In the studio with Zohar Fraiman

She Performs

Text by Lynn S. Battaglia

It’s been 528 days since my last studio visit. Whew. When I moved to Frankfurt am Main, Germany last year in May, it took a while to arrive. And what felt like a blink of an eye later, the first lockdown hit. 528 days – almost half of that because of the Coronavirus. Yet here we are. Two weeks ago I found myself in Berlin for work and knew I couldn’t possibly leave the city without having visited at least one studio. And visiting Berlin-based, Israeli artist Zohar Fraiman in her studio in Wedding made up for all those months. It’s been years even since I had a proper Berlin studio visit, which MUST include drinking beer from the bottle, with the effect of one: feeling a lot cooler, and two: having something to hold on to for those short moments of silence when you forget what you usually do with your hands.


Zohar’s studio is located in a huge building that seems to be the home to many a Berlin artist’s works. After years of visiting studios mostly in London and NYC, I couldn’t stop telling Zohar how huge her studio was – again and again and again. The walls of this great space were filled with bright colored works from her newest series, most of them painted this year. This new series is a sort of coming back to her roots after she had made a detour of dismantling the narrative in her works in recent years , Zohar tells me. Back then she started to become obsessed with certain colours and her works were leaning towards vivid shades of blue and a visual experience with a lot of different layers superimposed on each other. And the themes of the female figure, sexualisation and the question of identity in a society where one might not always fit in started to dissolve into a more abstract narrative. Now she’s back. But as she explains it’s more like if you left a place and travelled the world to come back to the same place just to find out it’s not the same place anymore, nor is she the same person. Her new works deal with the questions of gender and identity in a very humorous and playful way, starting with the bright, neon colours she uses in her works now. In order to let the viewer in on the joke, she started using famous characters and cartoons we probably all know. Characters like the Little Mermaid, Snow White and Alice in Wonderland, but also villains like Cruela de Ville make appearances in her paintings. Never as the main character, but rather superimposing themselves onto the scenes, resulting in an ambivalent colliding and merging of the worlds.


Ambatiya , meaning bath in Hebrew, superimposes a funny, yet tragic clash between the Little Mermaid and a shark onto a painting of the school of Fontainebleau that shows two women naked in a bathtub, with one of them playfully touching the other’s nipple. This is done with such a specific gesture, that puts more emphasis and wonder onto the hand than the breast. These slim, limby, gesturing hands are something that interest Zohar so much, that they even become the sole subject of smaller paintings. Reflections is also a theme that keeps repeating in her work. Whether that be in TV screens, mirrors or pictures within the painting itself. She is actively searching for these images within images as a way in which the characters in the paintings can see themselves reflected. While the new series is much simpler in the way that layers are built up – only having one layer superimposed, rather than many – she is taking back the power of the narrative and displaying a strong confidence in the story she is telling. Using different painting techniques, she is careful not to give every part of the painting the same kind of attention. In some parts we can clearly see her brushstroke, while others appear very sleek, and yet another part – mostly the superimpositions – are altogether transparent. This is an additional tool to lead the viewer’s gaze through the painting and let them read the story in different ways.


In Me, Myself and I, Alice in Wonderland and Aurora appear as illusions of the woman shown in the painting, when really, they are merged onto her, they are a part of her. We feel like we are let in on a very private moment, witnessing the many personas (or are they ideals?) that come together in one. In the smaller painting B and Me we are confronted with a disturbing, glitchy image of a girl with her Barbie – except that the Barbie has the girl’s face. This is a playful take on the egg/chicken question: what comes first? Is the girl idolising the Barbie as something she wants to look like or does the Barbie look like her? One of the early paintings from this series, Time to Say Goodbye, shows Snow White – the first Disney damsel in distress aka princess – sitting in her car on a stage. It looks like she has it made for herself and is ready to leave, except there is no off. There’s nowhere for here to go as she is but a figment of our collective imagination. In addition to those movies and images idealising what an ideal woman should look like, the narrative also tells them what they should and shouldn’t do. These are figures most of us have grown up with and even the next generations know of them. Of course she was also influenced by them, Zohar says, and is using her narrative and paintings to question what we are presented with: “Is that cool Snow White?”


Zohar Fraiman, Bianca Kennedy, Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo – Trio Show

Galerie Russi Klenner, Berlin

Text by Galerie Russi Klenner

Muffins, dancing biscuits and foetuses, Snow White in a Pontiac, a millstone on the neck or rather on the woman’s boot as well as wild collages question social norms, traditional images and gender roles. The three artists present topics such as oppression, sexual identity and physicality, sometimes in a playful, sometimes confrontational, in a subtle or more direct way.


