A Bath In The Desert, A Donkey, And Cotton-Candy
Text by: Dr. Gidon Ofrat
A basement in central Jerusalem. On the floor, a bowl piled high with rat poison. In the corner, a pulpit with a Siddur [prayer book]
upon it. Above, hung on the wall, is “The Artist’s Prayer”, a text composed by Shimon Pinto, young Jerusalem artist and traditional
Jew. Round about, leaning against each other, are large scale oil paintings alongside smaller canvases. Most of the artwork is airy,
of light coloring, peopled with allegorical images, brushed with a figurative-primitive touch in ephemeral pastels. These are the
paintings rooted in autobiographic memories and the place where the artist grew up – Arad, in the Judean Desert. Most of all, the
paintings integrate innocence, even a child-like naivetי, gentle humor and refined didacticism coming from an artist with a
Imperceptibly, a ‘mini-school’ is forming on our own turf, in the heart of the young Israeli stream of newly birthing primitive artists
(Shai Yehezkeli, Shai Tzurim, Ben Ben-Ron, and others) of whom several – and for the most, Jerusalemites – noticeable for their
language, which is free, sassy, filled with humor, moving from the immediate and unpolished to what, at some other opportunity,
we termed ‘minor’, that is, of a soft, faded, seemingly languid appearance even in large formats. Most of the artists have ‘returned
to the fold’ as far as religious belief, most bear markers of ‘the spiritual in art’ (in this new figurative formulation): Shai Azulay,
Ronen Siman-Tov, Shimon Pinto, Elad Rozen, Alon Kedem. Three have won young artists’ awards from the Jerusalem Artist’s House. However, the degree of restraint, or by contrast, of unfettering, alters from artist to artist; nor is the depth of humor identical - Shai Azulay can be crowned as the most humoristic of the group; while Elad Rozen displays a sarcastic twist when handling religion. And nonetheless, common to most of them is the striving towards a fictitious-narrative simplicity of image of homiletic flavor, following the verse, “Purify our hearts – to serve You in truth”, where the aspect of ‘to serve You’ is filled by the artistic doing.
Such are the paintings titled “Mikveh” [ritual immersion pool] by Shimon Pinto: Eilat-style sandals (nothing is more typically Israeli
than them) are placed near the steps descending into the ritual pool beneath a vast sky. The paintings are empty, static, quiet, filled
with light. Descent for the sake of ascent. The painting is a kind of Jewish immersion that consecrates water and light; the painting is a purification:
There is movement between the boundaries I have created, along a fine line between worlds opening up to forgotten vistas, like a
person praying, seeking his creator. […] charm containing joy, refinement, purification, seclusion and isolation, difference and
closeness. (Shimon Pinto, “Artist’s Statement”)
More and yet more paintings of “Mikveh”; ever more “Gates of Purity” (the steps and railing leading down into the pool in which the
invisible artist, descending, invites us). But here is a white raven that chooses to perch on the “Mikveh” railing, casting a giant green
shadow, perhaps threatening, perhaps rather like “a man wrapped in his prayer shawl”, explains the artists. This raven has become
a dove, this very raven, which is impure, which shreds carcasses, which did not return to Noah’s ark bearing a message of redemption. Here, it has become purified, become the redeeming dove. Ravens: we find them in another painting, seated in a flock on branches of leafless trees facing a lad seated on the bars beyond the school fence, his alienated and distanced gaze towards the depressing structure which the Hitchcock-ian ravens find to their taste.
This sense of spiritual cleansing as far as the essence of artistic experience is expanded by Pinto with the image of the bath and
shower. Pinto has positioned them at the heart of the desert, and surrounded them by a pink or red screen. One of the most beautiful and minimalistic of the bath series paintings presents the desert
(a lower yellowish swath), with the sky above (an upper light blue swath) and at its heart, several grey beams forming the skeleton of a Sukkah [ritual booth] in which the bath is found. The painting is
infinite calm emptiness, the desert is the place where God appears, and the empty bath is the essence of the uterine image of spiritual rebirthing. It would seem that even the sea joins Pinto’s lexicon of purity and infiniteness, where the skies in his paintings are the spiritual desire even when marked by a high-flying kite at the endof its almost endlessly long line.
