by Naomi Aviv – Tel Aviv February 1997
Once in a while, during the natural flow of life, we find ourselves taking part in someone else’s moment of glory.
David Gerstein belongs to a group of painters, all top craftsmen, whom you come across, and whose expanding body of work
– increasingly filling the country – is worthy of close scrutiny.
It is difficult to think of another artist like David Gerstein, whose work in recent years has gained such prominence on the local scene: his pieces are regularly exhibited at the Rosenfeld Gallery in the heart of Dizengoff, one of Tel Aviv’s main streets; reproductions of his works have been published in all Israeli newspapers; some of his works have been chosen to appear on huge billboards, as human and aesthetic images that aim to catch the eye and engage the heart, and to promote companies like Isracard and the First International Bank; his monumental statues adorn Israeli cities; a playground of his invention continues to delight the children of Jerusalem; the Hebrew University ordered an ambitious and challenging project from Gerstein: the design of various statues which will symbolize – based on criteria of good taste, common sense and a high level of communication – the various University institutions and faculties; a television show has chosen to decorate its broadcasting studio with his works, in the hope that the pieces’ tremendous popularity will attract viewers to the show; some of his paintings hang in the Israel Museum’s collection and the Children’s Wing of the museum exhibits his statues; and many more.
The range of circumstances, both artistic and popular, under which the Israeli public has been exposed to Gerstein’s work in the past years, i.e. the statues and cut-outs, as well as his overflowing presence, speak of the community’s deep need for this type of creation: The work of a virtuoso artist, who is neither theoretical nor topical in the publicist, period-related sense, but “simply an artist” in the superb sense of the word. A painter who has fine-tuned the technique, temperament, shapes, images and coloring which are identified with him: a painter who produces simple, charming, Matisse-like decorative objects, using his unique inventive technique and employing a Fauve-like coloring and sensuality. Good-hearted objects that convey a certain irony and humor towards “Israeliness”, which grows more and more convoluted and yet for him, at least, remains simple and innocent, as it was during his childhood in the 50’s. Perhaps not so different than the Israeliness experienced by the first generation of the Land of Israel painters, i.e. Nahum Gutman and Reuben Rubin.
Gerstein, a self-confident painter, gazes with a semi-ironic smile at our fervor-ridden reality. As though everything around him were merely atoms engaged in a mad race, which in itself generates reality, and if not for that race everything would plunge into black holes or madhouses. Reality as a pointless race is the subject of several of his works, such as: “Marathon” and “The Great Marathon”.
In 1970, after ten years of study in Jerusalem, Paris and New York, Gerstein began exhibiting his literary-figurative paintings, which depicted autobiographical scenes, the Tel Aviv balcony scene, as well as home, mood and atmosphere pictures that were engraved on his mind. The seventies were critical years on the Israeli and international art scene. The art establishment adopted Minimalism and Conceptualism, which were created by artists of Gerstein’s generation. But Gerstein resolutely refused to join the hegemonic stream, and against all odds offered literary paintings, replete with expression and bound to the perception of art as object.
The twenty five years that have since passed – including his transition to sculpture and replicated cut-outs and the surrender of literary expressiveness – have not succeeded in obscuring his outstanding characteristics: that same innocent, generous, warm, placated gaze, non-critical and often amused. A gaze which has never stopped wondering at the basic elements of the world, and despite its defilement and “madness” continues to proffer everyone scenery, climate, beach, pool, light, color and the conditions for developing a simple, up beat leisurely culture, such as swimming, diving, rowing, ball games on the beach, folk-dancing, interior decorating, a curtain blowing in a window, flowers on a table near a letter and a cat, a red-hot slice of watermelon or an enticing juicy bowl of fruit.
