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We spoke to Zohar Fraiman at Arco Madrid 2022. It is the first time the Israeli artist is exhibiting in Spain, represented by Gallery Russi Klenner.
A girl stares intently at her cell phone. There is a mouth-watering cake in front of her, yet she doesn’t seem to care. Her face is fragmented, making it difficult to work out who she is. The portrait captured by Zohar Fraiman (Jerusalem, 1987) in ‘Orangen Käsekuchen’ is a metaphor for our virtual life.
The multiplied faces in Fraiman’s paintings allude to the versions of ourselves that we swipe between every day. Sometimes the faces in her work are replaced or supplemented by cartoon characters or imaginary figures. Everything is there for a reason. At the same time, the unknown is one of the key questions in Zohar Fraiman’s current work.
Fraiman, who is presenting her work for the first time in Spain in this edition of Arco Madrid, is clear: the construction of identity is something we do on a daily basis and is constantly in flux.
I meet Zohar Fraiman at the German gallery Russi Klenner’s stand at Arco Madrid on Friday 25th February. We talk about the aesthetics of the virtual world. Trained in Fine Arts at the University of the Arts in Berlin, the German capital has been Fraiman’s home for the last thirteen years. Originally from Israel, she recognizes the good sides of technology: like being able to talk to people who are far away.
However, Fraiman’s paintings also portray our obsessions. She questions what is real, using direct references to historical painters, including Modigliani, Georges de La Tour and Balthus. She confesses that she also likes to seduce the viewer with bright colors. Indeed, it were these very colors that initially drew me to ‘Orangen Käsekuchen’.
DC. How are you finding Arco?
ZF. Fantastic. I like it here. I love Madrid. The fair is wonderful. And a little sunshine isn’t bad either, because I live in Berlin and it’s not very sunny there.
DC. In your work telephones are often present. Are we slaves to our cell phones?
ZF. Interesting question. A lot of the paintings I’ve been doing over the last few years talk about the identity that people feel they have, versus the roles they feel they have to play in society. This evolved into exploring how our digital identities on social media and platforms like Instagram, Tinder, Facebook etc. are a reflection of ourselves. We “curate” our online identity because we desire a certain image. But on the other hand, that’s not really us. It’s like an echo of us.
There are pros and cons to cell phones, and we are definitely obsessed with them. They make us become narcissistic; determining how we look online and how many selfies I take to look cool. But they are also a tool to communicate with each other and reach out to other, new people. During the pandemic, I noticed that a lot of my friends were dating, literally online, because they couldn’t meet people. They really made up a character with different rules and different ways to respond to someone and what to say.
DC. Is that why your characters’ faces are fragmented?
ZF. Yes. These digital identities that we create are like a shattered version of ourselves. Like in this painting [pointing at Orangen Käsekuchen], where it looks as though the subject is taking a selfie or a picture of us. Her face is this digital “glitch”, as if we’re swiping through pictures to see the next picture or story or profile.
Simultaneously, you see an echo in the work of a figure in Balthus’ painting, which influenced me and also talks about female roles. I am very critical of Balthus, but at the same time I also really enjoy his painting.
DC. Balthus is controversial in several aspects.
ZF. Very provocative, exactly.
However I do think that is something I want to talk about in the work: society’s idealization of beauty. The question is not how we should look and whether it’s good or bad. Rather it is a discussion that I think needs to be had, because social media and our digital identities have become such an important part of our lives. Especially for younger women and girls who don’t know life before social media.
DC. You refer a lot to classic painters. Who are your greatest inspirations?
ZF. I was trained in classical painting in Jerusalem. In the painting Swipe Sisters I actually looked at a painting by Georges de La Tour where there were people playing cards. And I literally imagined people I know, especially during the pandemic, sitting on their cell phones and thinking “how can I meet someone?”, “can I connect with my family from so far away?” or “how can I go on interesting dates? ”
The women in the painting are these people in my mind’s eye, and the composition I took literally from Georges de La Tour. The figures are contemporary though, mixed in with cartoon characters.
DC. Is the figure in the work Swipe Sisters a pin-up or an actress?
ZF. Actually, this figure is based on an image of Rita Hayworth, the classic Hollywood actress. A lot of people recognize her.
I feel like every era has had distinct beauty ideals. Today no one would say that beauty necessarily means being pretty: advertising idealizes a greater variety of different types of beauty than in previous eras.
Some changes to our bodies that are considered beautiful today weren’t even take into account thirty or a hundred years ago. Today they are the norm and you see them everywhere: in social media, advertisements, television, movies, etc.
DC. What about the cartoons in your paintings?
ZF. For me, the cartoons are a caricature of how certain qualities or characteristics of the figures should be expressed. As children, we watch all these cartoons where all of the characters act dramatically. As adults, we are suddenly expected to filter how we act. Adults aren’t allowed to go crazy any more like in cartoons.
Additionally, there is also an element of bringing fiction into the work in order to blur the line between what is real and what isn’t. That is exactly what these digital identities are all about for me. I mean, we make them. They wear our names, they are depicted in photos of us, but they’re not really us.
DC. Your recent paintings are more vibrant than the previous ones, which were darker in tone, but also magical and spiritual. How did the change occur?
ZF. Well I noticed all of a sudden that my studio was really bright. And we’re kind of hypnotized by all these screens too. We open our phones and it’s like “woo!”. This light sucks us in and there’s the endless scrolling… like “I can’t stop looking!”. We are like moths drawn to the light.
I felt at one point that I wanted to include this aesthetic, this luminosity and these colors to be in my paintings as well.
And I’m seducing the viewer, saying “look at me!”
DC. I also read that the color yellow has a meaning. In Spain it has to do with bad luck.
ZF. Very interesting. I think that’s fascinating. First and foremost, the color yellow is bright and stands out, as in the case of this piece [points to Minette and Me]. It draws us in and swallows us up.
McDonald’s French fries, also bright yellow, I use to allude to commerciality.
DC. Do you think social media create an economy of envy?
ZF. Well, we are putting our stuff online all the time. Someone posts photos in which the lighting is always perfect and the face almost better than the reality.
In this piece [FOMO II] I wanted to work on the concept of FOMO. I don’t know if you use it in Spain. FOMO means the fear of missing out on something. Here the subject falls asleep looking at her phone, but her “fictional eye” is still open. I was inspired by Alice in Wonderland.
DC. I know your exhibition in Berlin ends soon, but what is coming next for you?
ZF. My exhibition in Berlin has now ended, but more are lined up.
And there are paintings waiting to be finished. I am very excited for the next upcoming projects and shows.
We Curate Our Online Selves Zohar Fraiman