“When I paint I must lose myself without knowing the way”: In conversation with Tal Yerushalmi

Like an archaeologist, Tal Yerushalmi sifts through the debris of history, the remnants of past societies – artefacts and fragments of craft and culture, symbols and mythologies. Her ruminations follow a wondering, intuitive path digging down into the hidden nature of things to uncover new meanings. Like the archaeological museum display case, Tal strips context and meaning from the artefacts in her paintings. Working in earthy colour palettes reminiscent of desert landscapes, her compositions develop a visual cataloguing system that eschews spatial and temporal logic. An ancient stone tool might be placed side-by-side with a cow bone collected on a recent camping trip. What binds these disparate objects together is their incompleteness. In fragments, Tal has found a symbolic visual language that encompasses our grasping attempts at understanding and meaning-making. In her paintings, functional objects become surreal symbols. The real and imagined blur, like prehistoric cave paintings where flora and fauna at once record daily life and represent mystical ritual. Like dancing shadows from a flickering candle, Tal’s paintings evade empirical readings to instead tap into deep archetypal motifs and universal knowledge systems. In the physical act of painting, the canvas is Tal’s excavation site. By cutting, burning, deconstructing, collaging and marking the surface ground, Tal engages in a primeval dance of forming and erasing – like an ouroboros – building and destroying layers of pigment and material to unearth the image.

Tal lives and works in Tel Aviv, Israel. She received her MFA from the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and has held solo shows in galleries and museums in Israel including Hezi Cohen Gallery in Tel Aviv, Barbur Gallery in Jerusalem, Qiryat Tiv’on Gallery and the Janco Dada Museum. Tal participated in the 9th Istanbul Biennale, and has been the recipient of a number of awards and residencies.

Studio Portrait by Tamar Katz

AMM: Hi Tal! Have you been making art during the pandemic? Has this affected you creatively?

TY: During the lockdown, everything was different, and the work in the studio changed, as well. The world I knew became fragile and shakier than ever before. I felt that I was unable to make art with full, proud presence, such as painting on a stretched canvas. I felt the need to deconstruct, to destroy, subvert the foundations of everything familiar to me and what I know. I then took a blow-torch and began burning the painting, removing it from the frame. I don’t know where this is going to lead, but I already feel that I have created an interesting infrastructure for new paintings.

AMM: Do you have a philosophy that you create by?

TY: Doing comes before any idea or philosophy. I create images based on an interest or passion, and sometimes it is only after several months and numerous experiments with materials and colours that I realize what I wanted from that image, why I painted it. I understand this through the material, through my body and hand. I want to paint without understanding the reason, because it is the only way in which a painting can surprise me, to reveal something to me that I didn’t know. The understanding of the images, contexts, and actions is very important – but only after I made them. When I paint, I must forget, I must lose myself without knowing the way.

AMM: What does your studio look and feel like?

TY: My studio is overloaded and not very orderly. It is a place for experimentation and freedom; I need the option for disorder and mess without arranging things, I need to be able to dirty the floor without cleaning it. The heads of my paintbrushes have stiffened, the hair is wildly pointing in all directions, because I like to work with instruments that sculpt, excavate or sweep the paint.

AMM: What are your daily creative rituals?

YT: I prepare my own canvases, stretch them and cover them with ground. Sometimes it is precisely during this technical work that the connection is formed with the canvas and its format. Through the process, new thoughts arise. Sometimes the work in the studio is rapid and efficient, and I paint without stopping for several hours. At other times, I do nothing. Remaining inside the studio is a part of art-making: the reflection, the thoughts on the next thing. This is usually accompanied by coffee (too much).

AMM: For many years your work was focused on anthropological artefacts and systems of visual organisation and cataloguing. Please tell us more about your interest in these ideas.

TY: Artefacts made manually are what interest me: woven or braided fabrics, dressed flintstones or carved tools. Some of these tools were made hundreds or even thousands of years ago, while others are recent. When I paint, I attempt to trace the manner in which they were fabricated, the movement of the artisan’s hand. I try to paint them anew with a brush and paint, to remove the paint, move it around and heap it up. I am fascinated by the way objects are displayed in historical museums and archaeology books: they float in the abstract space of a display cabinet, or they are depicted in a double-page spread without attribution of place, time, or context. Inside the painterly space, I sever them from their original context to organize them in the space of the painting ordered by a new logic, using them to create an image or direction which differs from their original interpretation. I seek the moment at which they become part of something else, something new and unexpected.

‘Untitled’, oil, acrylic and soot on burnt canvas, 100 x 120 cm

AMM: Please talk to us about the notion of fragments in your work. 