Christa Joo Hyun D’Angelo carefully composes her works of art which feed on intimate memories and (life) experience. Her work though is not as harmless as this description sounds. Her mostly political works (installation, video, collage and sculpture) deal with tough topics, sometimes in a subtle, often in a very intensive, direct and challenging way. Themes such as race, gender, power structures or sexual self-determination and their interrelationships are analysed, deconstructed and scrutinized. It is of great importance to her that everyone can connect something with her art. At the same time, she wants to confront people with difficult topics, point to different lifestyles that might even clash, but from which the artist draws her inspiration. She drives things that are not immediately perceptible – desire, fear, shame, vulnerability – to extremes so that they cannot be overlooked. In doing so, she likes to make use of common forms of presentation from pop culture that are accessible to most people. The more personal, the more comprehensible for the viewer. In her collage ‘You have something I desire’ or with the row of kissing mouth sculptures ‘I remember you’ she explores in a light and playful way the desire and longing for someone. As opposed to that the concrete blocks chained to the silver boots weigh heavily as a clichéd notion of femininity and a symbol for the woman who is being prevented from moving forward. The image of a young Vietnamese soldier framed by exotic flowers in the collage ‘Wild Flower’ in turn evokes associations with the fetishization of the exotic or with colonial tourism. Coming to the collage books she really goes wild. Here she glues cut-outs (from coffee table books or magazines) of mostly female body parts, faces of celebrities, fashion icons, film scenes and more with wild deliberation and intuitively on, above and next to each other. The artist makes it over the top by adding rhinestones, coloured adhesive strips as well as hearts and slogans scribbled with a felt-tip pen. The result is a diary or graffiti, deconstructing social taboos, commodity fetishism, sexual violence and oppression, utopian ideals and ethnic paradigms.


Zohar Fraiman creates moods and emotional states in her figurative, sometimes abstract paintings, which show dream-like, absurd and mysterious scenarios. Contrasts and contradictions, complex emotional worlds – the ambiguous is paramount here. Imagination or reality, American dream or harsh day-to-day-life, digital versus real world – the boundaries are blurred. The paintings hint at ideals and expectations, expectations the society has regarding female identity and the role of women. Influenced by the Internet, social media, cartoons and the intense colours of modern pop culture, Fraiman transfers this colourfulness also to her paintings – with the aim to create a glow that radiates toward the outside world or evokes the before mentioned moods. Zohar Fraiman plays with the aesthetics of advertising of the 50s, 60s and 70s, also by means of the colours, borrows from cartoon series / figures, record covers, myths or cult films. ‘HB’ for example, shows a kind of huge mouth with scary teeth – the gate to hell or a kind of ‘vagina dentata’ (the myth so called by Freud) or do the women flee to paradise from their own nightmare (to the palms and dolphins)? Here, there is plenty of scope for one’s own interpretations. We find a similar dream-like atmosphere in ‘Muffin Palace’, based on the cartoon ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, where you could also identify research instruments. Are they investigating the mystery of female sexuality, as the woman touches herself (also alluding to ‘OMG Yes’ an app on the science on the sexual pleasure of women)? And the big muffin in the middle of the picture? It also stands for the female genital in English slang … The fate of the female sheroes or anti-sheroes in her paintings ultimately remains open – can they make their dreams come true, do they break free from social norms or do they even change society? Aladdin’s Jasmin doesn’t seem very happy in the oh so cheerful ladies’ circle in the painting ‘I Just Called to Say’, but in the case of Snow White in ‘Time to Say Good-Bye’ she seems determined to take control of her own life. Up and away she drives in a bright red Pontiac – away from Hollywood, her old life, who knows. These are all questions that the artist asks and that we should or could answer ourselves.


Bianca Kennedy gives voice to lifeless things or to those who do not speak. The topics are varied, Bianca Kennedy is open to everything, not limited to specific issues. The topics flow to her and with an idea in mind usually an image follows of how to implement it. It is important to her to see things from a different point of view, to slip into the minds of others – this can be an animal, but also a plant or even a foetus. Evolution topics, the intelligence of plants, food, our living space, find on the ground might suggest, who their place in her work, but also human abysses or ‘body horror’. Sculptures, plasticine figures, drawings come to life in her stop- motion films or cartoons. In her stop-motion video ‘Limbo Weeks’ she stages the bronze sculptures of Fabian Vogler sometimes as a bathing pregnant woman, sometimes as fantastic creatures that dance in the uterus ballroom and turn nature’s wheel of fortune. It is within the first seven weeks of pregnancy that the biological sex of the unborn child is being determined, which remains, as Bianca Kennedy’s film shows, a game of hormones and coincidence. The artist illustrates the arbitrariness of life and biological gender determination in a funny and unusual way. And incidentally she manages to touch upon a difficult topic such as intersexuality. Perhaps her works are so unusual, playful or detailed, because they are not restricted by a certain attitude or style, but rather implement ideas in an unbiased manner. By evoking childhood associations and playfully presenting her topics, she creates empathy and inhibitions for the viewer are removed. At the same time, the playfulness is combined with black humour and sometimes disturbing images. The bathtub, which appears in ‘Limbo Weeks’ and which could be associated with myths that the temperature of the water determines the sex of the child, is placed in a different form, in reality in the exhibition space and opens up an immersive bathing experience for visitors, in which they can immerse with the help of virtual reality glasses. ‘VR all in this together’ allows us to become a voyeur and watch others taking a bath.


