Modern Israeli art reveals thriving culture

From 20 paces, Yehudit Sasportas’ “Cosmic Layers” looks like a stand of evergreen trees. But close up, the canvas might not represent exactly what it seems. From 20 inches, it’s pure chaos, a riot of inkblots.

That’s just one of many surprising works on display in the Judah L. Magnes Museum’s impressive new exhibition, “”

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, the exhibition features 21 Israeli artists and scores of pieces in a variety of media including sculpture, photography, painting and a few hybrids. The overarching message: When it comes to modern art, Israel can bring it on.

“” is the brainchild of Magnes chief curator Alla Efimova and Tamara Akov, wife of San Francisco’s Israeli consul general David Akov. The two kept it local, with every piece on loan from Bay Area art collectors.

The exhibition, co-sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel and the Israel Center, remains on display at Berkeley’s Magnes museum through July 27.

For a small country, Israel has produced a strikingly hardy corps of fine artists, judging by this exhibition. Though some pieces seemingly draw on Israel’s entrenched national anxieties, others eschew concrete connections to the Jewish state’s here and now.

Among the exhibition’s most captivating works is Yuval Yairi’s “Basement with Typewriter and Bottles,” a sedate still life composed of hundreds of photographic frames. The resulting image, set in what resembles a prison cell of Jerusalem stone, says something about Israel’s paradoxical timelessness and temporality.

Playing similar photographic tricks is Barry Frydlender’s “Flood,” an epic image of the artist’s storm-ravaged Tel Aviv neighborhood. Frydlender assembled scores of individual shots to create a disturbing panorama, with certain people popping up multiple times across the tableau.

Israel clearly has provided fertile ground for art photographers. One of its best and best-known, Avi Nes, contributes three untitled works, including two from his “Soldiers” series.

One of those, a portrait of a handsome and shirtless infantryman, exemplifies Nes’s homoerotic glorification of the male form. The other is an audacious replica of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” but instead of robed apostles, Nes poses rugged Israel Defense Forces soldiers chain smoking and dining on apples.

Another photograph of note is Ori Gersht’s “Afterglow,” one of a series of cityscapes taken in war-torn Sarajevo. Like a scene out of Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Gersht captures a twilight universe of private worlds ostensibly safe behind their apartment windows.

Haim Sokol’s “Torah Curtain” is an astonishing sculpture composed of rusted sheet metal. Hung vertically in an ark-like vestibule, it speaks eloquently to Judaism’s sanctification of the physical plane.

Similarly, Helen Shaul and Asnat Greenberg — an artistic team based in Jerusalem — created an evocative untitled piece out of 2,000-year-old Jewish coins adhered in rows to a black iron plate. Scanned from left to right, those rows ultimately wobble into disorder like some tragic historical timeline.

And then there’s Sigalit Landau’s “Barbed Hula,” a series of four photographs culled from a video. They depict the artist’s torso lacerated by a ring of barbed wire around her waist. The resulting collision of symbols — a crown of thorns, the Tel Aviv skyline, a bloodied female form — all conspire menacingly in this powerful piece.

Though relatively small in size, this exhibition unfolds for the viewer with limitless fascination. The works are so diverse and of such high caliber, a walk through the two galleries could — and should — take hours.

As world Jewry celebrates Israel’s big birthday, it’s easy to over-focus on the country’s survival which, granted, is

no small achievement. Yet as “” eloquently conveys (without saying so outright), Israel is far more than a survivor nation. It is also a thriving center of culture and ideas.

Fortunately for us in the Bay Area, the Magnes snagged a healthy taste of it.

“” is on display through July 27 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley. Information: (510) 549-6950.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.