Visual Esperanto – Avner Sher’s oeuvre as a “Third space”

An article written By Smadar Sheffi PhD

The realms Avner Sher creates in his works span eras and cultures in a language of “visual Esperanto.” His multilevel works contain images of gestures, emotions, body and domesticity in a primordial language that transcends cultural differences. More encoded layers refer to Sher’s creating in Israel, in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, the “cradle of civilization” and eternal arena of clashes between civilizations.
Sher’s artwork is both universal and individual, suffused with his own biography yet offers viewers a map of their inner world, its origins and yearnings. Sher’s main material is corkboard, which he selected for its unique properties and possibilities of processing. Recently he began to work with layers of unprocessed cork; the choice of the unprocessed material impacts the content of the artworks and deepens their meanings.
Cork is the external bark of the Cork Oak tree, peeled off the trunk once every nine years. The trees are not only in a constant process of regeneration and growth, but also in repeated trauma. The choice of cork began as an aesthetic preference and is now a deliberate choice referring to the essential nature of cork as bearing its history and a regenerative capacity. The concepts of destruction and rebirth associated with the history of the Jewish People and of the Middle East have links to Sher’s work in terms of material which is flayed yet flourishes.
Sher treats the cork, marking it, thus making it his. He aggressively etches, scorches, burns and floods the cork with color from unusual materials such as wine, laundry detergent, ink and ketchup. With these means, Sher creates an archaeology and history for the material. The texture obtained is reminiscent of tortured parchment. In his works in desert colors and wine hues, or on a row of obelisks, he seeks answers, making fears and hopes present.
Within the marks created from the extended processing, in stains, tears and scratches, Sher seeks a thread of narrative or form. These residues of action are read by him as trail markers to the primordial myths of humankind, such as the Creation and the Flood. References to biblical figures revered in Christianity and Islam reappear in many works, such as the recent Jacob’s Ladder (2013), Jonah (2013), or the Ten Plagues on obelisks (2014). Other works originate in later Jewish texts. Sher weaves together the marks and wounds in the material by transforming them into forms and letters, healing them to build a world of broad philosophical and formal gestures which are often surprising and touching.
Extensive historical associations arise from the work. On corkboards mounted on wood, he creates works which are painting, etching and intaglio. Through his mode of work he enfolds memories of ancient visual languages, from cuneiform to hieroglyphics, hints of the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Egyptians and others. Other immediate associations are to American action painters of the mid-20th century (Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning) as well as the childlike scribbles of early modernism (Joan Miró comes to mind). Violent scratches, delicate zones of minimalistic, rhythmic cross-hatching, range from the Ancient Near East to Muslim and Persian ornamentation. Occasionally, images emerge that are reminiscent of the aesthetics of the early computer games like Nintendo, Pacman and Tetris.
The broad use of writing emphasizes the proximity of Hebrew writing to the early inscriptions of the region – Phoenician, Assyrian and Egyptian. The etched letters, so full of vitality and power, often refuse to be deciphered.
Sher narrates a story and captures moments of personal and cultural ambivalence. Beyond the improbability in Good Morning (2013), a piece like Bless You (2013) is almost a self-portrait.
In most of his works, similarly to ancient art, size reflects importance, not spatial perspective. His gaze moves between coming closer and distancing, between mythologizing the concrete – houses, animals and objects – to concretizing the mythic, such as the image in It Must be God (2014). Issues of faith, power and experience in exposing the universe’s modus operandi reappear in works such as In the Beginning (2001) or Unity (2014). In these and other works, the lower section is treated differently from other sections, thus constituting anchor-like weights on towers of associations, dreams, and laws of gravity and history.
A double gaze stands at the foundation of the fascinating complexity of Sher’s artworks: they connect to ancient cultural traditions and Islamic religious beliefs of the region, but the western gaze at the Orient is also visible, since the region is the “middle” only for those gazing at it from Greenwich.
Sher’s dual gaze is linked to Early Modernism, with associations to pioneering artists such as sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915), Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), and, of course, Picasso, who drew inspiration from ancient civilizations as a source for his modernist language. In the Israeli context, we can think of Yitzhak Danziger, whose sculpture Nimrod (1939) is an iconic image of the “New Israeli.” Danziger (1916-1977), who was born in Germany and immigrated with his family to Eretz Israel, had deep connections to the aesthetic legacy of the Fertile Crescent formed through his visits to the British Museum during his studies in London.
The postcolonial context is essential to thinking about Sher’s work. His artistic associations are rooted in contemporary western art no less than the heritage of the Middle East. Art can be characterized as a “third space” as in the concept coined by cultural theoretician Homi K. Bhabha. Bhabha, one of the towering figures in postcolonial and multicultural theory, pointed to the “third space” as one that challenges the perception of homogeneity of history and culture, exposing the option of “otherness” as enriching and expanding the understanding of the world. In works such as Lucy in the Sky (2014) or Alone with a Cat (2014) there are differences aplenty, orchestrated into a symphony of forms and writing. It is tempting to think of them as a cultural hybrid.
Sher’s artwork is located in the present continuous tense: memory functions like archaeological structures within the landscape of the present: the pyramids in Cairo, the Western Wall in Jerusalem; the obelisks in the major sites of Washington D.C., or Place de la Concorde in Paris (a double memory of ancient Egypt and the days of colonialism) – all are sites where history is present, and which impact the future.
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Sher’s oeuvre is characterized by equilibrium between ego drives and spontaneity and what is planned and orderly, but there is “method in his madness.” If Sher’s first stage of processing is aggressive treatment of the platform, in the second stage, the work transitions to contemplative observation. Similar to a mystic’s reading of coffee grounds or a psychologist’s interpretation of a Rorschach Test, the work opens before him into a narrative or a state of being.

The distance between the worlds of mysticism and faith in science is as big as the space between folk beliefs and modernism. Sher mediates and bridges these gaps with an aesthetic as rich and fascinating as it is complex and disturbing. We can think of Avner Sher’s oeuvre as a kind of Rosetta Stone, comprising text and translation together, artwork which embodies keys to understanding, an encounter between cultures and histories and a visual declaration of independence.