Whitehot Magazine

Tsibi Geva: Internalizing the Struggle

Installation view, courtesy of albertz benda

Tsibi Geva: Jolt
October 12 - November 18, 2017
albertz benda
515 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001


Given the ongoing trend toward art and globalization, we are led to believe that art has separated from culture only to exist as a free-floating entity within an infinitely progressive economic universe. For many, the rules of conduct that drive this universe are perfunctory. This concurs with the subjective endorsements administered by those who display outrageous sums of digital cash ready to invest in whatever suits their fancy. We all know it is now possible for art of any kind to exist “freely” without the troubling intervention of art criticism – the exception being a notable brand of identity politics, which tends to by-pass migratory refugees and victims of poverty in favor of the familiar theoretical issues that occur within the distant and privileged domain of art writing. 

Tsibi Geva, Untitled, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 37 1/2 x 74 1/2 inches (95 x 190 cm), courtesy of albertz benda

Of course there is a logic to this not-so-recent trajectory that appeared gratuitously during the late 1980s when the quest for art turned away from significance toward a more commercial desire symptomatic of what appears today as a type of mediated non-culture. Advertisements for fakery have miraculously transformed indigenous culture into a circus of varied performances accompanied by editioned larger-than-life toys and trinkets bound for investment. Over the years, many have wondered how art got this way when, in fact, there is no real mystery. Things began moving fast, then faster and faster, to the point where what used to be visible eventually became invisible. This is where we are today.

But there are still areas of committed involvement where artists have begun to recognize the need to re-envision what has been visibly lost to the realm of the virtual. It is now coming back into a fiercely tactile parlance. Here I refer to the work of the Israeli painter, Tsibi Geva, whose approach to the visible goes beyond the tolerance of formal dictates. This is to suggest that Geva’s paintings are rugged and bare-boned. They hit at the core of existence and of what existence means in relation to art. But Geva is neither Sartre nor Genet. His paintings are less about a discourse than a consummate discourse unto themselves. Geva’s bestial marks, spatters, and hard-boiled gestures, whether figurative or non-figurative – more typically, a conflation of both – constitute the works of a quick-witted, intelligent, yet raging raconteur. These paintings go eons beyond any commonplace representation of humanity or latency that holds prejudice from the past. Having followed the paintings of Geva since my initial visit to Israeli in 1995, months before the assassination of Rabin, the artist was still deeply involved in painting Arabic headwear called keffiyeh. There was little doubt that his thoughtful and liberal position as an Israeli citizen carried over into his role as a painter, and that his paintings were concerned with restructuring visibility in an invisible world of perennial consumption.

Installation view, courtesy of albertz benda

I was struck by the comment made by Geva for a questionnaire at the time he was making preparations for his exhibition at the Israeli Pavilion for the Venice Biennial in 2015. According to John Yau’s essay in the exhibition catalog for Albertz Benda, Geva was asked whether it was “an honor or problematic” to represent his country at the Biennial. Here is an excerpt from his response: “Except for a few years here and there I have lived in Israel all my life; my art is in a way the product of, and a reflection on this place, which I love and which tears me apart in its radical political and ethical conflict.” 

There is little doubt that Tsibi Geva has endured his share of criticism over the years in the process of becoming one of Israeli’s foremost artists. To come to terms with the force and rage that seethe openly, yet symbolically in his recent paintings is to understand the nature of his liberation, his fixed point in time, where memory releases its grip on the unconscious and brings disparate images to the forefront of the artist’s attention without having to be ordained or qualified or reasoned beyond the scope of what painting means.

Tsibi Geva, Untitled, 2016, Acrylic on canvas, 59 x 59 inches (150 x 150 cm), courtesy of albertz benda

While some of the works included in this scrupulously curated exhibition at Albertz Benda were previously shown in the Israeli Pavilion at the Venice Biennale two years ago, this version – re-titled Jolt – also contains more recent Untitled paintings in which roughly contoured nude bodies are configured in relation to one another or turned in various orgiastic directions, and occasionally accompanied by blackbirds or ravens. Thematically, the exhibition holds together in a way that posits a uniquely interior struggle. Yet the struggle felt in these paintings – particularly in the large three-panel Untitled Triptych (2011), shown in Venice – suggests the kind of fictional interior found in contemporary allegory. In this case, the allegory contains conflicting remnants from the artist’s earlier terrazzo theme along with graffiti-style sexuality and traces of a lost landscape. For Geva, the emptiness within this violent allegory negates the need for making a surreptitious confession. Rather the subtle intelligence found in this painting belongs within the realm of an epic. This being the case, one cannot easily avoid entering into Geva’s Untitled Triptych as one might consider entry into Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimus (1950). Both hold the power and invitational allure of large-scale paintings that awaken a timeless journey, an epic fraught with isolation and conflict that heightens the allure and delay of the jolt.

Installation view, courtesy of albertz benda

There is little doubt that Geva’s work is uniformly expressionist, often revealing bold erotic themes as seen in Untitled (1916) and Untitled (2017). Even so, the theatrical drive given to the surface that encompasses these works occurs by distancing the space through abstraction. Again, this is masterfully shown in Geva’s large painting in the rear gallery, Untitled (2014), and in other works as well. I would cite Black Raven (2011), a painting where the only visible image is the bird perched on a wire possibly above a figure reaching toward a group of Rorschach splatters that appear to negate other spaces where forms may have come and gone in the process of the painting becoming a painting. 

Installation view, courtesy of albertz benda

A rather different and distinct work comes to the foreground in Untitled (2014) where a standing figure possibly wearing a keffiyeh holds another painfully activated human form struggling to stay alive. The two figures are visually bound together. They are openly painted in black against a terrain of expressionist brushwork that resembles a desert. I noticed that the version photographed in the catalog is different from the final finished version now on display. Apparently, the artist added a second panel with the same expressionist brushwork above the figures suggesting the presence of an extended desert space, which clearly lends a heightened emotional impact to the painting. Within this minimal abstract narrative, there is a certain rigor as one figure unites poignantly with another. The painting portrays the solitude of existence at a moment in which the forces of life and death struggle to define their purpose in the making of history. WM


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in AmericaArtsArt NewsArt Press(Paris), Sculpture MagazineThe Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program  at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.


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