November 2002, Written By HILLY MOYAL, Published in MAKOR RISHON.
Avner Sher, a successful architect who designed many public buildings in Israel, is also an unrestrained artist who uses an electric saw, screwdriver, ketchup and black coffee in his creations. His works are influenced by his holocaust survivor parents as well as the bible on which he was raised
The entrance to the studio of artist and architect Avner Sher in Caesarea passes through his impressive house, in which his and his wife, Dor Confino, also a talented architect, mark is clear. The tranquil atmosphere and Avner Sher’s neat and reserved persona are almost in complete contradiction to the huge panels in his studio, which are in the creative process that starts with a violent disfigurement. Instead of paint brushes lying on the table, there is an electric saw, grill knives, a scorching implement
and screwdrivers. These are the tools with which he creates. Instead of paint he uses splashes of ketchup, soya, black coffee and wine. Everything is done quickly, a sort of automatic creation, almost ceremonial; a great deal of physical effort is expended. The art is done without thought, an intuitive process, instinctual, which embodies an attempt to release control. Only at the end does the unconscious content emerge, and often Sher contemplates their meaning only after reading the interpretations given by art critics. In fact, Sher’s art reflects the viewer and not the artist.
An Outburst of Passions
Sher says of himself that he was born an artist. “My talent for drawing was discovered at an early age. At the age of six I copied Picasso’s paintings from a book. I would draw a grid of lines on a drawing pad and then transfer it in a larger scale to a paperboard. As a child I would draw caricatures for the ‘Ezbeoni’ Children magazine and I did the artwork for the school newspaper”.
Avner’s dream of being a great painter ceased when he told his father of his wish to study art at Bezalel. His father, a survivor of the Dachau concentration camp, who had experienced years of deprivation, pressured his son to study something that would enable him to make a living. And so Avner was ‘pushed’ into architecture studies at the Technion. His first years were difficult, but towards the end of his studies things turned around. “There were tutors who in the first years told me all the time ‘to forget that I was an artist that architecture was something different’. In the fourth or fifth year I came to an understanding of what it was to be an architect and I even finished my degree with distinction. Throughout that period and for a long time after that I was suited with a tie, neat, organized and stable”, Avner recalls about how he started in the days that preceded his artistic creations that are born of chaos and disorganization.
Upon finishing his studies Avner worked for a short time as an employee at an architectural firm. Success came very quickly, and his name as an architect preceded him even while he was still new to the field. Nowadays he has a successful firm of architects, and his name is on the planning of large public buildings in Israel, among them Renanim Mall in Raanana, the shopping centre in Zichron Yaakov, Harel Mall in Mevaseret Zion, Law Courts, and many more. Despite this success, the yearning to paint stayed with him. “After a short period at the architect firm I realized that I still felt that art was the way for me. During my studies I took fine art courses at Haifa University. I would draw and exhibit my works at local exhibitions such as the Haifa Artist Union”, Avner recalls.
What was your artistic style during that period?
“These were very colorful paintings, with an ordered composition. I was very influenced by Picasso and Cubism. Although I played around with different techniques such as collage and decoupage, my work was ordered and organized. I didn’t let myself go wild on the canvas”.
In 1999 Sher experienced upheavals in his personal life that influenced his artistic style. After the divorce from his first wife he moved to Tel Aviv. Because of his work, which is spread across many parts of the country he spent many hours on the road. A stop en route on one of his travels brought a surprising, even strange, discovery that changed his artistic perception and helped release things in his soul that he hadn’t been aware of previously.
“I stopped at a gas station near Beit Yannai and went into the public toilets”, Sher recalls. “For the first time I encountered the destruction, the graffiti, the vandalism of the walls and the scratched doors and Formica. The original walls could barely be seen. Thousands of people had passed through the place expressing themselves in a destructive manner, whether as an outlet of their anger, vulgar drawings or love ditties. I realized something that shocked me; this place, a toilet cubicle, had become a canvas for an outburst of the passions existing within human beings. I also began to ponder the fact that these people had come to the toilet with a ‘toolbox’. Since scorching Formica with a cigarette is an action that takes at least quarter of an hour. To scratch plaster you need equipment. I was surprised by the intensity and energy that thousands of people had put into the walls of the toilets”.
