In Gilad Efrat's "Negev," a new show at Inman Gallery, Israel's Negev desert and the lunar landscape vie as images of desolation. The moon, of course, wins, but the images of the desert are equally haunting and depopulated. All of the paintings are rendered in almost monochromatic tones, a range of grayed taupes electrified by hints of an acid yellow or magenta.
The lunar paintings are the most photorealistic, with sleek flat expanses of dark shadow and delicately conveyed rock forms. It is Efrat's restrained use of color that really makes his paintings. We have all seen images of the moon's surface, but it is the evidence of Efrat's hand and the luminous residue of a very unnatural-feeling yellow that take the work out of pat photorealism. And like all of Efrat's works, they change with proximity, each step closer or further away altering your perception of the images. The yellowish undertones had the most edge for me, but each work became in turn slightly more or slightly less effective as I moved from tactile patches of pigment to broad landscape.
"Gilad Efrat: Negev"
Through January 5, 2013
Efrat works from photographs, rendering them on canvas through a reductive process. He applies layers of oil paint on a canvas — the darkest color at the top — and then wipes or scrubs it off to reveal lighter ground using tools like rags and cotton swabs. He works on the paintings in gridded squares, removing paint one section at a time. Breaking an image up and working this way means you only deal with light and dark and the apparently abstract form of each small square rather than the totality of the image.
The Negev paintings feel looser and more expressive than the moon imagery. Maybe that's because Efrat has a physical familiarity with the terrain — he grew up in Be'er Sheva, the largest city in the Negev. (The Negev desert covers approximately 55 percent of Israel.) His images from this series include close-ups of the stark tangled limbs and creased bark of tamarisk trees. The trees are "salt cedars" that draw water from deep aquifers. The paint layers are thicker, the complex network of lines expressive and chaotic. Here Efrat is really reveling in the surface of his paintings.
Almost invariably, the political seeps into everything concerning the Middle East, even/especially art. The show's press release states that Efrat describes the Negev as "the nation's backyard, the place where [the state] keeps everything it doesn't want near its more populous centers: trash, prisons, military, and energy installations." It is also where Bedouin live.
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The Negev series includes panoramic, windswept images of the desert landscape. They convey a tremendous sense of space, an unending expanse broken by infrequent clumps of dark, rough vegetation or dotted with clusters of wooden shipping pallets and makeshift structures — you can't really tell if they are trash piles or habitations until you read the titles, Bedouin (Negev). They are likely both, homes and animal pens cobbled together from cast-off debris.
Many Bedouin were driven out of the Negev in the early years of the founding of the state of Israel, fleeing to neighboring Jordan or Egypt. The government seized their lands and then sedentarized and urbanized others in impoverished townships. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office is currently pursuing a plan to have 30,000 Bedouin of the Negev forced into permanent government settlements and out of the "unrecognized" villages they have built for themselves. A government resettlement area next to the massive garbage dump As Sawahira is reportedly where some 2,300 Bedouin will be relocated.
The Negev has a long history of human habitation, dating to at least 6,500 years ago, and there is a similar sort of haunting timelessness to Efrat's paintings. People and civilizations have come and gone here, one driven out or conquered by another. Efrat is interested in this; in earlier work, the artist painted aerial views of archaeological sites — and modern ruins. The lack of people in his paintings somehow makes the work about the progression of time, culture and humanity. In these paintings, the earth and moon are constants. But the earth is subject to waves of people scrabbling across and altering its surface through their efforts.
Efrat's poetically bleak paintings may be politically informed, but he's not into polemics. Like his earlier aerial images, the work seems to take a broader view of human interactions. The repetitive, painstaking process he uses to make his paintings has been likened to the processes of archaeologists, removing layers to reveal what is underneath. Whether he's giving us the craters of the moon or the modern world of a formerly nomadic people, there is something eternal and mournful about Efrat's imagery.