painting review 2:
Darkness, Light and the Wanderer - the paintings of Micha Nussinov
The Washhouse Gallery, Rozelle, Sydney, Australia 29 June -18 July 2004
The major themes of Nussinov's work were well represented in his recent virtuoso exhibition 'Light of Darkness' at the Washhouse Gallery, where the light paintings celebrating life were hung on the left-hand wall of the main room, and the darker more introspective works on the right-hand wall. The works explore the interplay of light and darkness, journeys, the artist as wanderer or outsider, language, memory, and personal and cultural symbolism. Fragments of languages: words, hieroglyphs, sinuous scripts are written on the body of these paintings, like a primal mark-making, as if to question human attempts to label and classify the universe. Underpinning it all is a great love of Nature and the inexaustible variety of organic life. Nussinov's mainly figurative works range from somber surrealistic 'internal' landscapes to large, joyous, expressionistic, semi-abstract landscapes, and to more realistic paintings of people and particular remembered places.
'On the Mud Flat 1' is a realist work showing a bird's eye view of children wading in sandy shallow water, painted in acrylic washes. With its tall scroll-like format it superbly evokes a specific place in Pittwater in Sydney, a vast shimmering waterway with mud flats and rock pools. Nussinov has captured the complete naturalness of children playing, looking for crabs and shells, and the transparent waves rippling with light. At the same period Nussinov painted 'Magnolia' - a sensuous appreciation of Springtime and the miraculous in Nature. The lines of the blossoming tree in full sunshine have an almost musical rhythm. The fine supple brushstrokes capture the light moving in the leaves and blossoms, a meditation on the act of seeing.
In this pantheistic vein he painted the tondo 'Claiming Rights,' which shows a naked man astride a gigantic white bird flying over its nest. There are mythical figures in a celestial space above, and down below the figures of 'primitive' people at one with the earth. Does the bird in this painting represent the possibilities of flight, journeys, the lure of the unknown, versus the pull of one's homeland, the urge to belong, to stay and claim ownership? Nussinov knows the wrench of emigration, the experience of being an outsider in a new culture and language, the excitement of exploration as well as the longing for home. The artist migrated to Australia in 1975 after studying cinematography and lighting at film school in London. He was born and lived in Israel, and his family's roots are also in Germany and the Ukraine. The earth-bound figures in 'Claiming Rights' embody a particularly masculine energy or life force. Underlining this the artist has written calligraphically the Hebrew letter 'Zayin,' which crudely translated means 'penis,' but also stands for 'asserting your rights, your identity'. Again blue predominates in this work, the most spiritual of colours, suggesting a sense of longing. The artist thins acrylic paint to create his luminous watercolour effects.
In some of his other visionary works there are figures like falling angels, whilst other figures are struggling upwards. 'Movement 1' is a spontaneous-looking painting in warm tones that conveys the restless energy of life in a state of metamorphosis, in contrast to his more structured figurative works.
'Splash' is a large mural-like acrylic 'light' painting with a joyous freedom, evoking the teeming life of Nature. Water, sky, reflections, and earth melt together as colours merge gradually from cool to warm. There is a rich range of blended tones here, and sinuous lines suggesting the multiple journeys of living things across the face of the earth. The painter has alternated light and dark touches until the work as a whole achieves a sublime harmony. It resonates like a great chord of orchestral music, a homage to the energy and connectedness of all life. The companion work 'Splatter' is similarly built up from translucent acrylic washes and multiple sketches of organic forms, the layers of paint and pastels used expressionistically to suggest an apocalyptic vision.
'Transfiguration' is another large, free, semi-abstract landscape, a much darker one, where lively natural forms emerge from a blue/black background in glowing colours. One of the most mystical and enigmatic of his works, it has the atmosphere of a dream. Figures, animals, birds, fish, plants, trees, rocks, buildings, bridges, waterfalls, even a volcano, float in a kind of oceanic fluid, like time itself. Like any dream journey it is full of ambiguities, on one viewing you might read a form as a human figure, but another time you might see it differently, whilst other forms emerge or melt back again into the primordial night. Nussinov reminds us of the diversity of organic life and the swirling currents of water and air around the planet. He is a natural philosopher, and the work has an epic breadth, like Gauguin's 'Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?' of 1897. He shows how, like all living things, we are caught up in the life cycle of Nature: birth, growth, maturity, ageing and death. His technique in these darker works is to start with a black background and build up layers of acrylics or pastels in blues and glowing colours, balancing the light sources and highlights, whilst the black underneath unifies it all.
The triptych of smaller works 'Light of Darkness' features surrealistic 'internal' landscapes, where Nussinov has again started with black, working in layers of luminous pastels, achieving rich textural effects by pressing the pastel into the board with his fingers. In 'Light of Darkness 1' a figure floats over a whirling vortex, symbolising perhaps the transience of the human journey through life. Near the figure twirls the arabesque of a sash. This is one of the painter's recurring symbols, a ribbon-like sash twirling into a 'figure eight,' and here it anchors downwards. Nussinov acknowledges life's essential mystery in this open-ended eternity symbol, which could also stand for identity, consciousness, and language. The tension and dynamism in the work is The circular movement of the vortex is underscored with vibrant lines of light in coloured pencils, like electrical energy. Does this image suggest the urge to control one's inner chaos, or perhaps the chaos of external Nature? The semi-abstract 'Light of Darkness 2' continues this theme, opposing a house structure at top right to a natural world of teeming energy, surging waterways and animal and plant forms.