The shock experienced by Avner gave birth within him to the desire to experience an unrestrained rampage in his creation. At first he tried this with plaster, but the work injured his hands. After which he discovered cork boards. He purchased several large panels and started to lacerate them with any tool able to disfigure, such as an electric saw or grill knife. “Something happened during the creative process that affected me deeply. I couldn’t understand where all this aggression that I didn’t know I had was coming from. I felt a violent eruption that had to find an outlet, and this fury surprised me. I didn’t want to think about the painting. I would work on several panels simultaneously so as not to bond to any painting. I had lived as a reserved, in control person and I was surprised at the passionate sides hidden with me”, he shares.
In his studio, in a cellar in the Nave Tzedek neighborhood, lay dozens of defaced panels, scratched and scorched that Avner worked on feverishly. In the mornings he held down an ordered position as a leading architect, and in the evening he ‘let loose’ in his creation. “After a while I looked at the result of what was created and I was helpless. What next? Where was I going from here? Out of the chaos I had created I found small clues, lines and scratches from which shapes and images started to emerge”, Sher describes the process of his works’ formation.
The images that emerged from Sher’s creations bring to mind primal cave paintings. There are reoccurring motifs such as eyes, fish, spirals and faces without mouths or with a threatened expression. Avner struggles to explain the meaning of these. He describes them as associative images that in all probability symbolize his unconscious world and his internal tempest. Over the years he heard many interpretations of his paintings that describe the connection between the terrified images and childhood photos he saw and imagined. Like many others who had survived the holocaust, his father and mother too never told their son about what they had gone through. Often he would listen through the keyhole to their conversations and would hear about the long walk they endured barefoot in the snow, or about the threatening dogs set upon them by the Germans. His parents were so protective that they wouldn’t allow him to go on school trips, from fear that something would happen to their son, and walked him to school until he was a teenager. When he was fourteen Avner’s mother died of cancer, an illness that for years had defined life at home. Only recently has Avner started to think that perhaps he is painting his father’s anguished face, and that the reoccurring images are a sublimation of the repetitiveness of the holocaust images that he has been carrying around in his mind from an early age.
Out of the disorder and erupting lines harmonic shapes and orderly compositions with a primitive nature reminiscent of children’s drawings are created. Often along with the images there are letters attached and even verses from the Book of Genesis and the Song of Songs. Some of the works have names taken from the bible. His painting ‘Genesis’ depicts a floating figure with the circle of life in its stomach carrying a large number of newborn babies. Around her head is an aura of light. The painting includes many images from the animal, mineral and vegetable world. At the figure’s feet is a chapter taken from the first weekly Torah portion [Bereishit Parshah]. Even though Avner doesn’t wear a yarmulke or follow religious commandment he defines himself as a man of faith. His love of the tradition on which he was raised, and especially his love of the bible that he inherited from his father, are apparent in the quotes he incorporates into his paintings. “My father had Pentateuch that he read until the day he died. He would place notes of commentary written in Yiddish in them. He wore a yarmulke and kept the Sabbath, and the synagogue was his second home. There are things engraved deep inside myself, like verses I loved from the Song of Songs and the Book of Genesis, and these instinctively resurface during the creation”, Avner states.
His painting ‘Noah’ was created inspired by a Sabbath meal with religious friends. “That evening the grandparents came, Kiddush was said, the children’s blessing and Sabbath songs. It reminded me a bit of my childhood and I found I was very moved by the event. When I went home I was very inspired, and a few days later I turned to one of the cork panels and created the image of an old man with a beard and long rectangle, like a table with Sabbath delicacies. I thought I was going in the direction of creating the Sabbath meal I experienced, but because I work in a wild manner without thinking about it too much I played around with it over a long period of time. Every time I came back to the panel I discovered another shape hiding within the lines and slits. In the end a picture emerged that looked like a boat with animals going in. That’s why I called this work ‘Noah.
Working from the Gut
In the coming months Sher is going to exhibit his works in four exhibitions and artistic events in the US, to which thousands of visitors and art collectors are expected to come. His first exhibition, in 2002 at the ‘Mabat’ gallery in Tel Aviv aroused a great deal of furor in the Israeli art world and raised question marks for Avner, who was no longer sure if his destiny was architecture or art. Today he tries to live in both these worlds that seem in Avner almost contradictory.
How do you bridge the gap between a field that is so calculated and planned and between your paintings, which are wild and an attempt to cut loose?
“Nowadays I believe that the art can positively influence the architecture. Creativity in essence comes from the unconscious part of the brain, from a place that is ‘no place’. Architects are often programmed to think and plan. Since I have a large firm with many young employees I encourage them to also work from the gut, to create small and quick sketches from which an idea might be born. The most significant difference between architecture and art is that with architecture there is first of all a client. Art for me is like talking. It is an almost instinctive tool, something that bubbles from within and comes out.”