Report from…Tel Aviv
As the crowds converge on Fresh Paint 5 the eagerness is almost palpable. The venue of Tel Aviv’s annual art fair is always a surprise and part of the fun. It was the Botanic Gardens last year and Jaffa Port the year before. This time the setting is a large new municipal high school near the sea in North Tel Aviv, due to open in a few months. There are plans for a pleasant residential development around the school – one day. At the moment there is little more than dust and stones behind the sand dunes, with the lone school building presenting itself as an odd, slightly surreal venue for an art party. The first question has to be, why here?
The organisers of Fresh Paint find locations that have never been used to show art before, and never exposed to the wider public. Each venue is a recently constructed complex where the art fair can take place before the official opening. With 30,000 visitors over five days, this also puts the limelight on the new venue and gives it a good launch. For an event focused on young artists, many of whom are recent art school graduates, the current location is apt. Headmaster of the new school is Ram Cohen, whose outspoken liberal views as head of Tel Aviv’s Municipal High School Aleph for the Arts landed him in trouble at the Knesset two years ago, but made him into a kind of superstar in the eyes of many students and parents.
Like the rough landscape and school building, the art on the show projects a feeling of raw potential and future promise – especially in the section called the Greenhouse, which is the nub of the exhibition and showcases the work of young, unknown and unrepresented artists. The art viewing community of Israel – coming mostly, of course, from Tel Aviv – brings with it the enthusiasm of a stereotypical Jewish mother, looking at its new offspring with pride and pleasure.
The idea of a contemporary art fair for Tel Aviv originated with Sharon Tillinger, an entrepreneur, and Yifat Gurion, a graphic designer, who had worked together in the past. It was a vision to bring young artists into the public eye and to expand the art market, and has succeeded beyond expectation. The first fair was held in 2008 in a building in Florentin, a shabby but interesting South Tel Aviv neighborhood that has since taken off as an art centre. The Greenhouse is limited to Israeli artists, and the independent commercial galleries that rent space at the fair are all – so far – local, but there is an international presence. Artists like Douglas Gordon, Adel Abdesamed, Rineke Dijkstra, Muntean Rosenblum and others are shown by the Israeli galleries that represent them, and there are projects with foreign artists that this year included a show of Spencer Tunick’s Dead Sea “human installation” – photographs of 1,200 naked Israelis in the rugged landscape.
This year 46 artists were selected for exposure in the Greenhouse out of over 1,000 applicants, by a jury of gallerists, collectors and educators, who made their choices only on the basis of the work, and without knowing anything about the artists. This inspiration is also picked up by the Secret Postcard project, a yearly event in which postcards by hundreds of different artists are sold for the same price of 180 NIS ($50). Only after buying one can you discover whether it was made by a famous artist like Ya’ir Garbuz or Menashe Kadishman, or by someone as yet unknown.
A sense of play and experimentation ran through much of the work in the Greenhouse, with objects taken out of context, quirky perspectives, and use of non-art materials. In Shay Arik’s installation, an upturned bottle of bleach drips slowly on to a neat pile of black T-shirts, creating patterns as it turns them white. Broken umbrellas are recycled by Avinoam Sternheim to make sculpture with wit and a free spirit – his luscious paintings have the same character. Matan Oren etches his drawings through a layer of dry whitewash on the inside of plastic buckets. Matan Mittwoch focuses on tackiness and banality in his photographs of office interiors but presents them as abstracts. And Ran Barlav’s splashy romantic paintings are of domestic interiors that are cheap and nasty. Much of what you see is great fun without being great art, and the show seems perhaps less substantial than in previous years. But for diversity and exuberance it gets 100%.
Once artists have made it to the Greenhouse, they are protected and nurtured like tender exotic plants. Each is assigned a curator who becomes an expert on his or her work and can represent the artist. These reps are present and available at the exhibition and are fluent protagonists for the artists, with a professional ability to explain and promote the work to viewers. Massive exposure to the most powerful and influential members of Israel’s compact art world in a short time is likely to create dramatic changes in an artist’s career. The metaphysical paintings of Igor Skaletsky, Russian-born and with an academic art training in Moscow, were sold out by the third day. And Nevet Yitzhak’s video installation “Alashan Malish Gheirak”, that projects the Arab singer Farid al-Atrash singing his popular song “Because I have no one but you” above a floor projection of a swaying oriental carpet, sold out too.
Igal Ahouvi, a collector, gives the Most Promising Artist award annually to someone from the Greenhouse, which includes the sum of 40,000 NIS ($10K) and a solo exhibition at the following year’s fair. Nivi Alroy, a sculptor who works with wood and paper, was the 2010 winner. Asked how winning the prize had affected her art career, she said that the solo show was a signature show for her. Alroy was helped and supported throughout, allowed to work with the curator of her choice, even though she was living in Miami, and to rebuild the exhibition space in order to accommodate her work. Because of the exhibition, her work was reviewed in an international magazine, which in turn led to an invitation to be part of an important art event in Philadelphia. The amount of exposure her work received, she said, was “incredible”.
Fresh Paint has opened up the Israeli art scene in two important ways. On the financial side it boosts the art market, brings in new artists and buyers – many of whom are selling or buying for the first time –and allows them to bypass the museums, galleries and curators who act as gatekeepers. In the five years since the fair’s inception, the Greenhouse alone has generated sales adding up to NIS 9,000,000. On the side of culture and awareness, the fair gives Israelis the opportunity to see what is happening in the local art scene, all under one roof.
Israeli art is growing fast. It started with photography and video, and now has spread to painting. Having its own art fair is the next natural step.
Fresh Paint Contemporary Art Fair took place in Tel Aviv from May 15 to 19, 2012print