David Reeb 2007 Simon Faulkner text for Tel Aviv Artists Association exhibition
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When viewed from the perspective of categories of critical discourse David Reeb’s practice appears to fulfil contradictory functions. Sometimes these contradictions have existed between different kinds of work and sometimes within the same painting. Reeb has paid service to two different kinds of responsibility: to a kind of ‘art for art’s sake’, on the one hand, and to the political demands of being a responsible citizen in a society that has occupied another for forty years, on the other. In conventional terms these different responsibilities do not match up. Doing justice to one seems to detract from the other. Reeb does not try to reconcile this disjuncture. Instead he plays around with it, positioning seemingly rarefied artistic concerns alongside political commitments, mixing them up, making them clash.


Recently Reeb has produced three sets of work, shown concurrently at the Artist’s Association in Tel Aviv and the Herzliya Museum of Art. In the former site are presented paintings that the artist describes as ‘Abstract Expressionist scrawls’ (1) alongside paintings that combine abstractionist motifs with texts derived from the Old Testament books of Joshua and Numbers. These texts refer to the violent settlement of the land by the Israelites displacing the previous inhabitants and involve a clear analogy to more recent events. In the latter location Reeb presents a series of video works depicting demonstrations against the separation barrier at the Palestinian village of Bil’in just inside the West Bank. Within the range defined by these three groups of work, the paintings combining politically referential texts and painterly tropes at the Artist’s Association seem to define a middle ground between the opposing poles of abstraction and politically committed reportage. These paintings make manifest the opposing elements that make up Reeb’s practice. They also bring together text and image in a productive way. These are works with two layers, made by first painting the Old Testament texts and then overlaying them with painterly forms. Although the texts remain readable, the painterly marks obscure the writing in places, erasing it, breaking it up, doing a kind of visual violence to its form and its sacred meaning. Here the act of painting functions as a gesture of contestation that can be understood as political.


The range of Reeb’s art suggests that he reserves the right for art to do nothing, to make nothing happen, in a social or political sense (2). This right was granted to art during the modern era through its increasing marginalisation within the social field of industrialised nations in Europe and elsewhere. But this marginality, conventionally understood as ‘autonomy’, comes at a cost. The moral pressure that artists sometimes feel to reconnect their work with the world of social and political responsibility taxes the creative freedom granted by the marginal status of art. It is precisely this kind of moral taxation that Reeb feels in relation to the political conditions of the occupation when he states: ‘Making art or doing art – however one chooses to define it – in Israel, one cannot ignore this reality’ and ‘I think one should be prepared to make use of one’s work to try to affect political and social reality, and be prepared to have one’s work made use of by persons and organizations for whom human rights and freedoms are most important.’ (3)


The ‘autonomy’ of art is a kind of fiction that depends on the denial of the social conditions that allow the artist his or her freedom. These social conditions mean that the artist is neither totally free in the sense of being able to produce art that is completely separated from the world of ordinary social concerns, nor able to have a particularly strong effect on society. Artists are caught in a double bind: they are granted the freedom to create, but this is the freedom to have no or little effect outside of the world of art. Reeb acknowledges this condition, but does not accept it. His work tests the boundaries between art and life, between visual and verbal language, between relevance and irrelevance, and between the different responsibilities given to visual representation within Israeli society epitomised by the media image on one side and the artwork on the other. In the past Reeb has painted photojournalistic images of the occupation, thus bringing the world of the overt politics into the space of art as a referential trace. He has also let his art be used in political publications. More recently Reeb’s video work has been used on the news, in court-cases, and on activist websites, while also being presented in an art context, as at the Herzliya Museum of Art. This situation points to the fluid nature of his practice and to the way he views it as multifaceted and multipurpose. This is perhaps something characteristic of Israeli art under conditions where artists have felt the need to attend to the politics of the occupation while also maintaining their status as artists. Indeed, one might argue that it is the status of the artist as a special creative person that is crucial here. The freedom to be irrelevant and socially irresponsible attached to the conventional persona of the artist enables the production of the space within which specific artists can generate new ways of seeing and thinking about society. Reeb defends this space while also rubbing against the grain of the clichéd disinterestedness and irrelevance of art. He does not want to make all his work about the practice of painting, nor does he want to fall completely out of the space of art into that of politics in the raw. Both such conditions would define some sort of loss. Instead he does a dance of different and changing roles. In one place he is the activist or documentary observer. In another place and at another time he is the lyrical painter enjoying the pleasure of making and looking. In other instances he does both and neither, presenting the contrasts between political engagement and aesthetic pleasure on the literal surface of his work.


Reeb's art raises questions about what good art is. Is the success of a painting the result of the way the paint is applied and the form this application produces? Is it the result of the alllusive content? Is it a matter of both? The working of form as content in the paintings using the biblical texts suggests that sometimes it is the latter, but Reeb does not provide definitive answers and perhaps the success or failure of individual pieces or groups of work is not really the main issue. What is perhaps more important is that the situation of art is kept open and that new opportunities are created by stretching what art might be under the demands of both aesthetic visual experience and moral and political questions. In a period when unambiguous positions and allegiances are demanded in the political sphere, an art that is premised on ambivalence is of particular value. Not only because this art can be turned to practical political use, but also because it points to the preservation of what the British cultural critic Raymond Williams defined as culture as a court of human appeal (4). This court can place demands upon politics as a practice defined by instrumental concerns and straight power relations. Perhaps the job of artists such as Reeb is to show how the aesthetic can be made to tax the political and not just the other way around.


(1) David Reeb, unpublished statement, February 2007.


(2) See Pavel Büchler, ‘Making Nothing Happen: Notes for a Seminar’, Anna Grimshaw and Amanda Ravetz, eds, Visualizing Anthropology, Bristol and Portland, Oregon: Intellect, 2005.


(3) David Reeb, unpublished statement, February 2007.


(4) Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1961.


* Dr. Simon Faulkner is a Senior Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and is on the editorial board and reviews editor for Visual Culture in Britain.

dvidreeb@gmail.com ©2007 David Reeb. All Rights Reserved.