Neither Day Nor Night

Tali Ben-Nun

Jerusalem Artists House - 20/11-15/12/2018

 

 

In one of the poems of the Haggadah, “It was in the Middle of the Night” (by Yannai, a poet who lived in the Holy Land in the sixth century CE), the final stanza begins with the words: “The day is coming that will be neither day nor night.”[1] What is that day, which is neither day nor night? Is it beyond all days, beyond absolute time? Does it hint at an approaching disaster, the End of Days – or does it presage the coming of Redemption or a divine miracle? Such a fragile definition of time and place, loose and unresolved, is also encapsulated in the title of Tal Yerushalmi’s exhibition, “Neither Day Nor Night.” Although the distinction between night and day, between hours of darkness and daytime, is clear and palpable, the transition between them is a gamut of unresolved intermediate states. The paintings in the exhibition are suspended in a liminal space that exists outside the natural order, beyond words and clear, concrete distinctions. They plunge into an infinite intermediate time, trapped between past and future, which does not respond to the temporal units related to the cycles of nature and the movement of the Earth.

In his book The Rose of Jericho, Amos Kenan writes, “Historically, the geography of the land of Israel begins with the Syro-African Rift. Ever since, it has been a narrow corridor between the sea and the desert – a corridor that is seemingly nothing more than a passage.”[2] The geographical location of Jerusalem – perched, as it is, on a high mountain at the cusp of the Judean Desert, with all its archaeological findings – has had a decisive impact on Yerushalmi’s new body of work. Yet these works do not depict a physical place, with a certain historical, political and geographic narrative, but a metaphysical one – a “place” as a concept, underlain by myth and anti-myth. This place/non-place in her paintings is intimately bound up with Israel as a whole: the topography, climate, light, color, textures, history, and archaeology of the Judean Desert are the filters through which the images of the exhibition and its spectrum of colors were formulated. Yerushalmi’s private inventory of images – which explores a host of findings from ancient cultures and functional artifacts identified with traditional crafts – becomes a collective repository of images that links together nature and culture: an image becomes a symbol, a symbol becomes an archetype, an archetype becomes a myth.

The images in Yerushalmi’s paintings dwell upon a certain primal pleasure of light and color. When she subverts conventions of beauty and perfection, and presents images in a vulnerable state – crumbling, falling apart, unraveling – a human dimension is introduced into the painting, and the alchemy of color steals in through a crack that opens up in the inner grid of the image. The act of painting becomes a kind of reconstruction of cultural or natural artifacts – a retracing of the form and materiality of archaic images, and restoring them to contemporary discourse through questions about the relationship between two- and three-dimensionality, between colors and layers, and between background and image.

In Yerushalmi’s previous paintings, the background functioned as a “space” devoid of time or specific geographic characteristics – an anonymous, weightless space in which artifacts and objects floated, detached from the “earth.” Those paintings featured a sharp contrast between image and background, with an emphasis on textures, pattern, and layered quality (what lies above and below). Now the background, and its sustaining color, function as earth, mountain, or water, and in other areas as an empty void, or as air or a night sky – and the objects “respond” to gravity. At times they look like particular findings that have been transposed from the world into the painting, and on other occasions they appear as abstract shapes that have been incorporated into the composition as a whole and have become an integral part of the landscape.

Yerushalmi’s paintings shift from the realistic to the imaginary, from the functionality of craft to the mysticism of surrealism: woven ropes become architectural arches or craters; a sickle encompasses a mountain or a lake; a coarse piece of fabric, a frayed mat or crumbling piece of parchment covered with sand or powdery clay soil; flints, arrowheads, or sooty wood sticks float in the drawing space, trailing black contrails in their wake on the canvas; strings of stones become mandalas, or an aerial photograph of continents and seas; a burning desert sun and a bright white moon morph into a gaping hole in the painting, surrounded by a magical aura.

It is not only time, place, background, and image that are taken apart in Yerushalmi’s paintings, but the canvas itself, as well. It appears to be under attack, with the resulting fragments presented as painterly remains. This violent act gives the painting its lacking three-dimensionality, while simultaneously revealing its flatness, the illusory nature of the three-dimensionality that it so aspires to achieve. One of the extreme examples of this sort of disassembly is a canvas that the artist repeatedly cut until it became an unraveled grid. It is a painting that is no longer a representation of anything in the world (such as a net or a fabric), but is the thing itself. Yerushalmi disrupts time, accelerates natural processes of disintegration and decay, and brings the painting to a new conclusion – as an ancient-future-contemporary finding.

One of the spaces of the exhibition serves as a “repository” of discarded findings or evidence that Yerushalmi has cut out of her paintings – painting “stumps” displayed as objects. This repository reveals the subconscious of painting, and re-maps its boundaries. The fragmentary collage created in the space offers a geography of the disassembly of time, place, and painting.

 

[1] “It was in the Middle of the Night,” in: The JPS Commentary on the Haggadah, ed. Joseph Tabory (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2008), p. 125.

[2] Amos Kenan, The Rose of Jericho: Land of Israel (Tel Aviv: Zmora Bitan, 1998), pp. 13–14 [in Hebrew].