This is David Gerstein’s proposal for the establishment of our “Israeliness” inventory: A highly processed, softened, escapist “Israeliness”, free of veiled exoticism in the style of Gutman or Rubin. Because, for example, when Gerstein sees a donkey on the Ma’ale Edumim road, he first remembers Gutman’s donkey, a memory which duplicates the artist’s view of the donkey in a kind of cinematic “double-take”: as one who is filled with wonder, remembers the painterly precedents of that donkey, is re-filled wonder and decides that he has other reasons to like the donkey and want to paint it, different motives than those which directed Gutman or Rubin. The donkey is part of the place, a burden carrying beast which could be found on the construction sites of our childhood in the fifties, the vegetable wagon that wandered around the neighborhoods. For those like Gerstein who were born here, there is nothing exotic about the donkey as there was for the first Land of Israel painters who came from Europe and veiled almost everything they found in oriental charm; rather it is a creature that symbolized and continues to symbolize all those characteristics which make people fond of it. The donkey is part of the place’s collective memory. What could be more natural than to add it to the local reservoir of images? Part of the “Israeli” culture.
Until the late eighties – when the large body of his works called “cut-outs” appeared, along with the process of reproducing them in series of up to 295 signed and numbered copies, hand-painted in industrial paints with some variational freedom – Gerstein went through different expressive phases, yet in all of them he brought together the biographical with the local. Over the years his image reservoir grew to include local trees and birds, and his painting technique improved until it reached the formulation of handwriting, line and coloring which are uniquely his own. His images were treated again and again, his funny figures internalized their slight stammer, their innocent absurdity and their kindness, until they became more and more graphic, automatic, spontaneous, immediate, schematic, direct, with no double-lining. Merely a smiling gaze. Before the metal cut-outs with their industrial-like process of production, Gerstein created works in painted wood-cuts. He painted the first of these objects in the exact same manner as his canvases – with conventional oil paints. However, the transition to another medium and material called for relevant paints and painting techniques: super-lacquer, stencils, tapes, air brushes, etc. He tried to liberate the “statues” cut in wood from the flatness of the plywood. In order to achieve an expressive, tangible effect he covered the image’s surface with a mixture of glue, sand and paint, and added acrylic paint on top of the resulting rough texture. However, it seems that even this did not satisfy him. His quest for a suitable personal language led him to metal, forcing him to give up acrylic paint and adopt industrial paint, since acrylic does not take to metal.
The improved technique gave rise to strong characteristic graphic bravado, with stylistic gestures of strong figuration, classical elements of drawing and traditional painting compositions. With these came a great release of color and a switch to shiny, sensual colors that celebrate life and its fullness, with their television-like flickering and their lack of guilt and conflict.
Gerstein’s rich painting style; the secular, flat, mundane images, simple and glowing in their colors; his relating to a society accustomed to seeing reality through the television frame and which has forgotten the simple pleasures of sand and sea and riding a bicycle with one’s hair blowing in the wind – all these encourage us to ascribe his cut-outs to a late Israeli-style pseudo Pop Art genre, designation by genre and, not a fundamental-ideology. It should be noted that in Israel, Pop Art, unlike other international styles such as American Abstract, Minimalism, Conceptualism and even Post Modernism, did not catch on.
In the mid-sixties there were two leading Israeli artists who tried to assimilate Pop Art: Rafi Lavi and Ran Shechori. Of the two it was Shechori, the art critic, who remained faithful to Pop Art’s flatness and continued to produce figure paintings and portraits in strong base colors. However, after two or three years, around 1967, Lavi gave up this style, recognizing the inherent failure in adopting a trend that was generated from within an intrinsically capitalistic society. In those days, the socialist dream in Israel had not yet run its course, and the lyrical expression typical of Israeli painting refused to make way to an objective, impersonal and non-human style of expression as dictated by mass society, a style which blurred the relationship between personal experience and mass consciousness.
And then, in the late eighties, twenty years later Gerstein (then an art student in New York) saw and absorbed Pop Art works at first hand, arriving at his cut-outs, and with them paying an old debt to one of the trends he claims always appealed to him. The Israeli street, too, was seemingly ready for stereotyping of a culture that was formulating into a local style of Pop Art, or, to be more precise, something in between Pop Art and Folk Art.
