Lines, color and war: Painting as a form of healing
In the summer of 2014, images of war filled our television and computer screens as Israel bombed the Gaza Strip and Hamas launched rockets into Israel. Palestinian casualties heavily outnumbered Israeli deaths (more than 2,100 Palestinians compared with fewer than 100 Israelis, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). As tempers flared and fingers were pointed, media reports of the war’s toll in Gaza were criticized as anti-Israel propaganda.
Los Angeles artist Jaime Scholnick watched the bloody images with horror and helplessness. Not knowing what else to do, she printed out copies of the photographs that filled her Facebook feed, and began drawing over them with a metallic pen and acrylic paint.
Fifty of those images are on display in an exhibition titled “Gaza: Mowing the Lawn,” at the CB1 Gallery in downtown L.A. through July 18. The exhibition’s name comes from a term the Israeli military uses to explain the occasional bombing of Palestinian residents. The number of images corresponds to the 50 days of Israel’s systematic bombardment of Gaza in July and August last year.
“I could have looked away,” Scholnick said in an interview at the gallery. “That’s my problem, I guess. I keep wondering, ‘Are you a masochist? Do you like feeling pain?’ I don’t know.”
The images are abstract, with lines of red, yellow, black, white and blue obscuring the details of the photographs. Yet the emotional impact is felt just as strongly. If anything, the comic-book-like illustrations heighten the drama of the suffering victims. Crying fathers holding their children’s bodies; a group of women in chadors huddled together; clouds of smoke and flame set amid a mosque’s minarets — these images are powerful, regardless of the viewer’s political views.
One work includes a boy holding a large stuffed animal, the big, yellow toy in sharp contrast with the gray rubble of a bombed-out neighborhood. Another is of a boy leaning in to kiss a baby’s corpse, adorned with flowers.
“It’s such a poignant picture. It’s like, these are just children. They’re looking at this little infant. He’s dead,” Scholnick said. “They’re so young to see death.”
Scholnick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her family moved to Southern California when she was in third grade, and she grew up in Tustin. She studied art at CSU Sacramento and later at Claremont Graduate University. She decided to move to Japan after attending a 1990 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art titled “A Primal Spirit: Ten Contemporary Japanese Sculptors.” She went to the show four times, calling it “life-changing.” She lived in Japan for five years, teaching English and studying papermaking. She said her painting style draws from Japanese design aesthetics.
“I’m really interested in material and paper,” she said. “I’m kind of into minimalism. I’m very conscious of color and line, and I think that’s a very Japanese thing.”
Scholnick is Jewish, though she’s not religious and bristles at the idea of Jews as God’s “chosen people.” She’s never been to Israel and has conflicted feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She said she has received some criticism for her subject matter, including from other artists, which left her feeling wounded.
“I’ve had more disapproving looks from artists who are Jewish,” she said. “I’ve had more comments, and I’m like, ‘You guys, as artists, it’s your job to be above all this.’ ”
Scholnick said she began these drawings because she didn’t know how to look at the images. Covering them up felt natural, because that’s what we do with things that make us uncomfortable. But while photographs can be easy to ignore, she said, art is harder to avoid.
The photographs invite empathy, and yet, seen through Scholnick’s colorful lines, they take on an emotional distance. Seeing the horrors of war behind the paint brings to mind our own screens of perception, which filter such images through a system of rationalization. While a photograph of war suggests an objective reality, a painting represents one person’s perspective. Scholnick’s work shows that we all approach photographs with our own biases.
“The photographed images of suffering … [do] not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them,” Susan Sontag wrote in her landmark collection of essays “On Photography.” “Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more — and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.”
The piece that has probably received the most negative attention in the exhibition is of a crowd of Israelis at an outdoor gathering, watching the bombings and devastation in Gaza. News outlets had reported the phenomenon: Israeli friends and families sitting on couches and chairs on hillsides, looking through binoculars and watching the bombs drop.
“They set up these lawn chairs and kegs and they go out and watch them blow up the settlements, and they cheer,” Scholnick said, her voice full of disgust and anger.
Despite receiving criticism for her paintings, Scholnick said she’s concerned with honoring the dead, not trying to push an agenda. She wants viewers to see a deeper story, and was inspired, she said, by Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica,” Francisco Goya’s “The Disasters of War,” Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” and Andy Warhol’s “Electric Chair.”
“It’s almost like they’re universal themes of life and death,” she said. “I don’t want it to be just about this conflict.”