Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Arlene Amaler-Raviv’s moody paintings would be incomplete without their titles. It is the wry phrases and words that bring clarity to the smudged, blurred and obscured subjects that roam through indistinct environments. The cacophonies of colours and patterns, and anonymous figures that dominate Amaler-Raviv’s artworks might mirror the visual texture of the exhibition’s urban setting (Commissioner Street, Johannesburg), but her art moves between describing the visual character of the city to capturing impressions of the tumultuous world of emotion that defines inner life.

It is the titles that differentiate her intentions. Certain visual cues may suggest a city setting, such as the disconnected relationship between the dark stick figures, but the titles immediately draw viewers’ attention to a realm that exists within. Works such as Weigh, Why does the feeling of emptiness fill up so much space and Numb do not refer to a physical context but rather refer to visual renderings of intangible experiences. It is no surprise that Amaler-Raviv’s paintings lack lucidity; she is not giving expression to trite feelings like happiness, surprise or betrayal — emotions that already are associated with iconography. Rather her objective is to define those sensations that are not readily understood and are constantly shifting.References to a city street environment are oblique in Weight (2007); although the figures are indistinct, their thick frames suggest that they are outdoors and are wearing jackets. The detached nature of their relationship – they are spatially separated and do not appear to be interacting – implies that they are inhabiting a public environment populated by strangers. A black and white dotted line running through the painting denotes street markings. Despite all these allusions to the physical atmosphere of an urban setting the painting engages with a state that exists beyond the naked eye. The city landscape and the mood it engenders is not the focus. In other words the setting does not bear down on the subjects, shaping their inner thoughts. Amaler-Raviv simply employs the city motif to conjure a sense of emotional detachment. She desists from representing an individual’s experience of this sensation, choosing rather to describe the overall sensation, employing the city’s dispassionate ambience as a metaphor.Why does the feeling …(2005) is similarly executed, however, here the central protagonist is animated, stretching his/her body as if testing and exploring the space. Underscoring the irony implicit in the emotional weight of emptiness, Amaler-Raviv once again fills the canvas with indistinct abstract textures and patterns that simultaneously invoke private and public worlds.Of course, bringing unknown quantities that mark emotional experience to life is an ambitious undertaking. And while Amaler-Raviv bravely resists intellectualising emotions, her expression mostly lacks impact. It is not visually compelling.In her effort to illustrate the impersonal character of the urban environment, she has purposefully severed the connection between her subjects and her audience. Amaler-Raviv exploits the sense of detachment that her art inspires; it is her way of drawing our attention to the way in which we are detached from each other. Paintings entitled Gluesniffer, Concerned Citizen, and Foreigner suggest that our conception of others is rooted in generic terms. Just as Concerned Citizen only shows the silhouette of a rotund man, Foreigner is a hazy portrayal of man. Although Amaler-Raviv desists from describing his features, the details of his clothing – a bright, patterned outfit – hint at his African identity. Bent on the ground and enveloped in an unforgiving, if not violent shade of red, a feeling of distress punctuates the scene. The viewer’s frustration at getting past the façade of colour, gaining access to the subject’s personal narrative, forces one to reflect on the relationships the viewer has with ‘others’, in this case the “African refugee/foreigner”.The concepts that inform this exhibition are not startling. However, Amaler-Raviv is more focussed on describing an atmosphere and its relationship to emotional experience.

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