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New Series of Paintings by Melanie Daniel at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Melanie Daniel, Grandma's Mini, 2009. Oil on canvas, 140 X 180 cm.
TEL AVIV.- Evergreen, the new series of paintings by Melanie Daniel, reveals the culmination of the artist's interest in how people assimilate and camouflage themselves in their environments, combining a sense of strangeness with a sense of belonging.

Daniel began painting after immigrating to Israel in 1995. For her photographic series Pleasantvale (2003), which links her early works with her current interest in the painting medium, Daniel returned to her hometown, Kelowna in British Columbia, to photograph a seniors' neighborhood built in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Its pastel-colored houses with manicured gardens, today standing in the heart of a rapidly sprawling city, look like the setting of an antiquated television show where time and modern worries stand still. These photographs were exhibited along with looped recordings of telephone conversations featuring Daniel speaking from Jerusalem with some Pleasantvale residents concerned for her welfare during a time of frequent terrorist attacks in Israel . Pleasantvale mirrors the ambivalent attitude of the artist, for whom both homes are remote; the simultaneous longing for—and estrangement from—her peaceful, secure hometown are magnified by the disquieting character of her new home.

The ghostly presence of the artist's family, which began to appear in Daniel's paintings around 2004 (e.g., Big Cloud, which will be referred to later), becomes increasingly dominant in Evergreen. Its presence is sensed in Crash and Vines (2009) in a car wreck, and in Grandma's Mini (2009) in a frosted car parked next to an indistinct and faceless figure that seems more like a memory than an actual person. A similar sense of loss is also expressed in the face of the pensive man staring at the empty chair in front of him in Waiting for Kay (2009). In contrast to these paintings, the group of children gathered around a bonfire in Silver Campers (2009), and the mother who looks down upon her baby in Peacock (2009), represent the circle of life, providing an air of calm, safety and even comfort.

Images of an evasive human presence in a drip-stained forest landscape are reminiscent of the paintings of Peter Doig (e.g., Blotter), a Scottish-born artist who grew up in Trinidad , Canada , and in England . In the exhibition catalogue for Doig's Tate Modern show, Richard Shiff notes the "memory effect" that is conveyed by the snowy scenes of Doig’s ski resort and frozen lake scenes. Shiff likens the snow's whiteness to a kind of screen or mirror that the spectator is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by; it delineates the boundary between "here" and "there" consequent from the act of gazing in the present and the memory that emerges from the past.

A similar double gaze which effectively combines two perspectives has been manifested in Daniel's paintings since Pleasantvale, alternatively in scenes of snowy wilderness and northern forests, and of arid dunes and rootless woods. Impermanence prevails among these ramshackle constructions – theater props consisting of awkward-looking logs haphazardly stacked and likely to collapse at any moment. The clutter and sloppiness of a building site, and the perpetual destruction and reconstruction of “a state in the making,” start to look more like an improvised camp waiting for relocation. Shelters, fortifications and sirens appear in the open spaces as warning signs of an imminent catastrophe. The artist conveys an underlying layer of apprehension in the supposedly typical landscapes, transforming what appears to be a quiet and safe place into one that is fragile and volatile. A car crashing into a tree, a sandstorm, clouds of smoke, and police crime scene ribbons are all expressions of nature's retribution for humanity's invasion.

Birthday Cake (2006) is a painting in which the artist's family is gathered on their balcony under a bewitching moon; in many ways it also symbolically and stylistically foreshadows the current series, Evergreen. In the center of the table is a pink cream cake, with a fetal figure of Daniel's younger brother on top, similar to a plastic cake ornament used for celebrating a birth. Whereas the figures of Daniel's father and sister are depicted in a naturalistic manner, the figure of the mother appears sinister and looming. Her dark skin and thickly painted face merge with the tree in the background, lending her the features of an archetypal matriarch or an African tribal statue. Her finger points at the cake like a sharp knife while obscuring the face of young Melanie, whose absent gaze later returns to the scene as an adult and an artist. Incidentally, this painting bears a striking similarity to John Singer Sargent's The Birthday Party (1885), in which the atmosphere is decidedly tense rather than serene. Although the birthday boy is dressed in white and his face is illuminated by candles, his red belt (or napkin) creates the impression of a bleeding wound in his belly. The red color redoubles in the mother's elegant dress - she who cuts the cake - and in the walls that enclose the family in a gloomy corner. As the father looks at the birthday scene, however, his face reveals intentionally blurred features and eyes incapable of seeing. Despite the domestic intimacy of the birthday party, there is a lingering sense of formality.

