Shift in process honours emotions of childhood trauma.
by Deborah Thompson
September 9, 2022
oil on canvas, 27″ x 23″ (courtesy Touchstones, Nelson, B.C.)
The emotional content of Amitai Ben David’s latest paintings cannot be separated from his process, which he reinvented in response to the psychological heft of his theme – childhood trauma. His exhibition, There once was a girl named Hester and other damaged kids, on view until Nov. 5 at Touchstones in Nelson, B.C., speaks to the wartime experiences of his mother, Hester Trompetter. She was orphaned as a one-year-old in Holland during the Second World War and spent her early years in hiding. This difficult start informed her identity – and that of her son. When he became a father, it was something he felt compelled to explore.
oil on canvas, 67″ x 55″ (courtesy Touchstones, Nelson, B.C.)
Ben David, who was born in Israel in 1966 and now splits his time between Nelson and the Netherlands, is no stranger to the traditions of European painting. He did his undergraduate studies in the Netherlands, where he was exposed to the grand history of the Dutch masters. His graduate work creates an illusion of seamless pictorial space with its opaque applications of paint and equal attention to figurative elements and backgrounds.
It’s exciting to see how he has shifted his previous way of painting by breaking up pictorial space and deepening subjective relationships. He jostles the weave of the picture plane by varying his emphasis, almost de-skilling himself as he allows fleshed-out figures to bump up against loosely formed settings. His artist statement speaks of using figuration to create “borders” that structure and contain amorphic aspects of the paintings.
oil on canvas 47″ x 35″ (courtesy Touchstones, Nelson, B.C.)
At first glance, these works seem hastily painted, even unfinished, the figures so laden with emotional weight they can feel unsupported. At times, they lose their cohesion and become disorienting. For example, in Boy Rising, a youngster with some sort of physical disability is shown from the rear, shuffling on his knees towards a wall, one hand reaching out for support so he can stand. The boy is built with layers of opaque pigment and translucent glazes. In contrast, the background is evoked with thin scrubbed washes that suggest a Mediterranean light. Ben David relishes this juxtaposition, believing it lets the uncertainty of the human situation reveal itself.
oil on canvas, 20″ x 23″ (courtesy Touchstones, Nelson, B.C.)
Along with his mother’s story, Ben David uses a children’s book, Ziva the Doll, published in Israel in 1957, as a reference. In his painting, Examination, three children study what appears to be a doll. Their curiosity and sense of otherness is palpable. The book tells the story of a small doll lost in a large world and portrays Ziva as a misfit, both repulsive and appealing. Her life is turbulent. When she encounters some ducks she says: “They received me like I was a monster / They screamed and cried / they pounced on me / they tried to peck out my eyes.”
In working with this tragic theme, Ben David wanted to explore “vulnerability, dependency, courage and belonging” while celebrating “the damaged and the imperfect.” His tender approach invites us to connect with our own vulnerabilities, letting us glimpse not only an artist’s yearning to belong, but aspects of our own otherness. ■
Amitai Ben David, There once was a girl named Hester and other damaged kids, at Touchstones Nelson: Museum of Art and History in Nelson, B.C. from Aug. 20 to Nov. 5, 2022.
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Deborah Thompson is a visual artist, curator and educator of settler ancestry in Nelson, B.C.. Her practice includes painting, drawing, sculpture and stop-motion animation. Her MFA is from the University of Montana.
September 9, 2022
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