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?”