“Everyone called Pop Art “American Art”, but actually it was industrial art. “America was hit by industrialism and capitalism earlier and harder than other places,” claimed Roy Lichtenstein. . . . If the core of British, followed by American, Pop Art reacted to a society which had become consumerized, shallow and gluttonous – a society which eradicates the hierarchy between “high” and “low”, for whom a McDonald’s sign is part of the landscape, the Coca Cola logo culture, Micky Mouse a cultural hero, Campbell Soup a myth and “Supermarket” the world, and the jumble of syllables from comic books, such as “BOOOOM”, “OOOOUCH”, “SPLAAASH” and “CRAAASH” is language – then Gerstein foregoes most objects of criticism of modern capitalist society. He thereby also relinquishes the light-hearted critical tone of “original” Pop Art on the one hand, and the depressive cynicism and despairing submission to the loss of the original and the authentic, and the triumph of “the system” over all expression of liberty and individuality in the Post Modernistic style, on the other hand.
Gerstein refrains from “large concepts” and the theoretical principle, but he does internalize certain aspects of the Modernist frame of mind – the aesthetic atmosphere and “soft” reality data, to which he chooses to respond in his conciliatory manner, trying to placate the viewer and supply him with a kind of interlude from the violent furor of social and political criticism. Instead of Arnon Ben David’s “Uzi”, he has a female bicycle rider nicknamed “Little Witch”, who reminds him of the days when his young mother, then still an immigrant girl wishing to assimilate into Israeli culture and society, learned to ride a bicycle just a short while before her small twins, David and Jonathan, learned as well; instead of the Israeli soldier’s overcoat and sleeping bag, in the style of young Gil Shahar, he has a series of noisy three-dimensional cut-outs of cats and surfboats and pools and beaches and balconies; instead of sculptures made of cut, rusty metal in the style of Menashe Kadishman that deal with weighty myths such as Sacrifice of the Son, Pieta, and Pregnancy and Birth, Gerstein chose to cut a “Human Circle” out of metal two millimeters thick and coat it with bright lustrous brushstrokes.Gerstein does not ignore the fact that the McDonald’s sign has taken over the Israeli landscape in
thirty-eight strategic sites. But Gerstein will not copy a particular sign, nor photograph or paint it; rather he will relate to it in his consistent manner: He will strip it of concreteness and impart to his work something of the atmosphere of the sign’s “professionalism”, of its blending into the landscape and assimilating among the public. Cut-outs by Gerstein – with their outlines strictly trimmed by laser beams, radiant coloring aiming to catch and seize the eye, three-dimensional volume yet flattened expression like a painting, and immediate images that require no mediation and do not rely on the Ready-Made or the objet trouv? and do not really imitate reality or try to take it to an extreme or “pollute” it – function as sign and logo, reminiscent of the store signs hanging over the small businesses in Tel Aviv, without being such at all.
The transition from delusional painting to the object, where the object itself is an image, was skillfully expressed in Jasper Jones’ painted flags. Frank Stella was one of the American artists who was influenced by Jones’ flags, which were exhibited by Leo Casteli in ’58. To Stella, Jones’ flags seemed more object-like than real flags. He isolated the formal ideas from Jones’ painting one by one and translated them into abstract terms, albeit taking them to a logical extreme, and adopted the industrial coloring of Andy Warhol. Stella estranged himself from the “Jonesian” subject, dimensions, format and touch. More than any other artist till then, he flattened the canvas’ substantiality, punctured the painting’s center, gnawed at its edges, emphasized the cloth’s geometric design and the presence of the painted object as an object. The new flatness which he achieved in his paintings on aluminum, the de-personalization of his brushstrokes and the formatted repetition of shapes made even the shallow space of American Abstract seem old-fashioned. The art critics responded with enthusiasm and heralded Stella as one who solved one of painting’s central formal problems since Impressionism – by conferring on the painting the presence of an object, a kind of “objecthood”.