It is rare to find, in Shimon Pinto’s art, a specifically Jewish image, such as the black, authoritative Tefillin [phylacteries], with its
long, winding black strap, and monumental black box, mastering the large canvas where, in the left, ankles can be seen on a table
(the woolly kibbutz-style slippers are testimony to the Israeli experience) and the ankles’ owner plays with a yo-yo, a Pinto-typical recurring image indicating folly in life. The artist critically observes, through his art, the society and culture of his environment: on an expansive canvas he paints a titled cage-trap (of the kind used in his childhood to catch stray cats) right before he ‘entraps’ a laptop…surrounded by a green flowering field in which is a basketball court (also drawn from childhood images) indicating the utopian space of freedom and happiness that counterpoint the temptationof the entrapping computer.
However, the essence of good in Pinto’s artistic world is the repeated image of “cotton candy”, known in Hebrew as “grandmotherly
hair”. These sugar-threads, wound like wool around a stick, can be found in paintings large and small, singly or in clusters,
and are the topic of a donkey’s lecture in an auditorium, or are manufactured by the donkey and ‘implanted’ on the podium as
trees casting green shadows. Cotton candy represents the image of ultimate joy: sweet, soft, melting, pink. And it would seem that the artist is not patronizing towards them in the name of some higher
value: for the sweetness and softness of color in the artist’s paintings seems to serve as testimony to benevolence of a kind that
represents ‘childness’ and innocence, equated by the spirituality immersion noted earlier. Here is a large painting in which an artist
bears an apple (the earliest sin?) on his back, among the desert hills approaching the Dead Sea, the sky filled with a multitude of
cotton candy fibers, as though they were heavenly umbrellas froma Magritte, or lanterns from Yossel Bergner.
Shimon Pinto returns to the desert as one who returns to his childhood yet simultaneously, as one who knows the infinite
expanse of the desert as a place for the transcendental, and as one who seeks to position his art in the here and now. His search for the ‘typically Israeli’ as far as local-cultural-identity has involved him since studying Art at Ben Gurion University, where in 2000
he painted the green shadow of Nimrod cast upon the wall of a museum hall empty of all human presence. Already then, his
connection with the figurative-primitive was identifiable.
In the world of the desert, cotton candy, bathing structures, and toys, an anti-hero leading us through Shimon Pinto’s paintings stands out: the figure of the donkey. The donkey propounding on the theory of goodness to a handful of listeners in the auditorium is the same donkey playing chess in the desert where we saw the pink-screened bath. It is the same donkey that paints the sea and a boat becoming refined in the heart of the desert (at its feet are three cans of paint in the primary colors of red, blue and yellow: art as the primary passage to spiritual rebirth). And again, the donkey is there, dragged along by a small child on a bicycle in the
home (“Mother won’t let me play with a donkey”). Indeed, featured in numerous of Pinto’s paintings are the Bedouin donkeys he so
loved to play with as a child in Arad, despite his mother’s scolding. Now, the donkey has become the painted symbol of ambivalence: on one hand, the donkey on which the Messiah is mounted, and on the other, “a people that is donkey-like” (stubborn, stiffnecked) or “Issachar is a large-boned ass” [Gen.49:14] – the donkey as manifestation of the material? [Hebrew wordplay: donkey is khamor, material is khomer] Perhaps, the donkey as manifestation of spirit? (Note the stand of books just behind the donkey tied to the child’s bicycle; and don’t miss the chess-playing donkey!) Does the donkey perhaps manifest modesty, acceptance of outcomes, and blamelessness? One way and/or another, the artist’s selfidentification with this empathetic creature – which was warmly embraced by earlier Israeli artists such as Nahum Guttmann, Ludwig Schwerin, Avraham Ofek, Lydia Zavetsky, Tamar Getterand many others – is clear. When Pinto paints his donkey passing a wooden fence, beyond which is a group of youth praying in Nature alongside several trees, he is painting his isolation ‘beyond the Pale’, his otherness, but also perhaps his longing for Natureand fellow humans. Indeed, Pinto is aware of isolation as part of the destiny of his footprint as an artist. Accordingly, here is Pinto’s donkey, walking through the Tel Aviv Art Museum plaza,where, in the distance, the Azrieli Towers and City Hall can be
seen. A melancholic donkey; it has already passed by Henry Moore’s sculpture and is almost entering the museum. But no: it
is still outside. This longing for recognition by the museum willalso be depicted in another painting, where an artist is shown
jumping high into the air, from one painting to another, above theDead Sea, with the Mountains of Edom in the background. The
artist progresses across his spring-board paintings on his way to conquering the peaks of Masada, shown in the foreground and
representing, for Pinto, the impenetrable museum-fortress.