Die Bösen dürfen nicht weinen

Galerie Russi Klenner, Berlin

Text by Thibaut de Ruyter

Exploring the relationship between humans and animals leads us on a path that goes back to the beginning of mankind. In 1974, Joseph Beuys spent a few days living with a coyote in a New York art gallery. Earlier in the first half of the twentieth century, Balthus painted the happy lives of young girls with their cats. Further back comes the epoch of fairytales like Little Red Riding Hood from Charles Perrault and beyond that the devils and chimeras ornamenting Gothic cathedrals. Travelling back even further in time takes us to Greek mythology in which we meet with Centaurs and to the Egyptians who associated dogs with gods. Our journey finishes in the dark caves daubed in prehistoric paintings. In short, our connection to animals has been an endless source of inspiration for artists: it is present in religion, literature, society and even our dreams.


The painter Zohar Fraiman (born 1987 in Jerusalem) has, since 2012, been examining the interrelation between humans in combination with figures of devils and, more recently, wild animals. In her most recent paintings, wolves co-inhabit the world of young women almost happily. Sometimes, the wolves and women merge to create hybrid figures. If one searches for a clear common thread connecting the paintings thereby creating a fairytale, one will only be mislead. The story is fragmented, from one canvas to the next, without any linear order. One can of course try to build up one’s own narrative but Zohar Fraiman’s paintings are more than a simple illustration to an untold story.


Instead we are left, as in a play, with scenes involving different actors that will, from one tableau to the next, live out their lives and their relationships. The principle of theatre echoes within Zohar Fraiman’s world. Many of her paintings are composed with mountain landscapes that resemble a backdrop, whilst figures stand on the proscenium waiting to give their final bow. One must only look in Koo Loo Loosh (2017) at the four men who stand contemplating a stage in the distance where indistinct characters move whilst bananas float into the sky, to understand that all what we see in those paintings is a mise-en-scène.


In all the paintings from the exhibition Die Bösen dürfen nicht weinen [The bad ones may not cry] the border between humans and animals is blurred and the roles are constantly shifting. Women are victims and suddenly take power; wolves guard their territory together but also decide to eat each other; brides appear without telling us if they are willing to marry and, sometimes, it’s even fun to play guitar. It’s a game of domination and submission where — from one painting to the next — characters change their social and sexual roles. Indeed it is this constant role change that impedes any symbolic interpretation in Zohar Fraiman’s work. What is left is a world that more or less resembles our everyday where the enemy from yesterday is the hero of tomorrow, where good intentions create failures and strange stories depict a damaged reality.


entfesselt! Malerinnen der Gegenwart

Schloss Achberg, Ravensburg

Text by Martin Oswald

Zohar Fraiman schöpft in ihren verschlüsselten Allegorien zwischen Naturschauspiel, Pornografie und Verklärung aus einem ikonografisch breiten Fundus. Dieser umfasst Anleihen aus der religiösen Symbolik, kunsthistorische Motive, filmische Sequenzen und Figuren bis hin zur Psychologie und Alchemie C.G. Jungs. Scheinbare Gegensätze verschmelzen dabei zu einem neuen Ganzen, das Brücken schlägt zwischen der eigenen Lebenswelt und einem erahnten Anderen. Es sind kalkulierte Bildrätsel nicht ohne Provokation und ironische Brüche.


