.
Smira is conscious of the loosening sense of solidarity provoked by, among other things, ideological abuses that have strained the communal sense to the breaking point. His art does not look back on a supposedly golden age. While it fully participates in contemporary anxieties it likewise bears witness to a rich and living tradition.
Smira adds to the chaos. He does not seek peace and tranquility, but rather enhances anxiety and sharpens communication. Here he meets his deepest responsibility as an artist, to bring together what is constantly taken apart, compartmentalized, fragmented, broken and hurt. Thus, he creates accumulation, not representation. He proposes sensual confrontation, avoiding symbols.
The world of Shaoul Smira is characterized by the absence of a reconstructable narrative scene. It knows neither objectivity nor hierarchy. Everything it contains happens in a coincidental and simultaneous way. Anxiety embraces ecstasy. The sublime and the banal merge. Logic is blurred. Mythological imagery manifests itself through contemporary urban faces. Dreams invade reality, historical figures sit nest to metaphorical persons. Tradition taunt modernity. Darkness devours light, light exposes darkness. Intimacy goes public without losing its most intimate qualities. Transcendence creeps into everyday immanence. Absurdity entices meaning to irrational behavior. The seemingly impossible holds sway. Everything moves together.
What we see in Smira's imagery never stands still. For him, it has never existed in this particular (dis)order or connection. This might be the reason why we can share Smira's enjoyment of the unexpected, the ever changing, the exuberant and the excessive. Planet Earth in Smira's paintings is – and yet it is not. Stirring life is created by this fundamental ambivalence, an effervescent Planet with its own, innate Desire. It is the Desire typical of Planet Earth according to Smira's unbridled poetic fantasy.
Recently, in Smira's work on paper the fierce colors have moved toward gentler, subtler shades. These softer hues entice viewers into a slower, more intent and deliberate way of seeing. But the nervousness of his brushstroke has remained unabated. And his enthusiasm has intensified. His career led him t New York. In that city among cities, he lives a life devotes to pure and joyful painting. The constant change, so characteristic to his paintings, inspires his ceaseless moving from New York to Europe, from Europe to Israel.
For Shaoul Smira, an artist is the self-appointed keeper of Desire in a world of indifference and estrangement. Smira reunites that which is presently separates.
Member if the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium
Unity Within Diversity
By: Jan Foncé
Prof. Phi. Of Art
(America House exhibition, Germany, 1994)
Shaoul Smira's pictorial approach od art is clearest when contrasted with the various phases of painterly discourse of the last few decades.
Most striking is his aversion to the reductionist, minimal approach of minimal and fundamental painting (with famous protagonists such as Brice Marden and the successors of Colourfield Painting), which propounded that the typical nature of painting, "le degré zéro de la painture", was easiest to analyze when all lumber – figuration, metaphor, composition and last but not least color and use of lines – had been thrown overboard, leaving only an empty, white canvas; a kind of postponed repetition of Malevich's invention at the beginning of the former century.
Smira's paintings do exactly the opposite. They analyze the way in which each of the previous parameters affects painting and start from a synthetic, inclusive strategy rather than an analytical approach, based on deletion and exclusion.
His paintings can indeed be regarded as compendiums of and about painting. In an effort to analyze the various aspects of the relation between his use of lines/color and their plastic fertility and visually fascinating character, he will paint a black-white, linear, rather stereometrics, largely abstract figuration (some kind of palisade) next to a strikingly motley and pictorial, organic and obviously two-dimensional one.
This brings us to the second observation: Smira's art does more than just make as detailed as possible or analysis of the various strata of painting. Within the respectable tradition of Western art is also refers to the world. What is more: it presents us with an iconic metaphor of how the world is organized in the final instance. This cannot be interpreted via a reductionist process of exclusion.
According to Smira, we should focus on the world's enormous (semantic) strata, its internal contradictions and incompatibilities, the network of relations between affects, objects and subjects that can never be confined to one space.
That is why Smira's works operate discontinuously in space, why they are full of references to and quotations from previous style periods and why the wide range of "moments" – philosophically speaking – are never linked, within one work, to a narrative, logically coherent discourse. In the same way as it is impossible to write a "narrative" in the form of a philosophical system that embraces the complexity and internal incompatibility of global reality.
