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Nature First and only then the Artist1
Sophia Dekel

This collection of paintings by Shalom Flash is situated between realism and its more implied representation. To a great extent, it reflects the present state of painting, especially of representative painting: a stage reached following the abstraction of painting itself, when minimalism culminated in conceptualism. Only an arduous and tenacious fight allowed representative art to survive as a universally accepted subject of merit.

Flash, born in Israel (1948), shifted from Electronics to Fine Art and is associated with the Boston School of Realism, amongst whose distinguished members are contemporary artists such as George Nick (b.1927) and John Moore (b.1941).

At first, Flash painted from model (as student of Chaim Kiewe al the Avni Institute of Art), and he even experienced the frustrating encounter with what was considered until quite recently as the stronghold of abstract painting in Israel - The Art Teachers' Training College at Ramat Hasharon ("Hamidrasha"). In those years, the seventies, the kind of painting he wished to pursue was discredited to the point of "illegitimacy" and many realistic painters were pushed aside to the fringe of the local artistic scene, or even went abroad. Most prominent among them is Avigdor Arikha (b. 1929) who abandoned abstract painting in favour of the visual language rooted in conventional painting, making his own contribution to modem art in the form of "looking at what cannot be seen"2. At the end of the seventies, Flash went abroad to study at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. His teacher, the realist artist George Nick recognized Flash’s inclination and advised him "to paint the shirt rather than glue it to the canvas". Flash first worked from photographs and then moved on to painting from nature. "I rediscovered the visible world" Flash told Dan Tsalka before his first own exhibition in Israel in 19943. In May 1996, Flash participated in a group exhibition at the Art Gallery of the University of Haifa. A defiant undertaking, as all four of them were to some extent linked to the realistic movement in the USA4. Each one of the four represented a different aspect of painting displaying painstaking observation of nature: Mitch Becker (Interior), Israel Hershberg (Still Life), Shalom Flash (Landscapes) and Hava Raucher (Portraits). Meanwhile it seems that the local scene has come to terms with a style of painting whose realistic features become more and more prominent. Obviously, a new generation of Israeli artists is emerging, of painters who arc free of the commitment to local manifestos. Unlike Reuven Ruhin (1892-1974) and Nachum Guttman (1898-1978) who were enraptured by the magic of local authenticity and Israeli scenery, or unlike international artists like Yoseph Zaritsky (1891-1985) who was committed to abstract painting even in his more legible landscapes of Yechiam or Tel-Aviv, Flash displays faithfulness to his own inclinations and to the visual language of his preference.

Flash’s field of exploration spreads (physically, culturally and mentally) around the central latitudinal line of the country. It stretches from the urban landscape of Tel-Aviv Yafo (south to Kibbutz Shefayim, where Flash was born) through his childhood haunts on the coastal plain (between Kibbutz Netzer Sereni and the open campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science, where he now lives) and reaches Har Haruach (The Mountain of Wind) through Shoresh and Abu Ghosh on the gateway to Jerusalem.

In the current exhibition three subjects reflect Flash’s personal and collective biography which moves on a socio-political course between east and west, and between townscape and landscape. There are the geo-cultural landmarks of Tel-Aviv like the Ayalon Highway, the chimney of the Reading Power Plant, the roofs of Neve Tzedek, the downtown area around Nachalat Benjamin and Gruzenberg Street, the beach. In the second group, Flash exhibits his personal landscapes seasoned with childhood reminiscences from Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, and at last, there is the topographical-cultural aspect arising from the sheer location of Har Haruach, the juxtaposition of Israeli afforested hill sides with barren Palestinian hill sides. Flash examines the essence of his and of our existence by repeatedly delving into human-less landscapes - resembling each other and yet different, so close yet so distant. He attempts to encompass 360 degrees of existence while choosing a location, looking around it and painting. He used this method, for example, when for over a year he painted from the top of the roof of the Gruzenberg parking garage, producing six paintings which are in fact one single item of what his eye could grasp - a section of the old-new town of Tel-Aviv.