When he introduces narrative elements, as in 'Light of Darkness 3' they remain enigmatic: industrious figures dig graves, a figure on a bench reaches upwards, and an anguished half-naked worker stands reaching up as if to catch hold of something, while there are half-seen spirits and again a kind of plasma in the sky. Diagonal fences and a bridge in the foreground may symbolise the man-made grids and divisions in the world, the structures human beings impose on Nature. Over this predominantly blue/black melancholy world that shimmers with light, hovers the word 'where' in fluid script like a twirling snake - as if the artist were asking 'What are we doing here? Where do we belong?'It scrolls calligraphically out of a vortex of electrical energy in the background on the right, where fragments of ancient writing burst like stars. These three works in pastels encapsulate the theme of life and death, how we are born and emerge out of the mysterious dark with primal energy, and eventually, in death, we return to darkness and the earth.
Forms are often in metamorphosis in these paintings. 'Departure I' and 'Departure 2' are a pair of oil paintings on canvas set in Jerusalem, full of multiple personal meanings and associations. Again the figurative elements are suggestive rather than literal, as in surrealist works. 'Departure 1' shows a woman with a suitcase leaving a doorway, standing on a bridge over water, and there are glowing temples behind her, souls in flight in the sky - it's a mythical scene full of archetypes. The doorway could be a window, or an open book, or perhaps even a coffin, and will the guide on the bridge let the woman pass? A man on top of the doorway reaches up to control a twirling sash, like a fragment of ancient Arabic or Hebrew writing that has come alive. These imaginary landscapes could represent a transitional zone between life and death - the traveller could be on a journey into the afterlife, moving from one dimension into another. What can a person bring with them on such a journey? A soul full of memories, thoughts and emotions, fragments of language, a suitcase, or a coin to pay the ferryman?
The overall perspective in both paintings is a high sweeping city view showing different levels, as if one were a bird or a dreamer flying over the scene. In 'Departure 2' there are buildings perched high up on hills; a central group embracing in farewell; a huge reclining earth-mother figure; a giant hand with a plate. In the shifts of scale different time zones are suggested. And does that giant hand hold a birthday cake with candles - or are they tiny dancing figures in metamorphosis?
Another level of meaning here might be the theme of the traveller or immigrant, or even a reference to the Jewish diaspora, which is part of Nussinov's family history. There is a sense of loss, sadness and struggle or 'angst' in many of these darker paintings, a depth of emotion reinforced by all the different tones of blue. As the artist acknowledges, you leave something behind when you go, and, if you are an artist, you try to recreate some of what is lost in your work. The building with a dome-like curved roof in 'Departure 1' is reminiscent of both the synagogues and mosques of Jerusalem, but the pole-house with verandahs is like the housing stock of his new home, Australia. There are complex rhythms of opposing curves and diagonals. 'Balancing all these energies is the challenge I usually face as an artist,' Nussinov says.
In the small work 'He Crosses,' man-made structures and English and Hebrew alphabet letters oppose their grids to the slopes, branches and roots of a tangled bush landscape at night. The leaves of the trees are glittering in the blue evening, the waters of a creek below reflect the moonlight. A figure climbs onto a structure like a letter 'H' in the forest. Higher up there is a softly lit covered viewing platform where another figure sits. Are these structures of letters scattered in bush terrain symbolic and perhaps in their own way sacred? This small gem of a work is like a meditation on the mystery of language, punctuated by the twirling sash symbol.
The sculptures and installations in this exhibition are like whimsical enigmatic creatures who have stepped out of the paintings. For 'Bird on Show' Nussinov has created an expressive bird from stainless steel wire and paper, with a skirt/body made out of an old lamp, nesting on a disc of perspex which is softly lit from underneath, standing on an old 1960s coffee table. There are perfect eggs created from plaster of Paris, and the bird has ruffled tissue paper feathers and a lively presence.
'Wobbly' - is a sculptural installation with a droll mask-like face, the head representing human consciousness, the electrical 'wiring' suggesting the brain's exploding thoughts and feelings - and music - Nussinov's original experimental percussive music emerging like the figure's language or thoughts. The light and sound within this installation are like its glowing life force. The artist has a fantastical imagination and is quick to see the potential in found objects. The head is a semi-translucent bucket lit from within, the hat is a perspex dish, the hair is made from electric wires coated in string and plaster of Paris, the body is made from old plywood curving speaker boxes. This witty assemblage is partially inspired by 'found object' sculptures like Picasso's famous 'Baboon and Young' (1951) where a toy car was transformed into the baboon's head. Nussinov's 'Wobbly' has a real presence, like a creature singing behind its enigmatic mask.
Nussinov has an interesting range and scope, and a passionate intensity well represented in this exhibition. The large expressionistic philosophical works, both light and dark, have a Pollock-like sense of the connectedness of all organic life, vibrant with a variety of forms and rhythmical energies. The more realistic figurative works also pay homage to Nature, astutely observing the qualities of a particular place, like a blossoming tree on a summer's morning, the light on bony trees in the dry outback, or children at play on watery mudflats. The introspective surrealistic works, depicting figures in dream-like landscapes, encapsulate metaphysical concerns as well as memories, a sense of loss and the theme of the outsider or immigrant.
There may be falling angels in Nussinov's spiritual, questioning paintings, but there are also figures who struggle towards the light. And in his sculptural installations, the artist's quirky humour reflects a fine appreciation of the absurd, in the tradition of Dada and Surrealism, an ability to play and eloquently shape subconscious material. His works as a whole reflect that creative process of bringing images forth out of darkness. Nussinov follows up associations and images suggested by the subtle transformations of colours and lines, the pulsing energy of light and darkness. There is a great sense of fluidity, possibility, metamorphosis in these paintings, expressing a kind of universal life force. His experiments with different media, which he has called his 'process of revelation,' may be a revelation for the viewer as well, invited to share in his spiritual journeys, images of the wanderer, fragments of memories and language, loved places, and ultimately his figuration of the enigma of life itself.
Kathleen James 25 September 2004