Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Urban Jungle: Marik Lechner in South Tel Aviv

Report from… Tel Aviv

Niger River: Paintings by Marik Lechner was at Rosenfeld Gallery, 1 Shvil HaMif’al Street, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, October 10 to November 16, 2013

Marik Lechner, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas, 200 x 408 cm. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Gallery, Tel Aviv
Marik Lechner, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas, 200 x 408 cm. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Gallery, Tel Aviv

On the edge of Florentin, between gentrified South Tel Aviv and Jaffa Port, is a run-down industrial area, a refuge for foreign workers, which is fast reinventing itself as an arts neighborhood. You can walk into a bar filled with hookah-smoking Asian and African men, then be engulfed by a well-heeled group from North Tel Aviv on a guided tour. The artists are moving in, turning the disused warehouses and cheap space into studios and galleries. To date, the biggest draw is the Rosenfeld Gallery, where Marik Lechner is currently showing his large, paint-laden canvases. Flamboyant and lavishly expressionistic, the work is held together by the strength of its compositional structure, and by its narrative – a quirky kind of magical realism that is both funny and darkly unsettling.

It’s one of those exhibitions where there is so much newly-applied oil paint that the whole gallery smells deliciously of it. And a strong presence of life also emanates from the work – at first because of the vigour of the actual painting, but then, as the images open themselves up to scrutiny, from the way they are densely populated. Humans, animals, landscapes, fish and birds, trees, buildings: everything seems to breathe, and there is a general lushness and exuberance.

Some of the paintings look as if they are still growing. Two figures stand intimately close, in what at first seems to be a field of flowers, but there are goldfish as well as plants orbiting around them. Is everything underwater, or could the two be standing in front of a huge fish tank?  Or perhaps we are in the tank viewing them through the glass. Movement is everywhere, and Lechner keeps his narrative fluid and suggestive. The figures are feminine and youthful — one seems to be offering a flower, for instance — but their eyes and hair are animal-like, even feral.

Marik Lechner, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Gallery, Tel Aviv
Marik Lechner, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas, 200 x 200 cm. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Gallery, Tel Aviv

Another possibly underwater painting shows a seated figure holding a posy of flowers. Everything floats, including her hair, and although the paint is thick and heavy, even clumsy, the feeling it conveys is light and lyrical. Scarlet fish seem to float behind and in front of the figure, plants are growing, it is a verdant, flowering place. And yet there is an undeniable violence in the work, a suggestion of spattered and dripping fresh blood. In a series of small canvases, death and playfulness go together: monkeys up to monkey business, with heads that look bared to the skull, and eye sockets rather than eyes, their mouths gaping to show garish-coloured teeth. There are humanoid animals to match the animal-like humans: a fox-like creature seems to pose for its portrait; an owl sits watchfully on the shoulder of a kind of green snowman; a spotted dog sits on a table, among wine glasses and paper chains, looking at a view which suggests, at least to me, an open city square at Christmas time. Darkness is falling, and the scene is illuminated by artificial light from the surrounding buildings, and a big fir tree. Then I spot a boat among the buildings, which makes me wonder…

Only as I am about to leave do I ask about the title, Niger River. Apparently Lechner moved into the area recently, and got to know a Nigerian worker who helped him build his studio. The worker described the Niger River in a way that was so evocative for Lechner that it became the fantasised subject of most of these paintings, and the title of the show.

Marik Lechner, Untitled, 2013. Oil on canvas, 180 x 240 cm. Courtesy of Rosenfeld Gallery, Tel Aviv
click to enlarge