That is why Smira should be situated in that present-day cultural movement that refuses to think in systems and is geared to revaluing the complexity of reality and its artistic transformation. Postmodernity is what most people call it, although I think that in Smira's case, it should be referred to as "de-construction", as Derrida first introduced the concept.
The parameters "representation", "use of colors" and "style" are indeed present, be it not as evidences but as moments to be analyzed and studied. There is no such thing, for example, as a joint "representation" of which the "meaning" can be given. Instead, there are a number of figurative central points that are linked disjunctively on a compositional level and juxtaposed as visual elements or semantic units, an approach that thwarts all contextual and compositional unity and coherence.
One and the same painting will also contain several style movements: a rather expressionist-fauvist formal language may well alternate with cooler, more linear parts, and at times a rectangular part may even be painted much more brightly inside the enormous complexity of a work and thus isolated from its other parts. That is how Smira combines wide-ranging pictorial – In a sense antipodal – approaches such as a formal-analytical and an expressionist one.
Smira paints about painting and tells us how we might possibly consider the world today. That is exactly what links both perspectives. His paintings need to be looked at intensively, for only then can the viewer understand their complexity and, through them, the complexity of the world.
The most recent works by Smira can also be read within this very context. As a matter of fact, their grammar is based on the principle of 'Unity within Diversity'. The unity of dimension of all these individual works imposes the reading of the series as a whole, as a unity. The spectator will approach then as parts of a large unity.
This unity is not secured by the unity of dimensions, but also and much more even by the technique. If Smira painted several divergent pictorial elements within one consistent painting before, he now developed slightly different, albeit conceptually related method. Different parts are now molded together in one work, by which we point to the fact that the greatest common denominator is no longer the medium of painting which groups together several references to divergent styles and numerous relatively independent parts in one unified work.
These works grant more independence to their constituent parts on the one hand, but on the other hand the very fact that they are pressed together, materially as well as conceptually, reinforces the basic strategy underlying Smira's art being 'Unity in Diversity'.
This main characteristic or rather, further elaboration of a strategy already present in previous works, is radicalized. Some parts of these new works are relatively self-sufficient and contrast with the rest of the work: for instance, geometric shapes in pure saturates colors contrast with figurative sketchy backgrounds, which further enhances the complexity of these works.
This, in its turn, runs parallel to a new approach of philosophy to the world, to art and to reality which has been labelled as 'de-constructivism' or 'deconstructionism'. Within the totality of Smira's oeuvre, however, these strategies have been present for a long time, in this sense it is better to describe them as a work of contemporary art for which a method of interpretation has been brought to the fore rather than as works which illustrate contemporary categories of interpretation, as is the case with most so-called deconstructivist works.
At any event, this only illustrates the coherence of Smira's artistic approach and continuity. This is very inspiring in an age in which the unity of the oeuvre and of style have become undermined. Although this artist goes his own way, in passing he notices what is happening around him, but is driven by the inherent force of his work, rather than by contemporaneous developments.
Prof. phi. Of Art
Shaoul Smira: Recent Paintings
by Jan Foncé-Zimmerman
(Gallery Guy Pieters, 1989)
The art of Shaoul Smira seems to be quite different from those recent directions in painting that have determined the outlook of the contemporary scene.
Neither could his oeuvre be completely understood by regarding it as a continuation of respectable and established older traditions. One obvious quality of his approach is the fact that he does not operate in line of a reductionist process of elimination or opposition, which means that traditional dichotomies like the antipodes abstract-figurative, linear-pictorial.
Expressive-lyrical and the like do not seem to be a part of his plastic vocabulary.
As a matter of fact, the artist starts with an abstract background and later maintains a certain degree of abstraction in some sections of the work by emancipating the graphic elements from its function of outlining fields of color. The shifting between two-dimensional and three-dimensional forms of pictorial and representational logic – respectively in superpositions and in the use of "implied perspective" – equally contributes to the pluralistic outlook of his art, by its over all-character and de focalized composition can be read on different levels. Since it is clearly hampering a concentric or linear reading of the picture. For this very reason, one cannot grasp a narrative of a picture, but rather has to search, recombine and fill in the gap in order to come to a coherent interpretation, which the artists oppose to by inserting internal contradiction in the very logic of the composition.
