Onions and art

Onions and art

Israeli photographer Adi Ness to give visual arts lecture at Beth Sholom in Teaneck

Ruth and Naomi glean onions after an open-air market; they remind viewers of Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners.” “The hardened women gather onions created from their tears which turn to gold in their hands,” Adi Nes says.
Ruth and Naomi glean onions after an open-air market; they remind viewers of Jean-François Millet’s “The Gleaners.” “The hardened women gather onions created from their tears which turn to gold in their hands,” Adi Nes says.

We don’t usually think of photographs as being like onions.

Often, we’re wrong.

The more you stare at a photo, the more you notice details, the more you wonder at choices, the more you read messages, the more you marvel at the beauty or the insight or the shock to your assumptions that’s in it, quite purposefully.

Adi Nes

Adi Nes, an Israeli photographer who will give the Buchman visual arts lecture at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck on Wednesday (see box), shoots what is called staged photography to illustrate a range of themes that matter both to him and to the many people who are moved by his art. He’ll talk about it on Wednesday night.

Mr. Nes — whose background includes a diploma from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem — has produced five series of photographs. His talk at Beth Sholom will focus on the one he created in the mid-aughts. It’s based on Bible stories, recast as images and metaphors and parables of modern life.

“My art deals with issues of identity, of masculinity, and of being Israeli,” he said. “I come from a Sephardic family” — his parents’ families are Kurdish and Iranian — “so I deal with ethnic issues. I grew up in a small development town” — Kiryat Gat — “so I deal with being on the periphery instead of in the center. I am gay, so I deal with homoeroticism and gay identity. I am an artist and a Jew, so I deal with art and Judaism.

“I will talk about how I combine stories from the Bible with contemporary art and modern photography. It is not obvious. Contemporary art does not deal with stories from the Bible — and not only do I do it, I do it with photography.

“How do you take a story from an ancient book and understand it in a modern way?”

There’s something inherently Jewish in his attempt to merge the ancient and the modern. “I’m making visual midrash,” he said. “I use elements from the story, but I try to think about modern life and modern ideals, like grace and compassion.”

That’s many layers, but there are more.

The images in the biblical story series, which were conceived beginning in 2003 and made from 2004 to 2007, were shot during a recession in Israel. The characters were homeless people, re-enacting the biblical stories.

Red-haired Esau buys his brother Jacob’s lentil stew as their father, Isaac, looks on; the photograph refers to Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus.”

The series “is composed of 14 images, and each of them deals with one of the biblical heroes — Abraham, Isaac, Hagar, Joseph, David, Jonathan, and so on.” Each of them was shown as a homeless person. It’s not that much of a leap, when you think about it — Hagar was homeless even in her original story, thrown out of her home, and so were Ruth and Naomi, who chose to leave theirs. (Naomi left home twice.) Abraham wandered far from home, and so did Joseph. But the idea of thinking of them as homeless — and therefore thinking about the concept of home, of exile, of being unwelcome, of wandering — in the same way that contemporary people are homeless, comes directly from Mr. Nes’s photographs.

Naomi and Ruth sit in an abandoned, once-full store room, tired, bruised, but still alive.

There another layer. “In much of my art, I pay homage to the Old Masters, to Caravaggio and Rembrandt and Van Gogh and many others,” he said.

The echoes of those master painters are clear in Mr. Nes’s work — but he’s not a painter. “How do you do that in photography?” he asked rhetorically. “It’s a contemporary medium. How do you take hold of this challenge of taking something from the past and bringing it to life?

“Usually in the history of Jewish art, painters and sculptors show the high part of the story, but because I tie it in with the crisis of identity, I choose the low point of the story. I won’t show King David in the palace, but when he was with a little group of criminals in the streets.

“I chose as the protagonist someone who had problems at home, and had to escape from the palace.”

He also chose to make his protagonists in each photo someone the viewer could identify; King David is identifiable by his hair, Ruth and Naomi by their actions as gleaners, Cain and Abel by the murder that defines both of them.

An enraged Cain kills his brother Abel, in front of stairs going nowhere, in a pose reflecting Peter Paul Reubens.