“My painting is based on the fact that the only thing there is, is what can be seen,” claimed Stella, attacking the demand of American Abstract for transcendence in art, “it really is an object… the whole idea can be grasped at once without any complications… what you see is what you see.”
Gerstein emphasizes his strong connection to Stella’s “objecthood” and to his devotion to the fine line between painting and sculpture, but nothing can induce him to give a definition that estranges him from subject, content and poetic nuance. Gerstein is no formalist, certainly not in the strict sense of the word. He translated Stella’s patterned repetition of shape and geometric structure into three layers of cut painting, with one echoing the other and completing the picture, as well as into replication of the figure and multiple images. The matching shadow, which forms when the cutouts hang against the wall, is also taken into account as part of Gerstein’s poetic duplication and echoing effect.
Anyone who ever rode a cab down Dizengoff Street from North to South, swiftly flashing by the shop windows, could not help but notice Gerstein’s showy cut-outs in the window of the Rosenfeld Gallery. The eye catches the colorful enticing figure at once, as though it were a large toy for grown-ups.
Toys, as Rolland Barthe suggested in an article from “Mythologies”, (an anthology dealing with ideological criticism of mass culture and its language), are microcosms of the adult world: Diminished copies of human articles. According to Barthe, a child who receives toys that reduce the world for him identifies himself as the “owner of”, as “user of”: the toys that were prepared for him offer activity without adventure, without wonder, without joy. They are provided as “Ready Mades”, without anything whatsoever for him to discover about the world’s mechanism.
David Gerstein, who was born in Jerusalem in the forties, had no toys. “My parents were not aware enough to provide me with toys,” he says, and admits that together with his twin brother, he had to devise them from anything that came to hand. To invent a world for himself. To cut himself people and cars out of cardboard and paint windows, wheels and doors onto them, exactly like the thin toys made out of tin, which years later were declared illegal. Naturally, the Gerstein twins, bubbling with relentless creativity, were quickly considered highly gifted wonder children.
As he approaches fifty, assuming that every adult continues to view children as being his other representative, Gerstein returns to the “low art” of which he was deprived in childhood, and seemingly compensates himself for his lack of toys. In his cut-outs – even though most of them are fashioned in three layers – something can still be found of the two-dimensionality of the cut and painted cars.
It should be emphasized that Gerstein’s affinity to traditional Pop Art took place in the eighties, when shapes and images from popular culture around the world took on a monolithic, humorless, glassy and frozen character. Think of the transition from the soft, monumental sculpture of Claes Oldenburg – the “low” everyday objects, such as a piece of cake, an ice-cream cone, a clothespin or lipstick – to the cold, metallic and “soulless” objects of Jeff Koons. No other period of modern history has produced such a quantity of artists who were involved in so many aspects of mass culture.
Gerstein, however, did not yield to the influence of popular culture in the sense of sterile, alienated and subversive ideological imitation. He never gave up his warm relationship and deep involvement with the images which he creates, and the Post Modern ideology, like every other ideology, was never really his cup of tea.
The comics as well, another element inseparable from the dialogue inspired by Pop Art, were and continue to be a source of inspiration for Gerstein. His girl riding a bicycle, “Little Witch”, actually looks like Olive, the elastic girlfriend of Popeye the Sailor. But Gerstein adopted not only something of the comics’ form: He appropriated the principle of movement in the drawings, which is usually obtained by duplicating the entire figure or some of its limbs in order to transmit the feeling of the body while it runs, jumps, descends stairs or comes to a sudden halt. In order to heighten the feeling of movement, Gerstein adopted a special painting technique using a fan brush, which covers the painting surface with Impressionistic, seemingly transparent, darting illuminations. The fan brush unifies the paint surfaces and intensifies the feeling of momentum.
