Arlene Amaler-Raviv’s artistic trajectory spans four decades of dedication and prolific output, with numerous exhibitions locally and internationally. Her paintings hang in many private and public art collections throughout the world. Bringing them together for a retrospective exhibition would be well-earned recognition for the artist as well as a rewarding curatorial feat. A retrospective would track the painter’s creative journey from the intimate to the “other”; from her early portraits of “People Around Me”, under the tuition of Robert Hodgins, the colourful yet moody “Women and Interiors”, where whole areas of the picture start being effaced, painted over, concealing and revealing emptiness, silence and absences with poignant eloquence, through to the later paintings that move outwards focusing on urban alienation and struggle.
Entrances and exits, arrivals and departures and the burden of absence and transience have also marked the artist’s own life. Moving home several times across many cities and countries, going through a divorce, raising two daughters, burying a soul mate, battling through depression, teaching, exhibiting and painting. Always painting.
Historical turning points amplify the theme of urban alienation: the fall of the Iron Curtain, the end of Apartheid, the collapse of Wall Street, the uprising of Tahrir Square… At such junctures, major changes occur rapidly: the walls of segregation get demolished, world views collide, markets collapse, unemployment mushrooms, refugees are attacked, strikers are shot… This is a male world of power and control, violence and oppression, greed and exploitation. Seen through this prism, Amaler-Raviv’s paintings are a sharp indictment of a patriarchal system that feeds off itself like an ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail.
Gestures of erasure are recurrent in Amaler-Raviv’s paintings. They are laid bare, in all their raw vulnerability and honesty, as markers of change and transience. Like the rolled up bedding of a refugee, some canvases accompany the artist from studio to studio. These are re-worked over a period of years, with whole areas disappearing under a coat of black paint and new images appearing in their place. Unlike the painstakingly recorded drawings and erasures in William Kentridge’s epic films, Amaler-Raviv’s palimpsests in paint leave no record of their ephemeral incarnations. Only a forensic art restorer would be able to glimpse their traces under X-ray examination and even then it might be futile to exhume what was so purposefully nurtured and buried.
Arlene Amaler-Raviv is a painter of the human condition, tracking the movement of displacements, transitions and relocations. In “North South East West”, the cardinal points of a mapped world, a series of enigmatic postcards are displayed in ordered groups, sandwiched between sheets of glass, revealing front and back of images and their messages. Like talismans collected over a period of years from different parts of the world, these postcards have accompanied the artist in her journeys. Scrutinised, processed and reworked they become iconic signifiers of Arlene Amaler-Raviv’s world. They have been plucked by the artist from her studio walls, some with bits of masking tape still attached, with the raw ink blots, the smudges and hastily scribbled messages presented as material evidence of time and space, of a life lived in a state of dislocation. Their ordered taxonomy reveals the futile attempt of trying to anchor the Self in a world of flux and upheaval.
This existential consciousness is distilled in the iconic “walking man” who appears, in different guises, throughout Amaler-Raviv’s oeuvre. A man steps out into the world, walks bravely into the urban tumult, alone in the crowd, follows the signs, the red beacons, the road markers, walking past the graffiti and billboards, on his personal mission. He is iconic because he is any person who is in survival mode, who follows the existential impulse, the limbic energy, to pick up the pieces and walk.
Amaler-Raviv’s titles add another layer of meaning to her paintings: “Concerned citizen”, “The man with the briefest case”, “Why does the feeling of emptiness fill so much space”, “She waters the garden with a panic button in her hand”. They too are transplanted sentences from letters, billboards and poems. By de-contextualising them they acquire new meaning, much as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal became a sculpture when relocated to a gallery space.
“twitter” is a seminal work painted in Berlin where the artist found herself living an alienating existence in a palatial apartment graciously loaned to her by a patron in the art world. Of her 20kg baggage allowance, 7 kilos were images carted across the world as source material for a painting of unknown focus. These are the pieces of flotsam that Amaler-Raviv uses to build rafts for shipwrecked souls. Postcards, magazine clippings, newspaper cuttings, failed prints of previous work including images as disparate as aerial photos of the New York Stock Exchange to cattle being traded as lobola for a bride.She stayed in the Berlin apartment for three months, alone and unable to speak the language, the TV broadcasts of Al Jazeera becoming her only companions and connections to the outside world; a world in the grip of yet more transition and struggle. With only a bicycle for transport, in a snow bound city steeped in some of the darkest moments in the history of the 20th century, Amaler-Raviv’s sense of isolation was acute. The pristine whiteness of snow-covered Berlin as challenging as that of a primed canvas. So the white background stayed; at first defiant and accusing, then acquiring the dreamlike quality of a mental landscape. The jetsam of the creative process (scraps of paper and cut out fragments of paintings), fell discarded to the floor. But the artist noticed them; quite literally, took note of their fragmentation and connections and started assembling “Twitter”. By its very title, “twitter” refers to the social network that seemingly connects people in somewhat random ways across the globe.
The computer cables that snake around the New York Stock Exchange lay on the apartment floor severed and collapsed. Sheets of computer printouts of stocks and shares, thrown up into the air in dismay, or delight, by traders, have floated down to the white ground where a number of disconnected people wander searching and picking up “the pieces”.
In Amaler-Raviv’s work, pages of books, newspaper and telephone directories are often used as surfaces to paint on. In an increasingly digital world, these are the relics of a more tangible, substantial form of communication. Already filled with signs and meanings of their own, the printed pages offer a comforting bed to paint on; the consolation of the already used object that bears traces of its prior function and previous owner. And it also speaks of “making do” with what is available and of recycling the debris into something new. Making something out of nothing, or very little, is what artists, and magicians, do for a living.
©Gabriella Kaplan, Cape Town, January 2013