This internal complexity and narrative inconsistency that make Smira's paintings such pleasant visual experiences, is being transposed to the treatment of surface and the use of color. Sharp contrasts, fields of pure color as juxtaposed to mixed colors and changing-tones, different shades of pastels next to blanks and to linear elements in complementary contrasts further enhance this "differentiated" aspect of his work.
Shaoul Smira is quite individualistic in his conception of painting, which he obviously rather considers with respect to its quality as a visual work of art, than as an illustration of a preconceived theoretic a-priori. In fact, he starts from a conception of his medium as "peinture peinture" – painting as painting, that is – as a basic underlying conception of his work, and makes frequent references to the history of painting, as well as to other mediums e.g. to music. This might be interpreted on a metaphorical level as pointing to the lyric category within aesthetics, as it is rooted in the fulness of sensual perception by maximizing the amount and the strong diversity of visual stimuli.
Smira's art is thoroughly and genuinely individualistic: it cannot be seen as the illustration or the particularization of the axioms of a group or of a new style, which is quite an exceptional thing nowadays.
Curator of Muhka
The paintings of Shaoul Smira are dominated by rich and fiery colors. In terms of subject and power of the joy of creation, they express the intensity of experience. The paintings are ecstatic and energetic in the frenzy of their coloration. At the same time, there is a curious and worrying enigmatic quality in their imaginary iconography. Ultimately the meaning of many of the scenes remains elusive. The figures are rendered from several points of view and their outlines tremble and vibrate, adding to the ecstatic quality of the works. Yet the paintings also reveal a compositional discipline which organizes the wild spontaneity. Smira is closer, at least in the immediate effectiveness of his work, to the new post-modernist painting.
Curator of Israeli Art The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The Rhythm of Celebration
By: Hugo Brutin
ICC Exhibition (Smira, Kadishman & Lifshitz), 1984
The fact that Smira is so highly appreciated and admired in a country like Belgium, which definitely deserves the name of painters' paradise, speaks for itself. Viewers who are used to seeing and spending a lot of time in front of a work studying it know and excellent painter when the see one.
His paintings and gouaches are filled with radiant, active, gesticulating living beings who move forward in time and space, meet other characters or split away from them, communicate with one another. Their sentences translate into colors. The words, which are bush dabs or pencil strokes, bump into one another. As in the case with all intense encounters, theirs is subject to unforeseen events. Certain colors seize the power and impose their reflection on others. A shape which didn't exist a few minutes before taken form under our very eyes. The celebration moves on; the yellow is repeated in the face. It embodies words and emotions in the same wat as the blue or bright red animate other ones. The predominant hue instinctively appeals to darker and lighter shades to bring out its own qualities.
Everything is frail, fragile, extremely suggestive. Things are constantly changing: the beings and the colors, the shapes and their shadows, the thousands detail the painting is made up of. Smira is indeed an emotional painter and is endowed with virtually the same sensitivity as the colors and shapes of their symbolic language. Only when the creative deed itself starts do the beings and things the finished painting will be made up of come to life. Thus, having each act of creation lagging behind as it were. By which I am not saying that the way in which Smira arranges his shapes or sees the plastic echo of the many-colored colors is not lucid of course.
Smira paints a reality that fits his personal rhythm. He is its first objective, and at the same time committed spectator. The spectators that come after him share the joy he finds in painting and tracing a clear, elegant, enormously fragile line. They go into ecstasies over the exuberance of the colors, follow the line of a hand, a leg, a foot, a body meeting another body or being assimilated by it. At first, they see without giving too much thought to what is happening, they move in time, reconsider things and – provided they know how to enter it – have the painting, the scene or event becoming part of their own spirit and heart.
Smira dared to consider freedom of expression in a purely pictorial and plastic way. In this context he can be seen as one of the pioneers of the present-day movement the main characteristics of which are: the love of painting, the tangible reality of the paste, the need for the spontaneity that is based on knowledge, technique and enthusiasm.
Smira no doubt belongs to this group, which speaks volumes.
