Timeout Tel-Aviv / 2008
At first glance, Ben Ben-Ron’s exhibition looks like it could belong in the GINA Gallery (Gallery of International Naïve Art); in other words, naïve art which responds to codes that potentially define this genre: pictureliness as a value; pastoral rural or urban life, harmonious colourful imagined, with figures and miniature animals who spend their time pleasantly; an entertaining and comforting ideological foundation leans on the fiction of childhood as a time without want. The artistic design is clearly made in the style encoded as ‘childlike’ that was privileged in the previous century as the litmus test for authenticity, honesty, and openness. Ben-Ron’s painting even contains a pinch of that same style which includes not eruptive automatism but careful, like religiousness attributed to the artist, which in turn elevates the role of art in society. In short, humanist folklore.
However, that lukewarm bland puree called ‘humanism’ amongst enthusiasts of naïve art, becomes with Ben-Ron a nightmare vision precisely because the assumptions of the work and of the paintbrush are supposedly akin to that same folk entertainment which has so little in common with art in the serious senses of the term. The critical difference is in the key code distinguishing between ambitious art and that which pretends to be or even objects to ambitious art as though to a lie – self awareness. Ben-Ron draws dreamy mise-en-scènes that resolve into nightmares precisely because they reveal the El-Doradean existence they contain, and because they expose it as an ideological mask that seeks to subjugate, under the guise of solace (as, historically, did all the ideologies which opposed intellectual challenges facing them). Neither a lawyer nor an international tradesman are needed to explain why this metaphysics should be condemned.
“The painted code is that of a postcard,” writes Michal Ben-Naftali in the excellent text accompanying the exhibition, “and what looks like a wounded intimacy, like an overly explicit declaration of love, too familiar, too exhilarating, too harmonious, revealed as a compressed concoction of details belonging to different domains of experience and subject to a surreal law of physics, levelling fluid matter.”
The self-awareness, the doubt and the suspicion, they are what lie at the base of the interrupted intimacy that is also created through the name of the exhibition, Mowgli. The mute jungle boy is the conductor Ben-Ron uses in order to create the image of a world, a civilisation that is bleeding, disconnected, full of fears and tension, whimpers and cries, fires and violence; an image piercingly confronted head-on through its own emergent design, convincingly gaining power. Ben-Ron uses the figure of Mowgli as representative of absolute childlike-ness (he is both young and lives in the forest, outside culture), to testify to naivety as an imagined value, a dangerous illusion. “The sweetening ethics of the postcard, the innocence or purity supposedly camouflage all catastrophe, neutralise all trauma and refine the disaster zones, these collapse when the postcard becomes total as though it were an experience of life-art. Postcard-monster. The beautiful becomes a kind of defiance, a glorification that does not hide its flaws.”, writes Ben-Naftali.
Ben-Ron succeeds in exposing the hollow mask of pretension through a Gauguin-like ‘planting’ of different semantic registers in the same plane, in a way that shatters the continuity and the illusion of a homogeneity lacking subconsciousness and libido; the barren scheme so passionate to fear nothing, knows nothing. By way of this, the ignorance is also exposed, as ideology, as a hegemony of denial. In the painting “Spring”, a harmless forest celebration can be seen, alive with dancing and animals, and on the side stands a man wearing the mask of a jester. Unravelling the realistic possibility of this scene immediately transforms it into a piece of fantastic-realism struck by disaster. In the painting “After the Rain”, a giraffe strolls along a street segment, rich with vegetation and framed by verandas, an image that turns the seemingly unproblematic notion of rain into a primal deluge, or a private vision of the collapse of an entire era. In the painting “Survivors” we can see a group of people standing in the swampy entrance to the forest, their car nearly submerged and on it, the body of a woman lies in an unnatural pose. Some of them watch, one woman carries a towel, a man uses a hoe. The relation between the figures is unclear and their odd activities are disconnected from what is happening. Even the remaining paintings, “Accident in Moonlight”, “Assault on a Sunny Day”, “Refugees”, and others, all expose what the style seeks to hide – “a portrait of the world homeless”, in Ben-Naftali’s words. The street is not neighbourly but dangerous, the forest conceals marshy swamps, the various Spanish structures are too easy to bear, verging on collapse like an ideological house of cards, the colourful vultures full of accusation, and the people are pawns or the fire that they spit in the after-party a fire-scream of an after-party they did not enjoy. The scenes become seeped with violence, wild, grotesque, and full of anonymous standby-ers (as opposed to Mowgli, the missing hero), they have an apocalyptical rage which sketches an artistic portrait that contends with the regulating mechanisms of creation and surpasses them. With Ben-Ron, the artistic overcomes style with the bravery of he who is drowned in a sea of love, gurgles in his throat and gags from a saccharined sentimentality, and insists on the complexity of language as a way to save the life.