Avital Burg was born in Jerusalem, Israel, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Burg attended the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Jerusalem, “Hatahana” school of figurative drawing and painting, Tel Aviv, The Slade School of Art, London, and the New York Studio School. She's an art writer for Haaretz newspaper. Burg is represented by the Slag Gallery, New York, where she recently had a solo show. Burg’s work has been exhibited at numerous galleries and art fairs in New York and abroad including in a two-person exhibition at the Spaceship gallery, Tel Aviv, the Greenpoint Film Festival, NY, Life on Mars Gallery, NY, Volta 12, Basel, Rothschild Fine Art, Tel Aviv. Burg's works are part of many collections world-wide, among them are the Louis-Dreyfus Family Collection, NY, The Bank Leumi art collection, Israel, and Mr. Dov Shiff collection, Israel.
In my recent paintings one can find a postcard of a Piero painting taped to a pealing brick wall, a beat cardboard box, a broken gilded frame, a used paper coffee cup, a clay diorama of a Pompeii fresco, a self-portrait in a silver mirror held by paper clips, a trumpet player in a street fair, a seemingly random group of images, but which in fact carry a sense of an immediate and personal symbolism, and with specific references from history of art and my own.
The mixture of different time periods, whether it be yesterday or hundreds of years ago, reflects my trajectory: from early education in the Israel Museum, surrounded by archeological artifacts and sundrenched early 20th century Israeli art, later studying from the old masters of Italy and the
Netherlands, and finally arriving to NY and absorbing the art that was made here in the 50’ and on.
The sometime enigmatic character of my subject-matter is informed by personal and collective memories, which I mix and process in inventive ways aimed to transcend the nostalgia and look forward. Utilizing paint in a straight forward way to create cropped compositions reflective of this moment, I crafted a hybrid history of different times and places, not un-similar to my own migratory path. With time, the paintings became more and more thick and rich in their surface activity. Some of the paintings have slight impasto, and on some I added so much paint that they became low-reliefs. These layered surfaces, some still partly fresh, reflect on how the present moment encapsulates different times: dry oil paint leftovers of other works are mixed into fresh, and some paintings have underneath 3 or 4 previous paintings. With these new thicker paintings I spend even more time on each piece, deliberately building multiple layers to communicate the time spent on this surface, and to give an emotional pause to those who see the painting.
Q&A with Avital Burg
Questions by Emily Burns
Can you tell us how the arts writing on your blog relates to your work as a visual artist?
I write for Haaretz newspaper as well as for their blogs. In the studio, I think that my natural instinct is leaning towards introversion: to stay between my four walls, with my books, models and still lifes. The writing pushes me out more, to go and seek art that can be interesting to a wider crowd of readers, think about it and analyze it. And, having a wide range of inspiration sources in one’s life is of course always good for one’s work. I write in Hebrew, which is another plus, because it helps me stay close to my beloved mother tongue.
You often work on cardboard, and other seemingly found materials. Can you tell us how choose the structure that you work on for each piece?
Most of my paintings are actually on pretty traditional stretched linen surfaces, but recently, as my works grew thicker and heavier, I’ve been working more on wood panels I find in the street, or on old paintings that people don’t need anymore. Whenever I try to stock-up and prepare a pile of surfaces to work on in advance, I end up not using them, or adjusting their shape and format, because I find that every painting and composition that I want to start calls for a different shape and size of support. I do have a series of smaller paintings with oil pastels on cardboard, I made them after spending a while painting boxes and cardboard as my props for still lifes. At a certain point I figured that what I love so much about the way the cardboard looks, is its variation in color, the different wrinkles, the various pieces of tape and stamps which make it so interesting to observe and paint. I find that all these elements can be present in the work by simply being the support of the piece.
Your recent work seems to err more on a highly textured, built-up surface of paint than previous bodies of work. Can you talk about the significance of this shift?
The activity and different textures of paint was something I was always fascinated by, in my own work and in others’. I always spent a big portion of my time and thought on how to lay the paint on the canvas. But it took me a while to realize that the tactile moments that seem to me to be important, are barely visible to others who look at the work, because usually they won’t spend much time standing just a few inches away and staring at this area of the painting (and there’s no reason why they should). So all of this time and effort that I spent on the texture was almost wasted… I simply started to work with more and more paint, until some of the paintings became on the verge of a relief.
Can you tell us a bit about your process? How do you begin and how does the process of making a painting unfold for you?
In general I think my process is pretty traditional. After coming up with the subject matter for a painting, I usually make some drawings before starting to work on a canvas. Then I prepare the canvas so it’d be the right scale for the composition I have in mind, and then I work from direct observation, usually in day light and mainly with paint direct from the tube, sometimes I add a bit of medium too. Having said this, every painting evolves differently, so often times I find myself alternating the canvas by cropping it or adding to it when possible, painting a completely different composition on a former one, etc.. Recently I also started to use leftovers from my palette and mix them into fresh paint in order to enrich the textures.
Can you talk about the role of the still life vs. the portrait in your work?