Paintings Along the Way
Shaoul Smira has made it all the way from the transit camp (Ma’abarah) in Pardes Hannah to some of the world’s most renowned art galleries • The road to success included the encouragement of an enthusiastic American, a generous Belgian scholarship, and above all a massive push from one Israeli, Abie Nathan * Nowadays Smira lives in New York, presents his works in Belgium and is in no hurry to come back here: “Art is not part of life in Israel”
By: Sharon Machat (18.12.2005 – published in Ma’ariv’s culture magazine)
The life story of Shaoul Smira, an established and successful Israeli artist, is an optimistic, global and inspirational one. Smira was born in the city of Basrah in Iraq, and in his childhood came on Aliya with his parents in June 1951. The family landed up in Pardes Hannah, where Smira lived in a small and crowded tent with his father, mother and nine brothers and sisters. After a year and a half in the transit camp, the Smira family moved to a damp 2-room public housing apartment in Jaffa’s ‘D’ neighborhood.
Drawing birds while having a picnic
Smira’s special talent in drawing was already evident in his childhood, when he learned in junior school in town and was quickly appointed to being responsible for the stage backdrops for class performances. “At the age of seven, my mother bought me a box of watercolors as a birthday gift,” he recalls. “I remember how I’d go to sleep at night with the paint box in my arms. At family picnics, while everyone else was playing, I was drawing birds.” In high school, Smira studied an aircraft technician course but didn’t stop drawing. He started to study drawing seriously during his military service at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv, and reached an arrangement with his commanders, who allowed him to leave an hour earlier every day. Among his teachers were the famous painters Streichman and Steimatzky. After finishing his military service, Smira started to work at El Al as an aircraft technician. “Art is one thing; a livelihood another,” he explains, and tells how in the parlance of that time creators such as himself were called "Sunday artists" – namely someone who relates to art in a professional manner but is forced to earn a living and so only paints in his leisure hours. Smira’s great breakthrough involves "pure luck", as he puts it. In the early 1960s, the owner of a small gallery in Tel Aviv was persuaded by him to hang one of his paintings in the shop window. Within a few days, he learned that an American tourist had shown a lot of interest in the art work and had even left the phone number of the hotel where he was staying. Smira, who was very excited, took up the challenge. He contacted the tourist and took a few more of his paintings with him to the meeting. The tourist was enthusiastic about his works and bought them all. Smira returned home satisfied and happy, with a hefty check in his pocket equivalent to his annual salary. “It was then that I understood for the first time that painting is my destiny, and that I could make an honorable living from my art and from my love of painting", he says. He quit his job at El Al and began to paint diligently. He participated in several group exhibitions in small galleries and in a group exhibition for young artists at Tel Aviv Museum. The next turning point in Smira’s career came thanks to peace activist, Abie Nathan, who saw the young artist’s expressive paintings and was enthusiastic. Nathan approached Smira with an offer he could not refuse – he would buy all the paintings on condition that Smira would leave the country and go abroad to develop.
The “Young Kandinsky”
Smira accepted the challenge. He went to Paris, where he met a well-known and generous Belgian gallery owner, who offered him a living allowance that included "pocket money", an apartment and studies at an academy in Montparnasse, in return for an exclusive exhibition. Needless to say, Smira embraced the opportunity. He began living alternately in Antwerp and Paris, where he studied drawing and lectured at the academy. He blended in well with the local artistic milieu and so it was only a matter of time until he received an invitation to show his work in New York. And so, in the early 1970s, Smira travelled to the Big Apple, at the invitation of a local gallery on Madison Avenue, which exhibited “the Cobra School”. Smira fell in love with the city and it in turn loved him. He started to work energetically in his new home, which he set up in Soho, and pretty quickly gained recognition and fame among the local bohemians and, of no less importance – among the local collectors. Many then referred to him as “Young Kandinsky”. Over the years, Smira exhibited his works around the world and became a successful painter, whose paintings are sold for tens of thousands of dollars. In Israel, however, he does not have many exhibitions. “I am represented in Israel by the Julie M. Gallery and have a show there once every few years,” he says. “I don’t completely rule out exhibiting soon even in one of the museums. Israel is a small country, and although a lot of wealthy people live in the country, their vast walls are covered mainly with paint. To invest in art is a tradition, which is prevalent mainly in Europe and more recently in the United States too. In Israel, art is one of the last things that people have in their minds. Art is not part of life in Israel.”
Have you been following the Israeli art scene in recent years? “
Definitely. I think there are many very talented artists in Israel. In terms of talent, Israel doesn’t fall short of any other country, but one of the problems is that, unlike the way things were in Israel in the 1950s and the 1960s, there is now a tendency to engage in imported art, to follow what is happening overseas and import it into the country.”
