Amnon Ben-Ami is not the type of artist who seeks the limelight. The 57-year-old Jerusalem artist has been painting for much of his professional life, tucked away in his Talpiot studio, taking a decidedly Pop perspective on subjects great and small, from the sole of a flip-flop to the veins in a woman’s breast.
The image of a struggling artist toiling in his garret? Not far from the truth. So it was decidedly satisfying for all involved when Ben-Ami was awarded the Ilana Elovic Bezalel Prize for Painting, an annual prize recently established in collaboration with the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, whose $20,000 monetary award is the highest given to Israeli artists. Along with the cash comes an exhibition and catalog at Bezalel’s downtown gallery, Yaffo 23.
“The prize is very meaningful,” said Ben-Ami, during a tour around the exhibit. “Each of the five judges is impressive in their own right, and the fact that the prize has ties to academia and to Bezalel, as well as the money, helps as well. You have to live and survive and this offers tremendous support.”
The panel of judges comprises the president of the Bezalel Academy, Professor Arnon Zuckerman; Rivka Saker, chair of Sotheby’s Israel; curator Yigal Zalmona; artist and Bezalel faculty member Professor Nahum Tevet; artist Michal Rovner; and a representative of the Elovic family, which established the prize in memory of Ilana Elovic, an artist with ties to Israel who died in 2006 of ovarian cancer.
In their statement about Ben-Ami, they wrote that his works “expand the definition of ‘painting.'”
During a tour of the exhibit, “Zephyr,” with Ben-Ami at Yaffo 23 — Bezalel’s gallery and center for contemporary art and culture, which is located in the spacious loft-like area above Jerusalem’s main post office on Jaffa Road — there is an overwhelming sense of that broad definition when viewing the span of his works from the last 10 years.
“This is not a 30-year-old artist,” commented Roy Brand, the curator and director of Yaffo 23. “He’s not someone who’s hot right now; he’s someone who’s been very consistently producing for the last 30 years, with a lot of thought and depth. He does Israeli symbols, looks at trauma through a Pop lens.”
In the walk through the exhibit, Ben-Ami talked about his thought process as well as the somewhat unusual materials he uses when painting, which can include canvases of satin fabric, sheets of cellophane, or rolls of neon paper. But what was fascinating about the conversation was Ben-Ami’s willingness to consider the audience’s take on his work, despite his own long-standing relationship with the paintings and sculptures that have been part of his work life, sometimes for as long as a decade.
The so-called Alma portraits, oval paintings of various personages, began when Ben-Ami quit smoking, and began to chew gum, trying out all the available brands on the market. The brand he liked best was Alma, one of the first chewing gums made by Elite in the 1950s, and then reintroduced several years ago as a nod toward the retro nostalgia wave. Ben-Ami stuck with the Alma oval, but moved on from the Alma image to Sigmund Freud and other people he was thinking and reading about at the time.
“When something works, I say ‘Great,’ and just go with it,” said Ben-Ami. “The regularity of it is very meaningful to me… the fact that it stems from a pack of chewing gum and yet has been around for so long. Those are the references for me.”
Ben-Ami was given rolls of fluorescent paper in green and orange, paper that he associated with the flyers posted on city bulletin boards — the bold black words standing out on the brightly hued sheets. At the time, he was thinking about Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series, so he created them in a Pop-Art style on the fluorescent orange rolls.
“I got stuck on that roll of paper,” he said. “You pay attention to the black on lime. There’s something meaningful in it for me. Then somebody told me it’s called neon (I had no idea), and that puts you into another context, that of colors in art history, and I liked the idea of putting nature on something so unnatural as neon.”
Ditto for his “Ocean” piece, which delineates the horizon of the sea on a long sheet of the neon orange paper.
“I’ve been working on this for a while. Every time I’m at the ocean I think about it, whether I see something straight or crooked… you just keep seeing it,” he opined.
That use of alternative canvases has been apparent for many years, particularly in his oversized works, often painted on satin, which Ben-Ami first used as the lining for a series of pockets.
“I love to create a large work and enter it; it’s a different kind of feeling,” he continued.
The titles of Ben-Ami’s works are generally simple and straightforward, one-word titles that name what’s in the painting. The paintings, said Ben-Ami, sometimes start from the name, offering a metaphor for the drawing, a behind-the-scenes conversation or something that only he sees.
But don’t look for meaning in the color of a subject’s sweater, he cautioned, as it’s often based on what he himself is wearing that day. Ditto for the physical appearance of the person, whether short or tall, Israeli, fat or skinny. “They’re just people,” he claimed. “Who cares what they look like?”
Ben-Ami’s biology works offer that same Pop approach to the subject, but with strong ties to the biology books that he has pored over, time and again.
“It looks different every time, and that elicits a strong reaction from me,” he asserted. “It’s clear that not everyone likes it, but I do because it’s simple and complicated, and that’s why I can come back to it, over and over. It’s the root of this exhibit, the foundation of my work.”
“It’s the things I see,” he said. “They’re mundane, but they’re in my thoughts.”
“Zephyr” will close on January 4, 2013. Gallery talks will take place on Friday, January 4, at 12 p.m. Yaffo 23 is open Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m.; Friday: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Yaffo 23 is located above the central post office (on the 3rd floor), 23 Jaffa Road, Jerusalem.