To me there’s not much distance between the two. It’s not that I look at a person as if they were an object, but that I try to find the humanity in my objects. I really do get attached to them. I don’t think it’s unique in anyway- many painters who paint still life from observation are in search of the particular characters of the object that they paint. Lucian Freud’s plate of eggs is not less personal or moving than some of his most ambitious nudes.
In a way, looking at cardboard, as I mentioned before, is a good way to find life in still life: every box that I find in the street has its own history, and it expresses itself on the box’s skin, almost like on a person’s face.
In your statement, you state that you “create highly personal works by utilizing specific references from history of art and (your) own.” Can you tell us more about the connection between your roots and the tales of knights and princesses that you mention?
Like almost every little kid in the western hemisphere I grew up with European fairytales, imagining and playing castles and the princesses who live in their towers. We were in the Middle East, but most of my family and the families around me came from Europe and these were the stories that they brought with them from their childhood. When I started to study painting, I found the same interest in the mystery and glory of the past, in looking at early renaissance works, on how some painters rendered whole cities just as backdrop to their portraits or religious paintings. The funny thing is that it took me ever so long to realize that these painters, in Italy or the Netherlands, were often trying to paint their idea of Jerusalem- the city where I grew up. Maybe because of the constant turmoil and injustices that take place in Jerusalem, I was never able to see its ancient glory.
Are there prominent themes or feelings that you hope to convey to the viewer, or things that are weighing on your mind at the moment that might come through the work?
In all of my paintings I hope to give the viewer a chance to see things in the real world in a way that they didn’t consider before. If, when someone looks at my painting, they sense the weight and the personality of the object or the person in the picture, I feel that I achieved something. In those more recent paintings, with all of the surface activity, I want to bring out the joy of paint and materiality, to make the viewers want to touch, with their eyes, the hills and valleys that I created and to maybe loose the sense of time and the world around them while they do it, as what often happens to me when I make the work.
What is one of the most exciting things happening in your studio right now?
We talked a lot about my interest in still lifes and architectural subject matters, but recently I’ve actually been focused in bringing the figure into my painting more. Because my practice is still inside the studio and based on observation, I’ve been trying to find ways of making human interactions happen in my work. I use images from different sources, reproductions of older paintings, news photos and others. Maybe because these flat printed sources doesn’t seem have enough life in them, I find myself using them to make very thick paintings- the reliefs that I was talking about before- this way they become almost like sculptures, one step closer to feeling real and possible to interact with.
What is a typical day like for you?
Much as a result of my rather traditional painting education, I make a point of starting everyday by going to the studio. The morning hours, when the natural light washes my studio through the glass bricks wall, are my best hours. I work until lunchtime and if I don’t have to go to my job after lunch I go back to the studio until the evening. In the afternoons when there’s no more daylight I work on different things, sometimes smaller or more experimental stuff, or just technical work like priming canvases. I don’t work at night time! Never liked it. Night is for nice dinners with my partner and friends, going to concerts, bars, reading at home and doing computer work when I have to.
Who are some of the artists that you look at the most often or most recently?
Recently I’ve been looking a lot at James Castle’s interiors, Avigdor Arkiha’s still lifes, nude monotypes by Degas. There is a Portuguese artist called Urbino whom I discovered while staying in Lisbon last summer. His work is not that known outside of his country, and it’s a shame.
What is one of the best exhibitions you have seen recently?
Vija Celmins’ show at Matthew Marks was simply perfect. The natural light which fell on the wave paintings was beyond sublime.
Who are three emerging artists making some really exciting work right now?
Clintel Steed, Maya Bloch, Aubrey Levinthal
Has there ever been a book/essay/poem/film/etc that totally changed or influenced you? What are you reading right now?
Reading “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino left a huge impression on me, and I think it influenced my painting, and especially the way I utilize imagination in my work, by a great deal. “A Giacometti portrait”, in which James Lord describes in detail how Giacometti painted his portrait, is a book I think about all the time while painting.
I always read multiple books on the same time, and love epic stories from all over the world. Near my bed at the moment: Roberto Bolaño, Albert Camus, Stephan Zweig and my grandfather’s, Lucian Lazar, memoir.
What has been one of the most challenging aspects of your career as an artist so far?
Balancing between studio time (which is the only thing I really want to do) and the rest of my responsibilities as an artist and a grown-up. Kind of obvious right?
What do you listen to while you work? Is this an important part of being in the studio?
I’m pretty addicted to talk radio (WNYC), in a weird way listening to news calms me down. I’ve also been listening to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane a lot lately. I used to listen to tons of audiobooks but now I’m trying to do it less, they tend to take over too much of my mind. I listened to all of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen this way, at the time it influenced my work quite a bit.
How do you interact with social media, both personally and professionally as an artist?
I hardly do.
Do you have any other news, shows, residencies or projects coming up?
Not long ago I had a solo show at my gallery, Slag Gallery in Bushwick, and now working on a new body of work for the next one and on some works for upcoming group shows too.
Thank you so much for sharing your work and talking with us!
To find out more about Avital and her work, check out her website.