Although he usually photographs men — masculinity is among his most frequent underlying themes — “when I started the Bible project, I realized that the Bible is full of great women.

“Because usually the men were hunters and the women were gleaners, the first women I showed were gleaners — Ruth and Naomi.”

In order to create the image, “I researched agricultural images, but since I decided that I wanted to do an urban project at the beginning of the millennium, I thought that I must bring nature into the city. I had to bring the field to the town.

“So I took a picture next to the farmer’s market. There were a lot of onions left in the parking lot.” That’s what the women were gleaning — onions are not only symbolic in the way they can be peeled, but they’re also a peasant food, tough, hard to spoil, with a strong taste. They’re like potatoes he said — and bring to mind Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters,” he added.

“And then, suddenly, a lot of real homeless people got into the frame,” he said. “I asked them to move out, and at first they refused. It’s real life.”

Abraham pushes Isaac; it’s not clear if it’s before or after the abortive sacrifice, Adi Nes says. It’s based on both Duane Hanson’s 1969 sculpture “Supermarket Shopper” and Caravaggio’s “The Sacrifice of Abraham.”

Some of what even staged photos show are fortuitous, Mr. Ness said. “The wind touches the old woman and the young women, and they are caught together by their hair.”

In his photograph of King Saul and the prophet Samuel, who named him king and then caused his kingship to end, “I thought about the relationship between the prophet and the king,” he said — about trust and strength and the father-son bond and betrayal and guilt and grief, from both sides in different ways. As he made that photo, “I thought about the 19th century Russians and the painting of Ilya Repin, about Ivan the Terrible and murder of his son.” In that photo, the czar hugs his bloodied, dying son, whom he had killed. His own Samuel holds Saul in the same anguished way.

When he staged photographs, Mr. Nes said, he had to make decisions both about the content of the story and the way that it works as a photo — because in the end it’s a photograph, not a painting, not a theatrical production. It’s a very specific kind of art. “Photography is all about light,” Mr. Ness said. “When I start a project, I have to make decisions about how I will light it.” His interest in light is clear in his art, and he will discuss it at Beth Sholom.

“Behind every picture in this series there are many stories that deal with the content of the story, the understanding of the story, and the insights they give into our own lives,” Mr. Nes said.

“I am not Orthodox, but because I am Israeli and I grew up in a Sephardi family I know the synagogue and the services and the stories. I learned them. I came to the project from a cultural point of view.

“I was born in 1966, the year before the Six Day War. My generation was exposed to stories about the war, and the stories from the Bible, and all the cultural life in Israel.”

As an Israeli artist, Mr. Nes also knows art history, and how it affected his homeland. “The first photographs of the Holy Land were from the 19th century,” he said. “When they came here, they took pictures of this place, and they created postcards. They were black-and-white images, and they gave them titles. They used biblical heroes; they would show an Arab woman with something on her head, put it on a postcard, and call it ‘Ruth in the Field of Boaz.’ They came with Christian imagery and Christian narrative.”

He’s turned some of that on its head. “One of my most well-known images is of the last supper.” Instead of Jesus and his disciples, it shows young IDF soldiers. “When I started the biblical series, I thought about how for many years I had dealt with Greek mythology and Christian iconology, but not Jewish images.” The biblical photos are closer to his own world, Mr. Nes said.

Part of Adi Nes’ Soldiers series, this is “The Last Supper Before Going Out to Battle.”

When he speaks at Beth Sholom, Mr. Ness plans to “give the viewer the code to how I did it,” he said. “I will talk about the decisions I made, and I will break the picture apart to show all the layers.” And of course he’ll show the images, the layer upon layer of the onion that combine to make art.

Who: Artist Adi Nes
What: Will deliver the annual Alfred and Rose Buchman Visual Arts lecture
When: On Wednesday, October 16, at 7:30 p.m.; before the talk, at 7, there will be refreshments in the sukkah.
Where: At Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck
How much: Free
For more information:
Go to www.cbsteaneck.org or call (201) 833-2620.

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