TY: My paintings are composed of sections, from the remnants of objects and vessels, from fragments, shards of different times and places. I love to place a prehistoric rock in that same painting that contains the image of a bird from a 5th century CE mosaic, or a cow bone found just recently, and some childhood symbol such as a heart or star. But it is not only the images that are fragments: the modes of my paintings are also different from each other, arriving from different worlds: sometimes the painting is thick, full of material, at other times it may be thin and transparent. There may be flat objects or objects giving a strong and present illusion of three-dimensionality. Sections of the painting may be blank without colour, only the bare canvas. At other times the image is made from relics of the encounter between the fire and the canvas, leaving soot creating an image that seems nearly nonexistent. I want to create a whole place made up of remnants of different times and materials.

AMM: Can painting be understood as a kind of excavating? How do you understand your role as an artist?

TY: An archaeological excavation is a site of images for my painting but is also a mode of action and idea. The layers in the painting are meaningful: the painting is structured as stacked of accumulated strata of times and places. Sometimes an image appears when I excavate a layer and reveal it. Often an image survives all of the layers, from the first to the last layer, while at other times images are covered and disappear – leaving their memory in their absence, in the act of erasure. Flora, fauna, and artefacts are buried within my paintings. No one knows except for me and the patch of color covering them. Sometimes I am a scholar-excavator discovering new images among the painting’s layers and sometimes I am a gravedigger making images disappear forever between the strata.

AMM: In your work you make your awareness (or perhaps wariness?) of the artifice of painting explicit. Please share with us your thoughts on the act of painting and how this informs your work conceptually.

TY: I am in love with painting, with the creation of a three-dimensional illusion and of space. I love to celebrate the possibilities of painting, the colour, the large size, the movement. I love the seriousness and the boundless intention of the painting along with the realization that this is a funny activity, a ridiculous one. I enjoy playing with the conventions of painting and laugh at myself and it. Painting enables me to play with logic. I can paint a three-dimensional object and alongside of it a flat object. I can depict water collecting or smoke rising, following the laws of gravity, next to a hovering rock which has no weight and lacks any logic of physics. I take the trouble to paint a three-dimensional dressed stone using material and paint to create a perfect illusion of depth, and even cut it out of the canvas to help it become a three-dimensional object, independent of the flattening of the painting. But then the illusion reveals itself, the millimeter thickness of the canvas, its being a shell, a castoff object. I love these two poles of painting: one is proud, impressive, and tensed, possessing knowledge and tradition; the other laughs at itself, exposing the deceit.

‘Cave’, oil, acrylic and soot on burnt canvas, 160 x 200 cm

AMM: In your most recent solo exhibition, Call My Name, you move away from artefacts and functional objects into a far more symbolic and metaphoric visual language. What inspired this new direction?  

TY: For several years, the objects I painted interested me anew each time in their shapes and arrangement on the canvas. Again and again, I searched through the Israel Museum storeroom and in archaeological libraries for more and more artefacts I could paint. This was an infinite world of images with which I could work. But slowly I understood that something was changing. In my solo exhibition in Jerusalem two years ago, the paintings had such low contrast that the objects became nearly invisible, almost disappearing entirely into the painting’s darkness. This was no accident, but a clear sign that the objects no longer held the same interest for me, that I needed to make room for new images. This led me to a conscious process in which I said to myself: just paint whatever comes to mind, no matter what. This may be described as a meditation of images. What came to me were stars and hearts, moons, snakes, birds and gazelles. These were symbolic and childish images which I used to draw in my notebooks as a young girl.

AMM: Please share with us your experience of developing the symbols and motifs in this body of work.

TY: The painting process in these works was like a chain of images and actions that led to each other. Sometimes I imagine it like a system of gear wheels that begin to move, each gear moving the next in the chain. It began with a painting of a flame in a dark painting. I wanted to light up the dark painting and ask, ‘What am I seeing?’ Thick smoke rose up from the fire, and I began to understand fire and annihilation as the idea of the painting. I then painted burned holes in the painting, revealing the fabric underneath the layers of paint. I realized that I was not only painting a place that was burning, but I was seeking the sensation that the painting itself was burning. This gave rise to the idea of lighting a candle and burn real holes in the painting as the basis for a painting. If I held the candle up to the canvas in a steady position, it burned a hole, but if I moved it around, I could coat the canvas with soot which would form the image of a bird or plant. This is an interesting process in which I lie down under the canvas and ‘paint’ with the candle as if I am painting a cave ceiling. I can’t see the entire painting all at once because it is extremely close to my face. When I lift the painting, it has holes and burnt images: this is the beginning of the painting. Everything I paint later refers in some way to what is left behind after the fire. In the new paintings, I also draw images of birds and fish ‘borrowed’ from mosaics in ancient synagogues with plants from the guide to the wildflowers and plants of Israel. My daughters found the cow bones when we were camping, and the bones entered the painting naturally. What sparked my interest was noticing that the colour of the bone was identical to the colour of the canvas. The light part of the bone is the canvas itself.