You’re an Israeli of Iraqi origin, who has lived as an American for many years. How do you define yourself?
“I am, in fact, the very essence of the wandering Jew. Rootless. I grew up in a country in which I wasn’t born and today I live in a country in which I didn’t grow up. In contrast with someone who was born in Israel and his identity as an Israeli is intrinsic and has been present since birth, this identity was forced on me, in a way. Fortunately, I make a living from art, which is a language-free occupation, and whose enjoyment crosses borders of nationality and culture.”
What are you currently working on?
“I’m currently exhibiting ‘Painting’ in the Guy Pieters Gallery in Belgium, which is considered one of the most important and influence galleries in Europe. I’m also planning an ambitious project to launch a museum in a property I purchased in Old Jaffa many years ago. Luckily, I had the great good fortune to make a decent living from what I love and know how to do. I hope I can contribute even in a small way to local art through a museum that will be a home to local artists.”
Icons of a Large City
By: Bert Popelier
In the framework of contemporary art, Shaoul Smira's work can best be described as an exercise in obstinacy. He remains stubborn and confident in his figurative approach. He works with classic materials, a mixed technique involving oil and acrylic either on canvas or paper. And he is not ashamed of his sound knowledge of the modern masters, and yes, he knows his history of the arts well enough to use it. As far as current artistic thinking prevails, Smira is sailing a bit too close to the wind.
Smira wants volume, when asked how people can function in the presence of a work of art, Smira's answer is that his own art has considerably readable and full volume. The question keeps Smira on his toes. He considers that artists bear a moral responsibility. In Western art and within the Western way of life, there is a definite penchant to accept and cherish things which are absolutely void of anything. One admires the clothes of an undressed emperor, and few have the guts to admit that the emperor is naked.
Both art and society have a strong craving for spirituality, but the West has almost lost the notion of moral leadership. Everyone for himself, is the current line of thought. Yet an object or work of art can help one live with his or her own spiritual concepts. It is able to touch upon images on which the artist has focused his emotions. The work of art then becomes an icon.
An icon, with its stylized horizontal representation, is a religious object. In Smira's work, of course, the icons have no religious link whatsoever, but are related to everyday, ordinary men and womenfolk, depicted against the backdrop of a large city. People, animals, objects, fragments of architecture and abstract shapes contribute to produce the iconographical material. They are caught in a stylized image. More so than the iconographical material itself, eventually divided in separate fragments, the sheer volume of the whole exudes the atmosphere of an icon.
Modern chaos is where Smira discovers his iconographical material. People straight out of the urban model, not the individual, since no portraits are made. The image of urban life is composed of anonymous bodies and faces. True, they are central, but are included in an area of space loaded with signs and signals. Triangular and round signals of bans and offers, warning signs, notices, figures and texts, conduits, connections and gears, a field of evenly spaced bands, a grid. They are the scenery of life in a large city, a literal network of meanings.
Smira appears to consider the scenery as an enormous looking-box. The artist himself indulges in voyeurism. He presents the scenery as an inner outhouse, the contents of the street. His paintings surgent that those present are possessed by the available space.
Unsuspecting or unwilling actors? His paintings often literally occur inside a metallic profile or a colored board, borders which, together, determine the content and the pictorial nature of the work. The street furniture is both snug and practical, standardized, exciting, ready to use.
Life therein rejects boundaries, and is not linear, so it would appear. The street scenes are intensively inhabited and experiences. The peeping-tom perceives the intimacy of it all more acutely than anyone else. Not in Smira's works will you see that the street furniture and the public signals are automatically being observed by the figures. It may happen, or it may not. The objects and the signals electrify the people, even if they are not necessarily conscious of the fact. The box of the street is live. Information continuously flows and ebbs, back and forth. Space is alive with vibrations. In some cases, the objects are considered with a more personal touch than are the other people themselves, if that is what the atmosphere created by Smira would have us sometimes believe.
Smira used both the singular and the plural. Living in a large urban center is always complex and sophisticated. The artist does not only select his iconographical material, but he also condenses it. He presents an icon, an image which contains and sums up many other images. His work may appear to be inoculated with realism and is figurative at the same time, but certainly can't be described as realistic from a purely visual point of view. What you actually think you see isn't that obvious.
