Richard Bilan – Black / White

Past Exhibition

19.11.2009 - 22.01.2010

Text by Yonatan Amir

Black/White is Richard Bilan’s sixth solo exhibition in Israel, who has come back to exhibit in Israel after an absence of nine years.

Bilan, whose life-story nourishes his artistic creation, lives and works simultaneously in three different centers around the world – Tel Aviv, Warsaw, and Paris. His artistic creation stems mainly from the life experience of an adolescent who was born in devastated Poland in 1946, to parents who were holocaust survivors, became an orphan at a young age, immigrated to Israel alone, and started his studies in Bezalel art academy in Jerusalem without knowing a single Hebrew word. His paintings are abundant with colorful circus-like figures, full of action and movement, while his sculptural works are created in a process of wrapping with shrouds children’s dolls that he collects.

Bilan started his work as a woodcut artist, a technique he learned from his teacher in Bezalel, Yaakov Pines. About twenty years ago he turned to work on canvas and started painting expressive and plenteous color paintings. In the last two years, Bilan has returned to his inspirational origins as a print artist, but he did it while translating the graphic and expressive language identified with woodcuts to paintings painted on canvas. His works convey a feeling of figures carved on canvas, when they are actually painted with acrylic colors.

Those who have previously encountered Richard Bilan’s paintings might wonder, while seeing the woodcuts from the 1970s and 1980s and the large paintings created recently and exhibited in the current exhibition. During the last twenty years, Bilan was identified mainly with paintings depicting partially real and partially imaginary figures, always depicted with a multi-layered and multi-colored plentitude, ‘a dense poetic texture of small scenes and fragmented pictures’, as described by curator Tali Tamir in an exhibition catalogue in 1995. And indeed, these paintings are always characterized by a wealth of color, with color surfaces, the contours of which are chiseled with a painters’ knife, with a symbolic sense of space, and the distinction between color as a means of description and color as a theme in its own right is blurred, as is the distinction between figurative and complete abstraction. The painted figures themselves combined elements both of Giacometti and of the Jewish painters of the London school. They were thin, emaciated, almost melting and stacked to the ground, as are Giacometti’s sculptured figures, and simultaneously submersed into the strata of dense disfiguring oil that spread their facial features and bodies in a disturbing way, like the figures in Frank Aurbach’s paintings. These were painted on smooth surfaces, on which pictorial gestures with a brush and a painter’s knife are applied. Slotting and scratching the color in one place complemented its smearing and piling it up in another. Apparently calm scenes, too, such as a sitting female figure, or another figure, somewhat a clown, somewhat a naïve person, were always especially distorted, in a circus-like disturbing mode. Though most of Bilan’s paintings are not somber, and even painted in a joyful color scheme, they tend to generate a recurring feeling of discomfort. This feeling might stem from Bilan’s working mode, from the fact he never starts his paintings out of nothing – from the white canvas – but always prefers to ‘make it a little dirty first’, to put it in his own words, in order to imbue the painting with a certain load from its very beginning. Thus, each of the painted figures carries a legacy of shapes and colors – a heavy inheritance that accompanies it since its inception.

It seems that neither of these features is present in the new, minimalist, and so neat paintings. All of them are painted with few strokes of black color on large white canvases and on delicate rice paper sheets. They are not loaded with material, slotted, and scratched, no legacies are evident on their surfaces, and even if they are related to the woodcut tradition, a tradition full of expressiveness, there are no expressive gestures in them. It also seems that nothing happens in these pictures, i.e. there are no social dynamics or narratives, and there is no reference to any specific or general location. Besides the sparingly depicted figures, there is no other mark on the canvas, which is left white. It is not even a space, but a vacuum – a vacuum in which the figures float, or, more accurately, do not float or hover, but are detached. The printed woodcut leaves in its white or black areas the traces of the material – the color or its remnants that create a texture and an imaginary background. In these paintings, on the other hand, there are not even remnants, and therefore, even if the influence of woodcuts is evident, it is an influence devoid of its characteristics.

‘Grotesque’ is a suitable term for describing these works. Not ‘grotesque’ in the current fashionable meaning, deriving its existence from morbid descriptions (such as the exhibition of corpses, ‘Body Worlds’, exhibited around the world in recent years, and also exhibited recently in MadaTech – the Israel National Museum of Science, Haifa), but grotesque in its opposite meaning – an existential anxiety demonstrated by comic and bizarre gestures. Images of horror and fear are known in art history – Munch’s The Scream, Picasso’s Guernica, and Francis Bacon’s portrait of the Pope – all of them convey a pathos that somehow empties the awesome out of Bilan’s paintings, but this leaves the awesome in the realm of deep seriousness, and ignores its power when embodied in ironic parody. This awe, grotesqueness, and anxiety are certainly present in Bilan’s works, but they are depicted in clumsy and even humorous figures. A man hovering in white space, his wide open mouth blurs his lips borders, and holding something that might be a parachute or an umbrella; a person, on a skateboard, standing as if surfing or slipping; soldiers with strange proportions, liquid faces, and imaginary animals; an emaciated figure surfs on a railroad track leading from nowhere to nowhere; a couple of figures are entangled within a bicycle, becoming almost an inseparable part of the machine; an acrobat clown that one of his feet points in one direction, and the other – in the opposite direction. All of these are representatives of comic disorientations, ending in a tragic stasis. These figures and others are a kind of combination between The Good Soldier Švejk and Charlie Chaplin, with their terribly exact and acrobatic clumsiness, and their genius foolishness that characterizes their conduct in the modern world and their maladjustment to it.

It is interesting to look at this series of paintings as a whole. Looking at the entire series of works enhances the sense of the grotesque parody emerging from each one of them. A painting that could be interpreted as a typical work done in the  vein of the Second World War horrors – with all the  heavy emotional load involved in interpreting work done by an artist born at the end of the war to holocaust survivors and spending his childhood in a gypsy village – breaks lose from this stereotype by utilizing the humoristic but equally horrific grotesqueness that characterizes other painting. Irony is present in these paintings, communicating a heavily loaded content in light comic language. The tragedy in these paintings is expressed in a kind of absurd theater.  Covering it by a layer of irony and humor that makes it just as tragic as a tragedy declared overtly.