AMM: In the text accompanying Call My Name you write about a never ending cycle of creating and destroying. In what ways might this be a metaphor for the act of painting?

TY: I consider the painting as a dance of creation and destruction that motivate each other, leading the painting to new places. Each image that I form will exist; each colour I place on the canvas creates something within the void. I can create countries and universes, animals and objects in the painting, but it’s not real: it’s only a painting, an illusion. The painting requires these two powers – the creative and the destructive, which nourish each other. When I burn the canvas, or make a hole in the painting, I destroy the canvas and thus destroy the illusionary space, but this creates a new possibility for the image. Suddenly, the hole can become a flower, or perhaps a snake will thrust its head out of the opening.

AMM: Did this body of work mark a new direction for you? What ideas and themes are you currently exploring?

TY: I would like to continue to examine the way in which light and dark function in the painting – the burning, blinding light, and what it conceals and camouflages. I continue to burn the canvases, scorching images underneath the painting. I want to go a few steps further with the destruction and obliteration to see where it takes me.

‘Call My Name’, oil and acrylic on canvas, 150×150 cm

AMM: In the past you’ve explored various painting formats, including installations and books. What led you to experiment with these mediums and how did your practice grow by working in these ways?

TY: Every attempt that I have ever made in any other medium has expanded the possibilities of my painting. This is truly an interesting process. Working on my artist book, Baskets Diary, I realized that some of my paintings did not suit the format, so I decided to cut out the prints and make collages from them. This led to the idea to cut up my paintings that at a later stage became installations. The installations in turn changed my mode of painting. After I began cutting out the objects painted on the canvas, I painted with the thought that what I was painting would be cut out. Suddenly the canvas had a different functionality. I referred to it like a sheet of dough that must serve for as many cookies as possible, that I mustn’t waste the material. The paintings became crowded, forming many strange connections between shapes and objects that in no way were planned to become a painting. That was very exciting.

AMM: How do you approach colour in your work?

TY: Colour is of great importance in my paintings, along with image and action. This is a value system that cannot be split up. Sometimes the decision to use a certain colour leads the idea behind the entire painting. If I use yellows, oranges, and reds, this will create a feeling of burning; if I use blue, a deep space opens up. Sometimes colour leads to an image: in one of my works the underpainting was green and red, generating the idea to paint roses. At each place of gradual transition from green to red, I left a flower form. Colour is a wonderful, infinite world comprising saturation, contrast, depth, surface flatness, and colour relationships. Whether the image stands out, blends in, or illuminates are questions of colour I explore and study in each painting.

AMM: What are you busy with right now in the studio? What’s going well and what’s causing you challenges?

YT: Over recent months, I noticed that my paintings are becoming increasingly dark. The contrasts are becoming less sharp, and the images are barely visible. This interests me as an idea and a process – painting without seeing, painting in the dark in its both physical and emotional senses. Over the past few years, the world in general, and Israel in particular, have become darker, from several aspects: politically, socially, and morally. I feel this everywhere, in the studio and outside of it. I want to give myself over to this, to be in the darkness I feel and give it expression. A few days ago, I darkened the painting to the extent that I erased the images, which disappeared. I didn’t know how to continue. This is challenging to me.

‘The Snake isn’t Coming’, oil acrylic and soot on canvas, 160×220 cm

AMM: What is the Israeli contemporary art scene like? Is there anything you’d like to see change?

TY: The local scene is small and very interesting. Israel is a place of political conflict and cultural complexity. This leads to interesting, varied, and charged art. It’s not easy to live here, and surely not easy to be an artist. Whoever chooses to be an artist and live in Israel must want it very much and be determined and courageous, because this is no easy path.

AMM: When you’re not making art, what are some of the things you enjoy doing?

TY: I have a family – a partner and two daughters. We live in town, which is why we love to camp out with friends in nature for several days and do nothing. I am an art teacher in an arts high school and an art academy. I love the dialogue with the students, and feel that it is an important part of my practice. One of the things that nearly no one knows about me is that I was a basketball player in the past. I love the game, and dream of playing again. If truth be told, I must confess that my favorite thing is to sleep late.

AMM: Mindful of these uncertain times, do you have any projects coming up? What’s next for you?

TY: Over the past three years, I exhibited three solo shows, published a book, and was awarded a grant for a year’s artist residency. I was lucky to be involved in a dialogue with wonderful people in the field – artists, curators, and viewers. At present, I feel the need to dive deeply into my studio for a certain period of time, to wander around in the darkness of the art process, seek my way, and hear only my own voice. I hope to come out on the other side with a new, fresh body of works.

Find out more about the artist: www.talyerushalmi.com

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, oil acrylic and soot on canvas, 170×240 cm