The euphoric happiness radiating from his cut-outs is reminiscent of works created in the sixties, in France, by the Nouveax R’ealistes group (the French version of Pop Art), and especially by the non-conformist artist Niki De Saint Phalle. Her fame was based primarily on her “nanas”, which represent the good, happy mother, who looks exuberant, free and colorful while sitting, standing, bending over, standing on her head, playing with a ball or dancing. De Saint Phalle (and Gerstein too), by the way, never allowed herself to be appropriated by Feminism or any other ideology, and insisted on a simple expression of joix de vivre and of the forces of good in the world.
As mentioned above, Gerstein’s ascription to Pop Art is poetic; it is certainly also procedural: his replicated cut-outs belong to the culture of copy distribution, which was very prevalent in the sixties in the United States. Andy Warhol, Jasper Jones and others specialized in making one authentic original, correct in terms of language and art, and afterwards entered consumer society in the sense of copies and replication, which entirely obscured the term “original” and its relationship with its derivatives.
However, it should also be mentioned that the real motive that lies behind Gerstein’s works is direct pleasure in observing things and in dealing with them by means of traditional painting methods.
The ironic, naive style of the figures, Gerstein’s free subjectivity and his spontaneous, automatic painterly gestures recall Jean Dubuffet.
Like Dubuffet, Gerstein – who was always occupied with popular images and with the layman – views the creative impulse as the main purpose of art. Seemingly primitive art, which like children’s paintings, is not self-aware and does not distinguish between beautiful and ugly. Narrative, ornamental art, which like the art of Pierre Alechinsky from the Cobra group, who began as an illustrator of children’s books, turns to childhood in order to rehabilitate folk, naive art, using non-naive means. Regarding Alechinsky and his pieces such as “Death and the Maiden” from 1967, Gerstein too, in one of his painterly phases, held on a lively dialogue between the painting and its frame. This dialogue is worthy of a separate discussion, even though one cannot view Gerstein’s transition from two dimensions to three without reffering to the dialogue between the painting and its frame, and actually between the painting and the painted object.
It is important to emphasize Gerstein’s attitude toward the objects which he creates: he views them as being neither pure painting nor pure sculpture, but as a thing which breaks out of the square and the frame and confers on the painting a new living space; at the same time it frees the sculpture from dealing with the essence of the material. Gerstein’s painted objects have a life of their own, a life that is not dependent on the essence of media or cultural hierarchies. It is on the border line that Gerstein feels most comfortable: between sculpture and painting and design; between flat and three dimensional; between art objects and toys; between the airy light presence of the object which hangs on the wall with its shadows and the heavy weight of the object; between “high” and “low”.
However, one cannot comprehend Gerstein’s entire body of work without perceiving and characterizing it as a “natural phenomenon”.
Gerstein: “For me art is something simple and basic, like bread and water and air. I have heard about artists’ creative torments, but I feel that I create naturally, like a fruit growing on a tree. I also think of my works as fruit that the tree has sprouted. I don’t have to invent anything or rack my brain on how to process a grandiose idea: things simply grow by themselves. They flow when I’m driving, talking, in the morning before I get out of bed. Then I come to the studio and work, and perhaps cultivate my fruit: A piece of fruit on which nature bestows enticing color and shape, so that birds will come and feed on it and disperse its seeds. In other words, the tempting color and shape have function and reason.
“The shapes and colors in my work, too, are an enticement to communicate. Whoever is tempted to eat from the fruit, will discover that it also contains vitamins. There are vitamins in the cut-outs as well. For example, ‘Human Circle’ looks like a huge flower or a big bouquet, but underneath it all lies the notion that we come from nowhere and are going nowhere and in the meantime we go around in circles, chasing our tails. Whoever wishes to view it as a decorative bouquet, that’s fine. If you look at the figures that make up the ‘Human Circle’, you’ll find that they are not beautiful. In fact, they’re even ugly, but the total picture is colorful and alluring”.