The changing in times of day and of the seasons of the year bears a strong influence on his perspective of the locality and of the interplay of light and shadow as does the usage of a limited, mostly light, color palate. Flash’s color palate consists of two yellows, two blues and a purple, a red and an orange, a green and black and white. The colors are slightly bleary, as if overcast by a white film whose purpose is to conceal, or as the poet Nathan Zach chose to describe it:" I would say that Shalom Flash has devised a superb technique of self-concealment, or humility, 'nature' first, only then comes the 'artist'"5. To a great extent, Shalom Flash may be considered among the followers of the objective school of landscape painters, such as the Venetian Canaletto (1697-1768) or the French Camille Corot (1796-1875). In contrast with the German romantic manner, as expressed by Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) who endeavored to convey man’s insignificance against the eternity of nature, or the gradually vanishing landscapes by the English painter William Turner (1775-1851), Flash preserves a certain appearance of objectivity in his paintings. This is achieved by keeping at an emotional and physical distance from detail. Flash remains faithful to nature itself without trying to use it in order to express the sublime. Nature is nature, a city is a city and a mountain is a mountain. They are the thing itself. Even minute abstraction leaves room for human imagination to roam the harmonious landscape. A further look shows that harmony is achieved at the expense of human presence, which, being simultaneously lodged both within and outside of the frame, maintains a kind of detachment, of withdrawal.

The impression of abandonment calls to mind urban metaphysical landscapes by the Italian Giorgie de Chirico (1888-1978). Giving up the human image and avoiding foreshortening, as well as Flash’s soft touch of colors, lessen the feeling of alienation but do not manage to eliminate it entirely. Flash engenders a more pleasant space, however, not less vacant or enigmatic. The question arises ‘from what?’ From the human, from the humane and from humanity. Shalom Flash's outlook reminds one of Edward Hopper (1882-1967) who so well succeeded in his interpretation of the American landscape without resorting to dramatic exaggeration, acts of breakage, deformation or erasing. The passage from land, water or urban skyline to the sky itself, is expressed by the austere and self-sufficient line of horizon running across the whole composition, as if wishing to balance between hidden forces acting on the canvas, on the artist and on the observer. There is a difference between the distribution of density in the vegetative and constructive metaphors.

The landscapes are dealt with at two layers: the contextual and the formative. The urban form is determined by historical architectural continuity and the contents are shaped by ideology, or its absence. The beginnings of Tel-Aviv were marked by the eclectic and self-assured construction of the early settlers, who wished to restore in the east their beautiful Europe of the 19th century. It then continued with the functional and clean cut style of the Bauhaus, coming up to the modern and post-modern skyscrapers, witnesses to a new era in process. By contrast, there are those pastoral landscapes painted either in the coastal plane or on the mountain, which preserve some sort of lost naivet?, or the primeval landscapes that were painted in a flash and seem like areas of abstract colors in greens and browns meeting the light blue of the sky.

Flash paints a portrait in which the artist and his scene blend into each other. The absent human is present. The biographical component charges the visible with a patina of serenity, stability and tranquility which present only one side of the coin: that of nature - through which Flash chooses to relay the other, the missing side, that of the intimate micro-cosmos which he captures in his paintings.

1. Panorama, Shalom Flash. Exhibition Catalogue (Dalya Levin, Curator), Herzliya Museum of Art, 1994 p.13.

2. 90th Anniversary of Tel-Aviv Yafo, Contemporary Cityscapes of Israeli and American Artists.Exhibition Catalogue (Mordechai Omer, Curator), Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1999, p.244.

3. The interview appeared in the catalogue accompanying the first one-man museum show of Shalom Flash, see note 1 above, p.9.

4. Four Realist Painters, Mitch Becker, Israel Hershberg, Shalom Flash and Hava Raucher. (Avishay Ayal, Curator), Reuben and Edith Hecht Museum, University of Haifa, 1996.

5. See above, note 1.