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It's a Miserable Life
Avner Ben-Gal's Dark Side



Homeless people, petty criminals, men with rifles slung over the shoulders – such dubious figures populate Avner Ben-Gal’s works. But while they show a dreary world full of dangers, his watercolor-like paintings have enormous aesthetic appeal. The Museum for Contemporary Art in Basel is acknowledging the disaster scenarios of the artist, who resides in Tel Aviv, in a comprehensive solo show. Cheryl Kaplan spoke with Ben-Gal, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection, in New York.



Avner Ben-Gal, Tsunami, 2006
Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York



One look at the titles of Avner Ben Gal’s paintings and it’s easy to detect just how much the painter loves trouble. Works like Tsunami, Sudden Poverty, and Fear of Falling in the Street place his figures in catastrophes. In Tsunami, two people are stuck in a house-like structure on their hands and knees, watching the storm and realizing they’ll probably die. In Sudden Poverty, two disembodied heads hover over a wind-blown landscape. Fear of Falling in the Street finds a bearded man in a whale’s body looking like a puppet with a bouncing head. The poor guy is beached in a pile of urban rubble, begging with his last breath, hoping someone will throw him a shekel or a dime. Ben Gal’s affection for these worrisome characters has a slightly twisted, even contradictory feel. As the artist admits: "they have a clandestine quality that wants to be exposed." His cast of rogues hides out in a world defined by natural disaster and urban catastrophe. Throughout Ben Gal’s paintings and drawings, there’s a strange dichotomy between scenes that show man caught in the midst of nature’s wrath and devastation beyond human control and those that describe a man-made hell populated by people left with no choice but to live out their days in misery.



Avner Ben-Gal, Sudden Poverty, 2006
Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York



His canvas Public Phone, painted entirely in blurred tones of grey, depicts a loner dude that looks like an aging hippie. He’s hanging out in a telephone booth as if it were his second home. Ben Gal admits: " Public Phone is a bit bent and a bit ’80s — I mean who uses the phone booth now? People who are shady..." Ben Gal likes painting people on the fringe of society, who are not only struggling with personal flaws but also with those thrown at them by the universe at large. As he admits: "These are junkies and low-lifes, escaped prisoners and homeless people.. They’re not necessarily outlaws, but they’re close to it. They’re very sinister and suspicious. We have a lot of characters in Israel who look like they’re right out of a Charles Dickens novel."



Avner Ben-Gal, Public Phone, 2006
Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York


Avner Ben-Gal, Monkey in Bath, 2005,
Deutsche Bank Collection
Courtesy of the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

And much like Dickens, who wrote about pickpockets and other petty criminals, Ben Gal’s band of thugs delight in their wheel of misfortune. Their misery is happily their fate.

While it would be easy to associate Ben Gal’s work with the ongoing political struggle in the Middle East, the artist is firm in his response to the role of politics in painting. "I’m not interested in telling political fables through the paintings. I’m interested in various states of humanity. These characters are trying to survive, but they’re small-budget characters." By small budget, Ben Gal means to say that these people are the dregs of society, the leftovers populating the street that no one really takes notice of.




Avner Ben-Gal, Gang, 2000
Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York

Ben Gal’s drawings and watercolors also lead us into a world full of dark abysses. "In the drawings, I use magic markers and scratchy lines." This quick, comic-like, irreverent style can be seen throughout the Salt Mine series of drawings. The tenor of these works is particularly perverse in its play for sexuality and delight in punishment.

Gang finds five men standing around in blood; their outfits have been scuffed up in some violent mishap. In their super-tough poses, the bearded, longhaired men in bellbottoms and turtleneck sweaters look as though they just walked out of a ’70s B-movie. Cool and distant, they’ve gathered together as though for a family photograph. The emotional disconnection reverberates in Gang and is unsettling because of its disregard for the brutality described in the scene.



Avner Ben-Gal, Saltwater, 2002
Courtesy of the artist and Bortolami Gallery, New York

The same holds true for Saltwater. This disturbing painting finds four men in a state of sexual delight, gloating as they gang rape a single woman. The bearded men are watching the woman as she is watching herself being abused. One man is pouring champagne over her breasts as he holds onto his own erection. The combination of passivity, aggression, and a classic, pastoral setting is practically combustible.


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