Dürer on Treetops
Ayelet Carmi’s painting clings to a lost solemnity: ceremonial gestures, parades and processions, emperors and princes, mythological attributes, and small nature rituals. The flag-bearers heading the ceremony are all women whose facial features and not-very-young naked bodies attest to their being women of the current time and place, charged with past and history, and as such — they do not belong to the world of myth. As if given a signal or a cue by some director, they collaborate with the interrupted gestures and fragments of festivity still underway.
This theatrical vision takes place outdoors, in nature, surrounded by tree trunks, felled bare branches, a few small leaves, and ultra-thin twigs. Carmi undermines proportion: her mythological human community is reduced in scale in comparison to the life-size trees. Quotations from classic art of antiquity and the Renaissance enhance the sense of alienation and distance, generating a feeling of temporal split and chronological incongruence: the mythical presence is “inserted” within a picture of local scenery and inside the body of women of flesh-and-blood who obey the uncontrollable theatrical urge forcing itself on them. They are led by the artist herself, in the figure of the mythological Medusa: her self-portrait is portrayed on a flag fluttering overhead, her eyes wide open, her hair swirling snake-like around her. This is the petrifying gaze of Medusa, the gaze of the painter which freezes the vision onto the wall, turning it into stone.
The rituals likewise take place on several levels and in different times: these are battle and war rituals, cults of nature and flora, as well as rituals of modernist painting. The women in the group bear the signs of myth: a lion’s mask, javelins and swords, twigs and branches of sorts, a painter’s pair of compasses or a long brushstroke that they drag along like the train of a dress. In contrast, the figures of princes, dressed in Renaissance elegance and painted against the backdrop of silver and gold leaves, are circumscribed within their medallions in silent gestures. This strange procession progresses toward the “big bang,” but even this melancholic and spatially isolated apocalyptic event is revealed via art-world attributes: a female torso akin to a quote of an armless classical statue, with a torn, bleeding arm, and color splattering a-la Jackson Pollock behind the figure’s sculpted head... Art has become yet another mythological stratum with a legible code all its own, alongside the other mythologies populating Carmi’s painterly oeuvre. Straightforward reality is invisible; it is concealed by chains and cycles of theatrical gestures.
As someone who grew up in a kibbutz, in the Jezreel Valley, Carmi’s painterly style initially appears far-removed from all local aesthetics, evading any reference to socialist asceticism. A closer reading, however, reveals the appearance of a dual awareness oscillating between sublime ideology and harsh banality, between the body’s aging and the eternal juvenility of utopia. Carmi’s painterly installations are imbued with the echoes of collective ritualism, with a festive ornamentation of flags and emblems, with the rhythm of processions and parades, and with an upright mythological self-image. The vegetation paintings, accompanying virtually every scene, similarly attest to an intimate affinity with raw nature, and a physical sense of twig and leaf surfaces and of the roughness of tree bark.
Carmi has replicated the ritualism inherent in her since childhood onto art historical ritualism. She transformed Pollock’s splatters or De Kooning’s slashing brush strokes into a “hoisted” flag, just like the May Day flag; she hosted Dürer, Velázquez, Goya, and Albers in the shade of her childhood trees, juxtaposing them with fantasies about glamorous princes whose power lies in their standing — there, afar — motionless, doing nothing but playing their flutes. Furthermore, Carmi placed the great compasses — an age-old attribute of painters and artists, but also of God, the ‘architect of the universe’ — in the hand of a woman (as opposed to the male figure holding a huge pair of compasses in William Blake’s 1794 painting The Ancient of Days, for example). In her other hand the woman holds a sword, but her head and attention are turned to the work of art embodied by the pair of compasses.
Within Carmi’s body of work from recent years, a special chapter is dedicated to classical reliefs adorning Alexander the Great’s sarcophagus (4th century BC). These reliefs, which Carmi copied with the discipline of an art student at the Louvre, feature bloody battle scenes; she painted them during the Second Lebanon War, when the studio bubble was pricked vis-à-vis the stormy reality outside. Consciously striving to distance her testimony from the immediate reality, Carmi incorporated the mythological figure of the conquering emperor and the energy of belligerent masculinity into the mysterious procession of women bearing the flags of color and vegetation.
One anatomical detail recurring in Carmi’s relief paintings acquires a symbolical meaning: the phalluses of the nude men in the marble relief have been broken over the years, making them appear like a black hole, a negative of intrusive masculinity, and their owners — like emasculated warriors... Carmi’s women, in contrast, are muscled and industrious like bees, taking the fragile reality on their shoulders, bravely confronting it.
The nascent Israeli art has no direct, paved course leading to the heights of Western painting. All it can do is embark momentarily on brilliant, “inserted,” quotations, forever foreign and strange, in a reality of turbid rivers and sparse vegetation. These instances of leap are moments of dreaming about conversion, refinement, princeliness. Carmi takes the liberty of leaping — if possible, to another century, even another millennium: art is her flagship, the canvas is the sail, and the brush is the oar and mast. The captain stands in her full stature on the front deck.