Haim Maor | Women Poised

Since childhood, Haim Maor has been surrounded by younger and older women, from his three younger sisters, mother, and grandmother to the many female students he encountered during his art studies and those he taught. He feels more comfortable in their presence and often plays the role of brother or confidant, listening to their tales and troubles. His first model was Tirza, his wife, and his students and members of his Kibbutz, Givat Haim (Meuhad). In 1986, Maor met Susanne, a volunteer from Germany whose family had a Nazi background. Their connection inspired three impactful exhibitions that were exhibited in Israel and abroad. Apart from being his “signature model,” Susanne was a friend going through a joint exploration of the world of Second-Generation Holocaust Survivors. Nora Stanciu, an artist he taught as part of instruction sessions for artists from Ashkelon, has been Maor’s exclusive model for about thirty years. Their connection expanded, and she assisted him in research in Romania and curating exhibitions in Israel and abroad with the late Romanian artist Dumitru Pop Tincu. Nora’s versatility enabled her to range from the image of a good-looking and alluring woman to that of masculinity. Her gender fluidity and the different costumes she changes allow him to use her image to create varied identities that go beyond her original identity.

The series depicting standing women, facing either front or back, began with a painting of a woman of Ethiopian origin whose back was facing him at a train station. He was fascinated by her dress pattern. Later, he photographed Nora on the beach in Ashkelon, posing as Lot’s wife, who had become a pillar of salt. That is how he created “The Poised” series, which exhibits figures of powerful women and incorporates the gaze of the artist–the man–the viewer, raised in admiration onto the model, the woman standing in front of him in dresses of many designs.

Maor’s recent works exhibit colorfulness, ornamentation, and a newfound rich and detailed painterly style. The women are particular, as is their location against the view. The elongated format, the way the women stand against the landscapes’ background, and the works’ linear placement side by side – all characterize the new exhibition at the Be’eri Gallery in Romano House.

A prominent feature of Haim Maor’s work is his choice of substrates for the paintings. Maor prefers painting on wooden surfaces for their stability and rigidity over the canvas, as he doesn’t like the fabric’s elasticity. Still, there is more to it than that. Maor had already been using wooden panels as a substrate in the 1980s for portraits of himself and others (“Faces of Race and Memory” 1988, “The Forbidden Library” 1994, and others). His wooden substrate echos the painted portraits on the coffins in Faiyum, Egypt, and corresponds with them. It also serves as a primary texture and underpainting, like in surrealist Max Ernst’s early works. The texture of wood, as a visual stimulant, allows repressed past memories to float and emerge from the wood. “There is nothing like a wooden board, with its flecks and stains, to express the stains of time, to conjure up ghosts of a haunted past… According to the Freudian analogy, the surface of the wood is like that barrier between the pre-conscious and the conscious, on which this drama of memory reconstruction takes place.” (Prof. Haim Finkelstein, from the “They Are ME” exhibition catalog 2011). Covertly, the works also correspond with paintings on wood customary in non-urban areas of Europe: on the walls of country houses, in church icons, on wooden ceilings in synagogues in Eastern Europe, etc. Where trees are abundant, wood has become available substrates for painting; they have been carved, painted, and treated for centuries. But here, in Israel, in contemporary painting, this isn’t a mundane choice, and more than anything, it testifies to Maor’s correspondence with past traditions and questions of personal and collective identity.

The Poised Women are accompanied by painted memo notes, a motif Maor introduced to his paintings in recent years. A memo is a colored paper note with a sticky stripe on its back. It’s used for writing short information, usually as some kind of reminder relating to the object to which it is attached. The word ‘memo’ is short for ‘memorandum,’ which means a written document or record of a contract or agreement and embodies the word memory). “The ‘Memo’ derives from the awareness of forgetfulness that intensifies with old age. The fear of losing memories and the fear of losing our identity are motivators in the works of artist Haim Maor. You can’t ignore the ‘Memo’. It hides part of the painting, and its reminder disturbs the peace until it is dealt with. The ‘memo’ becomes an obsessive reflection, and a tension is created between it and the painting beneath it, between the description of the artist’s subjective memory and the objective occurrence.” (Shira Mushkin 2015)

Dr. Ziva Jelin