The many faces of absence

Prof' Amir Cohen Shalev

The first time I was exposed to Sara Katz's portraits of bereavement was at her house, and, already then I felt that something happened to me and didn't know what other than the fact that i was standing in front of grief in a new way.

I, myself, research the subject of aging in its humanistic aspects and, in particular, with its representation in the cinema. Most probably, this interest affects the way I observe Sara's pictures, as a viewer, who has been introduced to something important that asks, or rather demands to be deciphered, or, at least, discussed.

The series of portraits in the exhibition I would call "close-ups" as, for me, they resemble "close-ups" in the cinema, rather than classic figurative portraiture. They recall Joan of Arc of Dreyer and Bergman's Persona where the faces, filling the screen to the brink are devoid of context; detached from time or place, but, thus, allow the delving into the faces' core, as it were, in the most distilled and naked way.

Bereavement in Sara's painting becomes an universal experience, which leaves out the dividing social-political points of view. What gripped and insisted on my attention is the elusive contrast between what is in the portraits intensity, directness, a laying bare, piercing expression and powerful presence of the face, and what is not: the enigma of the void – the many faces of absence which they, the portraits express, and I, as an observer, arrive at, unprepared. Bereavement surrounds us, but for those who have experienced it, it is in them.

My knowledge of bereavement is mediated by culture, ritual and even slogans; it is second-hand. Here, we speak of bereavement as part of our lives but it is, precisely, what bereavement is not. Until one has experienced it with one's body and soul, one cannot claim it, and there is something surreal; absurd in the didactic attempt to understand bereavement through an encounter with the bereaved.

Sara's portraits are the closest I have come to a first-hand experience. However, it is impossible for me not to feel my estrangement, disturbing denial; the defensive, instinctive, resistance to being in their place. On the one hand, the paintings invite me in, as no ceremony or sermon but only art can. However, despite my uncontrollable compliance with Sara's hypnotic directness, a part of me continues to refuse the invitation.

I try to read these faces of bereavement and encounter obstacles which, all of a sudden, seem non-possible. This is the deceptive ease of the realistic portrait; seemingly, simpler and clearer than a photograph of a face, even if it is painted, such that any baby would be able to read and respond to – but, here, the more you look the deception increases. The more we become conscious of how the painter renders that face on the canvas and how we, as observers, confront that which occurs on the canvas, we are forced to ask ourselves about the meaning; the what and why, beyond the known cultural discourse concerning through which we perceive reality. Having lost our inter-mediators, we are left face to face, without the codes that our environment and our history have provided.

The faces, physically and metaphorically, step out from their frames. We have an innocent attempt perhaps; an unconscious sense of guilt in the use of the expression "Bereaved Family". Bereavement, after all, has no family, bereavement itself is destruction of the family; thus, the members of the family recognize it. And as the family framework has had the dead member cut off from it, so are the faces cut off within their frames.

Sara katz paints with a zoom paintbrush. The truncating frames enclose the portraits and the viewers. There is no way to escape, no reference to an exterior, no identifying conventional signs to provide any sociological or cultural indication. Only, just the faces. As in Rembrandt's late self-portraits nothing is disclosed except what the face itself discloses. The use of a frame does not enclose. The faces come out of their frames and, paradoxically, their coming out seals in, even more, their loss and their grief within themselves and for themselves.

The reality with all its details does not exist in the field of vision. The specifications of reality which operate almost automatically the box of stereotypes of orientation: ethnicity, social standing, style of dress, taste and aesthetics, age: all the mechanisms of belonging to the politics of identity – are missing, leaving a vast, disturbing void. The more we seek to be close to them, the figures recede more. They don't coax us to know them, don't give us clues, don't yield to the curiosity or the voyeurism or the dread that grips us.

I look at Sarit's portrait; at one of the earrings she is wearing. Here, I think, invades the external trappings, a vivid sign of femininity, perhaps, a banal appearance of the motive "life goes on in spite of everything". Then I look again and take in, not the concept but the earring's concrete entity and see that it is made of two round weights that together with the earring's hook is the center of a heaviness that pulls and tilts Sarit's face to one side. If so, the "involvement" of an external reality becomes inseparable from the experience of bereavement, the emotional burden.

In Sarit's choice of the earring, as in the place and the angle the artist chose to give it, there is a welding of the external to the internal. Another aspect of the welding of external to internal is in Salah Gadir who lost his grandson. He is portrayed from other in relation to the other portraits; the whole of his face is within the frame, and there is still a space around it. Not only that, but all the other portraits lead, directly, to their eyes; he is the only one whose eyes are swallowed up into his face.

And, perhaps, there is something else; as are his eyes swallowed up within his face, so his face is swallowed up un his trappings, so that we can't distinguish between them. As if the lines of the features of his face flow into the white of his head- covering, blurring face and setting. There is something rigid in Salah's stilled, silent face, as if he is carved out of a hard, rocklike material. I don't wish to speak of his portrait in terms of narrative, history, politics, ties to the land, birthright. I find it foreign to the nature of the humanness, the quiddity, as it were, shored up in the exhibition, which is not controversy. If there is contention it is directed inside. To stir up a debate would be too easy, and Sara, it seems to me, is not looking for what is easy.

Looking at the portrait of Professor Shlomo Giora Shoham, we see a tall towering man whose face tilts up while his eyes are cast down-word in the opposite direction; a kind of contest between pride and defeat, stiffness and vulnerability, fiery-temper and an acquired intro-versiveness. It is not an equal contest as in the Jungian modal of the harmony of opposites rather a defiant one. They will not cooperate.

John Keats, the romantic English poet, almost 200 years ago, coined the phrase "negative capability".

When a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.

Bion: the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not-knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge

The capability of being in a state of an alert fogginess is a state familiar to creative people. The people Sara painted become, without their desiring it, experts in "negative capability", creative in the profound and basic srnse of the word. To whom has happened the fissure, the tearing of bereavement, finds himself having to be, of necessity, in a state of constant creation where is: what is not, un the world where the gap is reality and void. It is impossible to create the new reality from the material elements of the old, before the loss, and that is the secret of the grief that looks out of the portraits.

The process of injesting, which brings the bereaved closer to the onlooker and in an uncontrollable predatory fashion announces the inevitable bereavement of the onlooker until the full welding between the "object": the bereaved and the gaze of the viewer makes the viewer become the bereaved "subject".

And, perhaps, the cut edges, the truncating frames are directed to what is reflected to us: faces of people that have learned with great suffering to lean on, in their constant sorrow, not only on themselves, but on their inner spiritual core; who have learned to take responsibility for their losses in the deepest possible way, not to wallow in it, rage or deny it and have learned to ask, not pity, but particular attention. They ask us to pause by them, to be involved without clearing our conscience and covering over our otherness in mechanical convention. The request of taking time to pause, to linger, in the sense of to ponder our emotional involvement, Sara katz has succeeded to do through her brushwork.

Translated by Miranda Kaniuk