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Artemis Alcalay 


by Giuliano Serafini

"Woman loves
wool and
linen ..."
(excerpt from Ketubah, the Hebrew prenuptial agreement document)

The whole of the creative process followed by Artemis Alcalay , in its diverse expressions, manifests itself through metaphors, which in turn refer to one, unique and intrinsic: to the quest for identity. 
As if it was said that the starting point and the finishing line – if there are ever goals in art to be achieved – remain the ends of a plan, which arises firstly as moral and then as aesthetic. 
Alcalay equates, in other words, ‘destination’ and path. The absolute meaning, the key to her work lies here. Her work emerges immediately as an organism in progress, self-sufficient, requiring nothing more than to extend through time and space and without any guaranties at all. 
Surely, the artist knows that the ultimate ‘sin’ of the historic vanguards of the previous century has been the comparison of the innovations of art to those of science – one conquest after the other, each time a top performance to be exceeded – and all this with the competitive as well as schizophrenic aim to detach humanity from need, to make it invulnerable, powerful and perfect, even as regards its aesthetic ambitions.

Nevertheless, we know that things turned out differently. At the turn of this century, art thankfully managed to step back, discovering its vigor in the ideological skepticism and, as a result, its robustness, but above all, the ability to start anew. Ultimately, according to Théophile Gautier’s famous aphorism, ‘art is reborn with each artist’, it doesn’t ‘progress’, it doesn’t need to.

If this is how things stand, then how does Alcalay‘s path evolve?
The beginning appears to be rather introverted and is, by itself, a declaration of poetic, a current that traverses the work, from yesterday to today, in all its phases.

The artist investigates the interior of her private sphere, where the autobiographical factor lies in the center (and becomes the epicenter) of creation. Between instinct and emotion, a microcosm of images and fetish objects emerges through a virgin glance, the glance which marks the special age of childhood, and becomes the material of a language being contrived, perfected and transformed into style.

We are at the stage of primal memory, dominated by sentimental leftovers, by vital rosebuds which, just like in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, reappear in the end to reveal the secrets of existence.

But, that which gives her work true character and vibrancy, is the fact that from the beginning the artist plays the game of metonymy, so that the creative occurrence, which is shaped in her hands, develops proportionately and in parallel with the biological occurrence, mimicking its mechanisms, rythm and evolutionary growth.

Still, we need to add that, from this moment, everything has already been said. All of Alcalay’s artistic work is included in the ‘seed’. Somewhat similar to what we perceive as an act of faith, in Odysseas Elytis’ verse: ‘What I love is at the beginning of always’.

Alcalay’s ‘beginning’, nevertheless, is destined to meet a new starting point, to ‘move on to the past’, ignoring and exorcising any hint of future. Because the beginning is the only future that concerns the artist. And, as proof of this paradox, Alcalay also knows this well.

What happens is that, during her retrogressing journey, the artist emerges from her own childhood to the childhood of the civilization and of the world. It is a kind of irreversible climax, a natural transition, but also a strong desire: to be able to identify herself through the major categories of spirit and history, to confront that, which is private and everyday, with terms of the absolute and the eternal.

In other words, Alcalay wants to sanctify her personal existential case, to make it part of a wider adventure, which has always been written in the destiny of humanity. She wants, mainly, to feel useful in the construction of this grand design, to be worth it, up to the point where she discovers that the two stories coincide and that the revelation of self lies exactly at the point of this concurrence. The quest for identity is ultimately the recognition of the universal inside our microcosm. It could not be anything else.

To use a term favored by the artist herself, (a word that becomes the title of several of her works), it is essentially about a journey that extends towards the nation of lineage, towards that ultimate feeling of belonging, that ‘knowledge of flesh’, which inspired Jules Michelet to write: ‘Antiquity is simpler and it contains ideas in a concentrated state, or the state of a quintessence ...’.

With the glance cast on the archetype, seeking its own ‘quintessence’, Alcalay’s work must disclaim any superficial descriptive ‘element’; but even if it retains some, it will be in order to compact it to a minimum repertoire of images and objects, almost always of small dimensions, which is the result of a long selection process by those who know that, ultimately, ‘less’ is always ‘more’.

From this extremely simplified repertoire, it is evident that the materials and the topics acquire a powerful, symbolic value, which Ferdinand de Saussure would call their absolute signifier, but also that, in a sense, they are both the sacrificial offerings and the cult objects for the ‘rite’, which the artist intends to perform.

Because deep inside this is indeed a rite. Let us consider the secret, adept and patient gesture of the hand that works to physically implement the object, even before the idea can give an artistic dimension to the work. This silent gesture, which is repeated eternally, and, which we are only allowed to guess, is in reality able to reveal us the degree of the mystical, which can be contained in a specific, everyday, even trivial, practice.

