Uriel Dotan: Women of the Rocks
September 6-28, 2017
175 Rivington St, New York, NY 10002
by JONATHAN GOODMAN, SEPT. 2017
Uriel Dotan, an Israeli artist now spending most of his time in New York (but who still returns to Israel), produced the work for “Women of the Rocks” in 2014, when he had a studio at Mana Contemporary, an art center in Jersey City. The artist created this series by taking photographs of Palestinian women and their children spending time at the beach outside Tel Aviv, embellishing the photographic images by painting on top of them. The works are given particularity by the use of photography as their base, while painting over them softens their detail and results in imagery that relates to painting at least as much as to photography.
As the press materials point out, Western art has a long history of portraying people swimming in the sea; in more modern art, Picasso and Cezanne come to mind, as well as earlier, 19th-century painters. And Dotan’s body of work belongs in part to that tradition. But once the historical connections have been recognized, we find that the contemporaneity, and political tolerance, of the show occurs in the sympathetic portrayal of Palestinians by an Israeli. These photo-paintings serve both as a continuation of a specific subgenre of Western art and as a reading of a culture that has been, to say the least, marginalized. It is a leap of empathy for Dotan to describe the women who, in their long dresses and headscarves, present profound cultural difference in their clothing, let alone their thoughts and feelings.
Despite the exacerbating divides between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples, Dotan is showing art experienced as broadly humanizing, rather than distanced, in regard to an often-maligned minority. The paintings do indicate that the women are likely Muslims wearing hijabs, but often the figures are seen from a distance, which lessens the impact of their disparity. In any case, the ambience is not one of political or cultural tension at all. The women and children are simply people visiting the beach. Indeed, in Dotan’s works we see an artist not so much interested in the description of divergence as an unbiased rendering of leisure activity—an attitude that by itself carries considerable political weight. Both artistic impulse and cultural sympathy are merged in art that relates to a traditional process. The scenes are conventionally figurative and realistically structured. One has the sense that we could be almost anywhere—that is, if we disregard the heavy clothing and head coverings the women wear. The scenes are tranquilly rendered, emphasizing the familial closeness of the women. Because Dotan has painted over what were originally photographic images, there is a roughness to the works’ surface. Additionally, the colors often feel as though they have been achieved with pastels, which adds to their connectedness to tradional art historical lineages. As a result, it is hard to say whether the body of work is artistically or politically oriented—of course, it may be both.
In A1, eight women clothed in white sit with their backs to us. A transverse beam supports them as they face a featureless gray expanse. The work's limited palette of gray and white is atypical with regards to the rest of the show, but this lack of color intensifies the visual drama of what we see. Viewers have no sense that they are regarding a minority group; neither the imagery nor the completely non-descriptive title gives us a clue. Consequently, there is no way to join what we know about Dotan’s project with the image before us. All of the works have similar titles, which indicate sequential progression rather than a political stance. This aspect of the work brings Dotan’s audience back to the important question that regards the impact of much contemporary political art: How much information do we have to know so as to understand its significance? In Dotan’s case, it is quite important to do know that these works were created by an Israeli. And inevitably, because of the headscarves they wear, it points to the likelihood that he is depicting Muslim, if not specifically Palestinian, women. This element is seen in A4, in which three women on the bottom left of the composition are grouped around a small mass of rocks. One figure’s clothing is red and another’s is gray; the third woman, the only one standing and the only one in the entire sequence whose face we can see, wears a purple outfit. All three clearly wear headscarves. But while these women receive emphasis because of their detail and placement in the foreground, the sea itself, with its undulating waves and cluster of individuals mostly standing in the water in the distance, becomes a focal note of interest. Again, no overt political comment is being made. But the very innocence of the scene is in fact a social comment, given its context.
A12 feels particularly 19th century-like. Very close to the forefront of the work are two women with their backs turned to us, clothed in black and wearing what looks like red hijabs. Two dark figures sit to their left, while in front of them we see an expanse of water, gray and white, in which a number of people are swimming. Above them, at the top of the painting, the band of pale purple makes it look like the evening has begun. While Dotan’s social motives are unquestionably of our time, his process is decidedly orthodox. Earlier in his career, he created digital art, before it gained in popularity. But this body of work can only be seen artistically as historically well established. There is nothing wrong in his doing so; in fact, the straightforwardness of the imagery’s presentation intensifies our ability to connect with what we see. But it is also true that much current political art is being communicated through videos, fairly recent in their invention. Dotan has chosen to present his unspoken views within a conventional framework, leaving nothing to chance. Perhaps this bluntness is inevitable, given that the subject matter—people on the beach—is such a classical artistic subject. Whatever his motives, it is clear that Woman of the Rocks is a show that communicates an artistic sense of the past even as he conveys a present-day empathy for a marginalized people. WM
Johnathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications.
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