But let us not err: the artist does not strut ego and honor in these paintings. The donkey’s entry into the museum – and according
to Nahum Guttmann’s story, “The Adventures of the Blameless Donkey”, the donkey already entered the museum in the role of art
critic – or the conquest of Masada represent, more than all else, a longing for revolution in museum institutionalization, from a
fortress to a home, open to the unpretentious whose work is their belief. Pinto’s artwork seeks the rectification: “Rectify the World
in the Kingdom of Shaddai” is the title of one large canvas, where endless desert dunes cover the expanse, and at the canvas center, a mysterious figure is scratching out, with some kind of hayfork
held in its hand, tracks across the land. The tracks are parallels of threes, sharp and hard as the tines of the hayfork, but they
also represent the three vertical strokes of the [Hebrew] letter shinn that starts the word ‘Shaddai’, and they are also the color
of heaven. Similarly to this allegorical image, Pinto is seeking to bring the paths of heaven down to the earthly sphere. And when
Pinto paints a group of youth, standing at the shoreline (we have returned to the space of pureness) in a circle around a white flag,
and blowing balloons up, the artist is telling us this: the choice is in your hands – either the balloons of empty, hot air that celebrate
surrender (the white flag), or balloons as an expression of the spirit and soul; and it is the absence of a shadow to these figures
that confirms their ‘angelity’.
This is Pinto’s choice: yo-yo, balloons of meaninglessness, computer games – or, by contrast – purification, prayer, the matter of the soul. The city (fences, alienation) or desert (expansive, endless). For Pinto’s donkeys, there can be no doubt where the cotton candy can be found. For Pinto, the act of artistic doing is also the act of ethical instruction, of the type found in two large canvases where a stack of chairs is topped by a caged bird. In the artist’s homiletic world, we find power struggles within and without the artistic world, struggles that position self above other, yet the verdict handed down to the strugglers is one of the cage of ego.
On one canvas, Pinto presents the artist robed in ultra-Orthodox black, sitting and painting, surrounded by upright tubes of color.
Behind the artist is a wall; through its high windows a treetop can be seen. Art isolates the artist from the world, and even from
Nature. Art creates a closed coterie, a kind of Stonehenge-circle cultist space marked out by the tubes of paint. It is an autonomous
coterie of art-belief from which the paintings are born. But, to no less a degree, it is the coterie from which the artist himself is birthed. Riveting to the mind is another artwork in which Pinto paints a gargantuan tube of paint; from its mouth spills a green
figure. It is the image of an additional shadow in Pinto’s world of green shadows, but the shadow here is that of the artist himself
[referencing the biblical artisan Bezalel whose name, in Hebrew, means “in God’s shadow”]. Pinto approaches his beliefs through
his art, just as he brings his beliefs to his art.