Bezalel-Levy, Our Collaboration
Bezalel-Levy is the combined signature of Chaim Bezalel and Yonnah Ben Levy, a husband and wife collaboration. We collaborate on mixed media paintings combining photography and media such as oils, oil pastels, or watercolors on rice paper or cotton rag paper, and sometimes in 3 dimensions as well. We have been collaborating since 1990 and we also work individually. In 2002 we opened Stanwood House Gallery & Art Center, in Stanwood, Washington in a restored, hundred year old landmark building to which we added a modern, architecturally designed ceramics studio.
Our collaboration began pretty much at the beginning of our relationship. In order to collaborate, one must be suited to it, because it is a dance in which, in our case, each partner leads at different times. We are working with the subjects, compositions, colors, and techniques in a staged process, with one handing off to the other. Painting is always a relationship, between the painter and the subject and the materials. Our technique also includes the relationship between ourselves. The photographer submits to having his composition painted over, sometimes obscured, and the painter is content to paint her partner’s image, although she gets to select which she wants to paint. . In many of the paintings the underlying photograph shows through in some areas, or the frame of the photograph is maintained. When we began, we put aside all of our individual artistic pursuits in order to create this collaboration, and now we are secure enough to work both individually and together. So basically, we are like three artists.
A word about subjects. We usually work on a theme for many years, some for more than 20. Many of our themes involve the idea of preservation, whether nature or culture. We are not looking so much to convey any message; we are looking for subjects which can convey beauty and meaning, and we try to be extremely selective. Georgia O'Keefe used to ask herself before lifting a brush, “Is this mine?”
My work involves mixing image and artifact – photography and the plastic arts, still and time based presentation. In“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), Walter Benjamin accurately traced and predicted the rising importance of audience or public validation of art and hence, the perceived adequacy of the copy or reproduction, then primarily photographic. Once, art required pilgrimage; perhaps to a monastery on top of a mountain. Art has its roots in magic and religion. Photography, the means of perfect reproduction, changed that, and then digital reproduction, in which there is no first or second generation, changed it even more. There is a blurring of distinctions today between image and artifact, and I reference that by burning my photographs onto clay., the oldest repository of writing. The title of my work in progress is “Shards.”
I believe that in order to break new ground, one must harbor both love and ambivalence. Love supplies the passion and commitment, ambivalence fuels the need for innovation and change. I have always loved photography and its particular aesthetics. I love what it has contributed to the world, a new way of seeing. I am also ambivalent about some aspects, several of which were discussed in Susan Sontag's book length essay, On Photography, in which she it an “aggressive” pursuit. Indeed, any profession can become aggressive when overcome by sheer ambition. I have never been a shutterbug. Before I press the shutter, I ask myself, “What gives me the right to take this picture.” I mean this in the same sense as Georgia O'Keefe's statement: “Before I put brush to canvas, I question, 'Is this mine?” This is even more true in photography which can become mere voyeurism. We are becoming a nation, indeed a world of spectators.
When I returned to the United States, after living in Israel for ten years, one of the first books I read was “A Country of Exiles,” (1998) in which author, William Leach, describes the gradual loss of “place” in the American psyche. This, according to Benjamin, was the main difference between the original and the reproduction; the original exists in a particular place, whereas the reproduction is not at all tied to place. Community and Freedom are opposite ends of the same spectrum. The sole pursuit of personal freedom creates distance from the community and even the family. Other cultures favor the community side of the spectrum and sacrifice personal freedom for the sake of the clan. Unfortunately, the shallowness communications based on reproduction and untethered by “place” results in a flattening of words and concepts so that the moral choices between freedom and community are lost.
Having lived for ten years in Israel, one of the oldest repositories of human history, I became interested in recording, preserving, but also transforming ancient and iconic artifacts into my own record of these transformations. My work is mixed media, and, with the addition of video and music, multi-media as well, because these are the major art forms in this “country of exiles.” The art of America is mixed and experimental, just as the culture. It is the secular dream, even religion, of America to create a new race of people upon this continent. We are not a nation based on any over-weaning commonality except for a shared set of values including mutual tolerance and civic mindedness. I serve on the Planning Commission of my city, Stanwood, Washington, where some of these ideas are tested off the page and outside of the gallery.
I was wondering why several photographer friends have gotten into assemblage, and then it struck me that they both deal predominantly with found objects. Most photographers do not rearrange objects (although some do). They arrange compositions with what already exists in the world. This often entails combining old and new in a private language or syntax which we hope will communicate. As I expressed before, mixed media is, in my opinion, the indigenous art of America. Take tap dancing, for example. It is a mixture of Irish step dancing and “buck and wing” dancing from the West Indies, brought there from Africa. A lot of my work is criticism in concrete form. For example, an early piece in this series took its title from Walter Benjamin's essay and showed a highly distressed (raku fired laser decals in clay) image of a crowded arrangement of identical mold made plastic reproductions of Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli's Aphrodite found in a shop in Florence.
I would like to make a distinction, before I close, between found objects as elements a photographic composition or assemblage and the found object presented intact as a “readymade” as Marcel Duchamp's or suspended in formaldehyde as Damien Hirst's. The difficulty with parody, however, is that it is often mistaken for its target. I feel that the job of our age is to both preserve what needs preservation and disregard what does not edify.
Yonnah Ben Levy
I was given the chance to take a summer program in art at the University of Washington between my sophomore and junior year in college. This was the first time I took ceramics and I found myself doing extra time at the potter's wheel whenever I got a chance. A year later I was at the Corchoran School of Art, studying ceramics with Hara, a Zen master in both ceramics and architecture. Hara’s class set my heart in clay. There were many times I had to set my own art goals down to have children, then raise them, teach classes at school jobs, or work on things that took me away from three dimensional work...but luckily I got plenty of chances to come back to that "centered position" of this great love of clay and wheel work. I think this exercise of both restraint and surge has given my work a vitality that may have been lacking had I continued on a straight uninterrupted path. Halfway through my life I went to Israel and stayed there seventeen years. This was like living on a modern day Silk Road with cross cultural insemination going on all the time, with the influx of people coming into that small country from all over the world. I had the opportunity to work in ceramic factories with people from as diverse backgrounds as Tunisia, Russia, England and Persia. Back in the States again I let all of that background settle in and work its way into the work I produce now.