Das querformatige Bild Kissing at the Golden Gate aus dem Jahr 2016 ist voller solcher Anspielungen. Der auf einer blauen Eisfläche über einer Frau im roten Kapuzenkleid lehnende graue Fuchs scheint für diese nur auf den ersten Blick eine Bedrohung. Beide liebkosen sich. Hinter deren Köpfen lassen sich zwei hellblaue Kreisscheiben erkennen. Die Ähnlichkeit mit dem Heiligenschein in der christlichen Kunst ist nicht zufällig. Tatsächlich ist das Motiv der Begegnung Joachims und Annas an der Goldenen Pforte aus dem Freskenzyklus von Giotto di Bondone in der Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua (um 1304-1306) entlehnt. Die Szene, in der sich Anna und Joachim vor der Goldenen Pforte, daher der Titel, in ähnlicher Haltung küssen, ist in Fraimans Fassung horizontal gedreht. Das Bild ist allerdings mehr als eine Referenz an den Künstler Giotto, der die Malerei durch eine neue szenische Einheit von Zeit und Raum revolutionierte. Die Künstlerin ersetzt die Figur des Joachim durch ein wildes Tier, die liegende Frau ist wie von einem bösen Geist umklammert. Im jüdischen Volksglauben ist dies der teuflische Totengeist des Dybbuk. Zohar Fraiman zeigt die Frau also als eine im wahrsten Sinn Besessene. Womöglich aber ist für sie der Wahn nur eine Form des Nonkonformismus, ein Weg zur Freiheit, soll die Besessene doch einen Mann ehelichen, den sie nicht liebt. Der Stoff ist mehrfach verfilmt worden, jüngst durch Marcin Wronas Dibbuk – Eine Hochzeit in Polen (2015). Von Einfluss auf Zohar Fraiman war zudem der 1981 in Berlin gedrehte deutsch-französische Psychothriller Possession von Andrzej Żuławski. Das Setting auf der Eisfläche ist wiederum der szenischen Kulisse von Christoph Schlingensiefs Egomania – Insel ohne Hoffnung (1986) entlehnt. In diesem auf einer norddeutschen Hallig gedrehten Film begegnen wir einer Frau in rotem Kleid vor einer unendlich weiten, trostlosen Eisfläche, die wiederum an das Gemälde Eismeer /Gescheiterte Hoffnung des Romantikers Caspar David Friedrich erinnert. Zohar Fraiman bedient sich somit eines nur auf den ersten Blick chaotisch wirkenden Zitatenschatzes, der an unser kulturelles Gedächtnis appelliert. Vielleicht erinnert sie aber auch nur an den letzten Besuch im Golden Gate, einem besonders beliebten Berliner Club, in dem sich, halluzinogen aufgeladen, ganz profan all jene Dramen abspielen, die seit je den Stoff für Mythen und Legenden liefern.


Infold Enfold Unfold

Dorothea Konwiarz Stiftung, Berlin

Text by Michael B. Ron

What does one who looks through a screen see? While one is covered, what can others, who are looking, see? The figures Zohar Fraiman (b. 1987 in Jerusalem) paints are covered under a white cloth. Underneath they hide unseen, unseeing. And the closer one looks, the less one sees too. Could those figures see us behind their white screens? Is there anyone under those screens at all?


Front or back, in or out – Fraiman keeps it dubious. She paints figures on wooden doors that open up to an altar triptych. In her Talal/ טלל* series of self built boxes, a number of fragile and intimate objects engage the viewer to follow a trail of images and incidents from one box to another. The outside of each box appears to be raw and blank, yet inside each work is an image that aims to fulfill the viewers curiosity after opening the box. The images inside each box are trapped unless revealed by the viewer, reflecting a trapped possessive spirit hidden within another body.


Those covered figures unfold to more. In the altar piece Tallit *(2014), three figures on the front unfold to a triptych presenting a great crowd in white, resembling waves carrying sea foam while breaking on shore. They seem to bend back and forth together according to a single tune, in a frozen eternal movement. We may animate them and bring them closer together while closing back the doors of the triptych. Then the all-over landscape painting infolds into three figures, as in an inversion of German romanticism, infolding the sea into the lonesome monk. This act is repeated in Untitled (Don’t See Us) (2014), even more abstractly. Don’t See Us calls to the song written by hip-hop band The Roots. Giving another painting of a covered crowd its title from The Roots, Float like Hovercrafts/Sting like Vaccinations (2014) shows the connection Fraiman makes between lyrics from these songs to the paintings content.


These enigmatic figures being portrayed by Fraiman seem genderless, as if the white fabrics infold sexuality. In the Jewish orthodox synagogue only men pray covered with a tallit, separate from women. But in Portrait of Grandmother Bugmann on her Wedding Day (2014) it is a woman who is covered from head to toe with a white fabric. Covered grandmother Bugmann reminds us of the bogeyman, she looks like that featureless ghost, yet she seems more vulnerable than frightening. Que viene el Coco (2014), hints at another painting, in which we finally face the bogeymen with several figures who unveil their faces. The faces, emerging behind the tallit through a vaginal fold, are red and demonic. And yet, after looking at Grandmother Bugmann covered up and demons exposing their faces, we stumble upon a pure white bride and a demonic red devil enfold into each other’s arms in Kiss (Avoiding Kiddushin Series) (2014). Is such a kiss enfolded under the white screen in Enfolded Kiss (2014)?


Fraiman engages the curious viewer with looking without seeing, whether she unfolds the unseen openly all over the canvas, or infolds it intimately into boxes suggesting secrets. The viewer looks, but doesn’t see. Seeing is restricted, out of bounds. Religiously, one mustn’t see the sacred. Morally, one shouldn’t look at the demonic. But under a cover of white purity a bogeyman may hide, and a demon shining in red may expose us to a moment of eery romance.