It is a fact that, during the creative process the artist first makes contact with the matter, the element that befits her the most, as it is indicated by the word itself: matter originates from the Sanskrit word mât, which means literally ‘make with the hands’, namely the act of construction, of synthesis, of that which gives mâtram, vital energy. The etymology contains the fate of the object.

In short, Alcalay performs a purifying intervention to the core of the aesthetic act, starting from the first level, the semantic – here we return to the moral print, which, since the beginning, has bestowed sense to her creative course – until both the figures and the images of her universe are subjected to the same influence, being reflected empathically in this revitalizing intervention.

It is no coincidence that the thread, the abb, the warp, and thus, the cloth, the tapestry and the broidery, namely, the ultimate handmade elements that could be part of an artistic practice, function as leit motiv in all the stages of Alcalay’s work, like some kind of textile placenta.

It is clear that the recollection of the archaic tool – the loom – hints at another beginning, at a first instance, if we consider that this tool is connected to a significant part of the collective, creative process of the Mediterranean civilization.

Thus Alcalay recaptures an ancestral legacy, biblical and Homeric at the same time, where tradition, customs and fable become the basic guides which accompany her on her journey.

A ‘contemporary’ artist, in the most complex sense of the term – apart from painting and sculpture, she also works with installations, performance, video, theater and dance - Alcalay builds an intelligible bridge to the past, through materials and techniques which allow her to create in diachronic terms.

Let us examine, for instance, one of her repeated themes, taleth, the Jewish men´s shawl, undeniable emblem of ancestral memory, which becomes, nevertheless, in its tautological presence as a ‘find’, a point of reference for more recent and tragic historical incidents. And this, it must be noted, without resorting to emotional blackmail. Because, it is worth remembering, Alcalay belongs to that class of artists, for which the maximum expressive intensity is not achieved by ‘what’ is represented by their work, but by ‘how’, in its individuality, its uniqueness, even maybe in its ambiguity.

Possibly few people know that in the Paris World Fair of 1937, it was sufficient for Mirò to draw his Catalan reaper, lost inside a weathered wheat field, to strike deeper than Picasso, who at the same time presented his glorious manifestation of the horrors of civil war, Guernica. Because, for Mirò, history was created from the point, and not by the narration of history.

Equally, in her vocabulary, Alcalay elects not to use anecdotes, but symptoms and indications; she challenges our imagination, insinuates, implies, resorts to visual wordplay, which refutes the presence of objects and shifts their meaning, sometimes utilizing fine humor or, contrarily, wearing a cloak of dreamlike innocence.

Hence the continuous use of the fragment, from which the observant viewer can mentally reconstruct the entire object, which the fragment is a part of. The part indicates the whole, it becomes, in psychoanalytical terms, its transference.

Hence, also, the type of void and absence, as confirmed by the other frequent theme – in that tender requiem, dedicated to a very brief period of life – the empty infantile shirt and vest, where the body, which is hidden from our gaze, ultimately asks all the questions and becomes the real protagonist of the play.

The list goes on with the home theme, the main shelter for the stricken ones, which Alcalay interprets as a multicolored, albeit simple collage, which is repeated in series, based on the same formula; we are still in the realm of childhood, in the sphere of game. But, even here, the artist sets a trap for us: behind their facades which, move between fairytale and design, these dollhouses do not allow any opening to the outside world, they are impregnable forts, in a way that only the self-referential signals can be.

This happens also with the feet of the Kouroi statues, firmly placed at the base, with heads and hands, whose color – pure white – refers to the noble, ancient material of classical antiquity and the art of museums. Enclosed inside boxes or wrapped in cloth, as if they have just been discovered by the archaeologist or packaged by the puppet maker, they are all that is left from a now lost anthropomorphous order, which was disbanded due to the devolutions of history and the intolerance of intellect. Only art can still do something for them, something by no means negligible: it can resurrect them in our imagination.

On top of it all, as a creative sign of Alcalay’s work, as signature and print, a red ribbon is tied both inside and out of the work, penetrating it, as if wanting to indicate its continuation to the outside world, to the realms of the real.

A substitute for the narrative ego, a symbol of a flowing thought, the ribbon correlates, combines, or at least intends to do so, and it also becomes a tool of salvation and deliverance, which leads us outside of the labyrinth of conscience.

And, at this point, it does not matter whether the agonizing, claustrophobic place of legend, a Freudian metaphor for injury and loss, reveals its true alter ego and is resolved into a game for two players, in whose movements the artist wishes to identify her inner portrait.

Behind this place materializes all of Alcalay’s creative and spiritual experience, her absolute ‘journey’. Once more, a retrogressing journey towards her roots and beyond.

Let us ponder on the small, embroidered on linen, male or female figure, which points to the figures of the funerary geometric vessels of the 8th century BC, where life and death are recognized solely by the posture of the figures – perpendicular or horizontal, respectively.

Here, the message, should we choose to seek it, could be this: the whole history of humankind transpires in the time interval that is interposed between these two stances of the figure.

Giuliano Serafini
Florence, December 2011


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