Smira does not focus, he does picture an actual or specific situation, an image which is thereafter frozen. This manner of seeing and working was common to modern masters in the old days. They placed a border around their motive, took a specific object, a specific person or a feature within a landscape to conjure it into whatever object or painting. Smira pictures several images at the same time. He depicts their dynamism. Smira is a maximalist. Somethings can become quite clear when one studies his figures. Every figure or face he paints is part of a greater ensemble of figures and faces. People travel away and disappear behind each other. They are temporarily and partially present. They come and go. Every image leads to another one. Akin to the vibrations which agitate the backscene, people are in motion, or before moving, in full psychological action. The iconographical material of objects and people isn't there to be viewed on an individual basis, but to allude to the action beyond, and bring the interaction to its fullest expression.
The figures appear to be engrossed into roles in which they are either the hunter or his prey, in turn. Everyone is seen running after his prey, while remaining in the sights at the same time. This has more than a little to do with the erotic driving force which propels the figures. A look, a shoulder, the slightest detail can imbed itself in the mind of a fellow companion as a strong erotic signal. Such thoughts can then easily become the chief aspect in the experience one retains from the street scenes. Thoughts are further dressed up in the clothing of imagination. They multiply and indulge in metamorphosis. People are entangled in their lust.
Smira's paintings are characterized by the intimacy of the multitude, the collective eroticism.
Naturally, Smira's works are full of many other themes. The title of his works is an indication of his connection. The artist is also fascinated, within the overwhelming urban context by such notions as survival, individualism, collectiveness, indifference, fleeting moments, death, and by the mythological expanse, which can accommodate both good and evil. Smira's voyeurism is more than often on a par with commiseration. If the individual experience of life is something of a procedure, involving more than a chain of facts, then its representation in are form should not be that of a link, but of a whole chain. This produces a simultaneousness of past and present. Whatever happens is a specific moment is taken in according to the experience of a previous occurrence. Vague memories and atmospheres emerge from this unconsciousness. Reality and dreams mix with each other. It is an existential experience. The discontinuity of events and observations combine to form continuity. In Smira's work, the question can be raised as to how the psychological assimilation can be expressed in the pictorial rendering.
Smira has found the answer by keeping his various urban images fragmented, by letting them slip one into each other, but mostly by superimposing these and other images. Things happening at different moments, also happen at the same time a form of condensed space. This busy space attracts and takes everyone in, becomes a stylized flat surface that is timeless: the painting. The whole of the image represented in a kaleidoscope of time and space. Images which literally stand in front of, or behind each other, or partly come together, conceal or destroy one another. Partly in order to circumvent this evil, Smira uses the plastic means of lines and colors in his own, special manner. Lines are used to distinguish the contours of expressing shape while remaining transparent at the same time. Line motives can crisscross each other in a clear way or be placed one in front of the other.
Lines describe the structure of things. Lines animate the overall picture, they are essentially kinetic. This is Smira's vibrating adaptation of lines. Plastic form is first expressed by a graphic image that is neither realistic nor symbolic. Each of his works appears to be a print of a notion; a package of human energy flashes past, or withdraws, is sucked into the void. Smira's lines coincide with his synthetic thinking. Color has become even more optional in Smira's works than it used to be. The various parties are linked by patches of color, or he uses the colors to bring the various plans closer together.
Sometimes, to create distance, to enhance a detail, or to reinforce a particular atmosphere, Smira appears to consider color to be untrustworthy, or to say the least, of secondary importance.
The poetical action is instantly recognizable in the hubbub of Smira's works. An image and a counter-image of the contemporary man collectively dragged along by the flow of time. Smira establishes the energy of this process. In the speed of human interactions, in the fleeting moments thereof, he recognizes a contemporary mythological fact. Something which unites vitality and fate.
But can one experience Smira's paintings as the contemporary icons of a large city? They are in any case emotionally, instantly identified. They call up whatever is present in the consciousness and notions of the contemporary Western Human Being. They activate the spirit.
Translated by Raymind Bove
"Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism – to blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity, the sun matched with the sea". George Bataille, 1962 Eroticism, Death and Sensuality
I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off' but diminished to the size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, "This must thou eat"/ and I ate the world.
Ralph Waldo Emerson