The anxiety conveyed by the sight of Daniel's brother who is about to be cut from the birthday cake recurs in Special Contract (2006), in which a red car skids through the snow and crashes into a tree. The stars in the dark sky scintillate like theatrical neon lights, spelling out the words "Live Mathieu," an expression of the artist's wish to protect her brother following a road accident in which he was involved. Whereas in Birthday Cake the artist's obscured gaze returns to the scene from adulthood, here Daniel establishes her presence and her personal accountability for her brother's fate through a symbolic act of mutual destiny, a kind of blood pact evidenced by her black fingerprint appearing next to the fallen tree.

The internal/external scrutiny of a subject occurs in several of Daniel's works: in More Pets I Made (2006) and Talk with Totem ( 2009, a figure shown from behind simultaneously becomes part of a scene by virtue of being engaged in it while viewing the scene from the outside. The earlier Big Cloud (2004) is based on a family photograph of a visit by Queen Elizabeth II of England to Kelowna that the artist witnessed as a child. Golden-haired Melanie is depicted here with her back to the spectator, standing beside a Canadian Mountie (albeit not wearing the usual red uniform). This painting signifies one of the first instances of the artist's use of the double gaze, but its meaning here is not restricted to her preoccupation with the past. Big Cloud is emblematic of the artist's reliance on childhood memories and landscapes by referencing her separation from her family after leaving her homeland, far from all that is known and familiar.

Another distinct example of this approach is seen in Billy Barker is Shy (2005), based on Daniel's childhood visit to Barkerville, a 19th century gold mining town turned tourist site in northern British Columbia. This ostensibly pleasant scene or memory and the pastoral countryside imbued with warm colorfulness are deceptive. Upon closer observation, the work evokes a feeling of danger and suffocation by means of a hazy yellow sky and a billowing cloud of smoke rising beyond the horizon and the wooden houses. A possible Israeli counterpart or influence on this work is Sharon Ya’ari’s iconic photograph, Mother and Daughter (Red Hair Band) (2000), in which two figures have their backs turned to the spectator while staring at a blurry landscape. The astonished mother holds her hand to her face but it is unclear whether she is horrified or awed. In an interview with Ya’ari for Studio magazine, Efrat Shalem calls attention to the delayed tension conveyed in Ya’ari's works from that period - works of seemingly ordinary landscapes, at once anonymous and recognizable, before which the viewer stands waiting for something to happen. Shalem illustrates the opposing roles of the photograph's components: figures are frozen still within a landscape that is static by nature but seems to be moving in front of them. Ya’ari's everyday scene is inspiring to the figures depicted in it despite its lack of monumentality or the sublime. While this landscape is familiar to the Israeli viewer from his or her daily life, Daniel's landscapes reverberate from distant memories, known yet foreign, commonly found in travel magazines, postcards and films. Here, Daniel creates a double memory, public and private: of the town itself and of her own experience in it. The features of Pleasantvale are echoed in Barkerville; both are mummified in the famed times of past, blanketed with nostalgic dust and inviting the spectator to embark on a similar journey in time.

In Sinai (2007) and even more prominently in the paintings of the exhibition entitled After, Daniel seems to abandon the distant north and turn to the vastness of Israel’s dry south and the sands of the Sinai (Sarit Shapira refers to this noticeable shift in her article "North of the South"). The snowy forests are replaced by scenes of soldiers bathing and at playful leisure, stripped of their uniforms and weapons. However, a creeping fear suggests that this may be only a momentary, deceptive ceasefire. Here, the horizon stretches in front of the viewer and the figures themselves seem to control the space in which they are portrayed; though, with their backs turned to the sky and their faces to the ground, they seem to be aware of the sun setting on them and on their days of triumph.

In Evergreen, the wandering gaze is held in check and becomes introverted. If in the past it was drawn to the distant horizon, it now limits itself to clearings surrounded by dense foliage. Daniel creates a warm and familiar environment for her family and herself, a shelter or a hiding place, merging the vastness of the north with the group taking refuge under the safe, evergreen canopy.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art | Melanie Daniel | Evergreen |


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