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Dovrat Amsily-Barak: Déjà Vu at the C. Grimaldis Gallery

Israeli photographer's work flirts with painting’s interpretive realism

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Dovrat Amsily-Barak's Numinous

Dovrat Amsily-Barak: Déjà Vu

Through Dec. 30 at the C. Grimaldis Gallery

Photography’s trump card has always been its ability to reproduce exactly and expose effortlessly the world itself, even when the photographer has much narrower intentions in mind. This element of surprise, what Roland Barthes called photography’s punctum, has long been its mark of distinction.

But in Israeli photographer Dovrat Amsily-Barak’s Déjà Vu at the C. Grimaldis Gallery, her first in the United States, nothing appears to have been left to chance. The 10 large-format photographs are all intricately composed images of nuns, mothers, and children, living in what appears to be an earlier, pre-photographic time. Only the crispness of the image and the absence of the frame keep you from assuming they’re photographs of paintings.

For example, “The Sewer” pictures an elderly woman in a habit bent over a sewing machine. Her body is precisely arranged, with her elbows sticking out to shape her upper body like a trapezoid. The cloth over the table, the basket of finished materials, and a large pair of scissors also take on geometric shapes, as if the image could be reduced to abstraction if needed.

But the painterly feeling is preserved by Amsily-Barak’s precise use of light. Although we do not see the source of illumination in the piece, it bathes the visible objects in light and shadows, leaving everything else completely black. On her web site Amsily-Barak claims “the light is the light of the universe only,” but its hard to imagine how she could achieve the darkness surrounding the figure without digital manipulation. Regardless, the piece’s homage to the rich detail of 17th-century Dutch paintings makes one forgiving of any technical tricks.

The density of the show’s meaning, however, comes not just in its images, but also in Amsily-Barak’s artist statement, which locates her work in a specific artistic and philosophical tradition. The photographs included in the show are part of a larger body of work that Amsily-Barak calls the “theater of stills,” which aims to reproduce institutional spaces from the past, including “monasteries, hospitals, asylums and orphanages.” In a longer artist statement on her web site, Amsily-Barak invokes the work of Michel Foucault, who explored the histories of these institutional spaces in order to undermine a philosophical tradition that assumed the primacy of the human subject.

As a way to prove Foucault’s argument, Amsily-Barak enlisted her own family members to appear in her photographs, which necessarily erase any traces of their individuality. In “Numinous,” an elderly woman, perhaps the same one as before, reads a book while facing a small, only partly visible window. On the window sill are a few objects—an unlit candle, two plump pomegranates—but the photograph is dominated by the contrast between light and dark and geometric shapes. The woman is standing, holding the book with one hand, her other hand raised, as if she’s reading aloud. She appears unaware of the photographer’s presence, but the photograph is too intimate for this to be true. While photography usually has a humanist orientation—remember that Barthes develops the concept of “punctum” in the course of explaining his fascination with a picture of his mother as a girl—here the photographs have a chill to them, as if the human figures are merely abstractions.

In “The Young Painter,” for example, there is a girl at the center of the photograph holding a brush and staring intently, not at the canvas on a small easel but instead at something not visible in the picture itself. Once again, Amsily-Barak gets all the details right: the painter’s palette, the oils, the mysterious shrouded object that appears in several of the images. But the girl remains unapproachable, as if she’s unknowing not just of the camera, but also of being present in the scene.

The most controversial object in the show is the cross, which hangs on the stucco wall in several of the photographs. If the pieces are taken literally, Amsily-Barak is casting her family as 17th-century European Christians, an act both oddly specific and potentially sacrilegious. But the work feels too gentle and metaphorical for such a claim to have merit. Instead, Amsily-Barak seems to be using the cross to confirm the institutional nature of these spaces, that they are marked not just physically, but also with a metaphysical order. The return alluded to in the show’s title is not a literal one, but rather a philosophical one. Despite our best efforts to escape representational art through the window of photography’s exact reproduction, painting returns, asking us to show moral truths where mere images will just not do.

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