Painting Without Background


How does one create emotion with minimal
means, with hard, tenacious, obstinate lines,
in a cold and distant manner?
The answer lies within Gil Marco Shani’s oeuvre

Raphael Zagury Orly


What if one were to begin by questioning the artwork itself, if this is indeed possible – the work and that within the work which questions and opens itself up to the question? If one were to examine, for instance, one particular image – if, indeed, one can single out an individual work from Gil Marco Shani’s oeuvre – one could turn to his image of a forest and ask: Is the forest presented here an Israeli forest? Is this forest “local” or is it “other” – European, perhaps, or North American? Moreover, what is the meaning of these two arbitrarily opposed words – the “local” and the “other” – in terms of the question we are formulating about this particular work of art? Generally speaking, must art remain a depiction of the “local”? Should art be evaluated in terms of its relation to “localness”? And, if so, what is the meaning of the all-too-frequently asked question, which may also be presented as a reproach or a form of condemnation: “Are you a local artist? Do you honestly represent this place?” And why is this question so rarely avoided or circumvented within the order of discourse? As if art was always obliged to revolve around a here… As if, for the sake of art, we were unable to imagine any site other than here or there…

In Shani’s case, these questions provoke a profound sense of discomfort. The didactic approach that builds on a preestablished order – and that always insists on explaining, instructing or making a statement – coֲnstitutes, in this artist’s case, a grave misinterpretation. This approach risks neutralizing an oeuvre which, from the very outset, seeks to question the categories of place, space and localness before attempting to pass judgment on these very terms. In this
sense, none of the words that apply to Shani’s work are signifiers. They signify, of course, but only in the space defined by a “suspension” of signification – or, in Shani’s words, by means of a “contraction,” a “hollowing out,” a “minimalism” or a “diminution.”



The title of Shani’s most recent exhibition, “Blue Paintings,” addresses this point. Indeed, the question of the title – which imposes itself as a rule: “There must be a title” even when the work is, in its essence, untitled – does not leave him indifferent. It compels him to incessantly allude to a certain preordained or categorical order – while everything in his work is undertaken in order to deflect its title’s influence. The exhibition’s title echoes the fundamental question at the root of every artwork and every show: Does a title involve a choice, the artist’s “own” choice, or must the artist await its arrival? Does the title reaffirm a didactic order of discourse that applies to the artwork, or does it open up onto the dismantling of such an order? Does the title, in this case, not constitute a sort of unforeseen ruse that pits the order of artistic discourse against itself?

Nonetheless, the title “Blue Paintings” finally imposes itself as a matter of course. It contains within it all of the tension imbued in Shani’s work, its apparent simplicity and open-endedness. To the extent that the oeuvre’s movement involves contraction, restriction and reduction – that is, to the extent that what one sees in this body of work is a clearly presented (or, ought we to say, a seemingly limited), defined and decisive body of knowledge – the title does indeed explode with meaning. And yet there is simultaneously another current that runs through Shani’s works and that seems to imply they are not simply a grouping of “representations,” “images,” or even “paintings” in the proper sense of these terms. Rather, it is as if these works involved a constant movement between clarity and indetermination, an estranged and uncertain movement that opens up onto something entirely different than itself, an imperturbably radical movement whose simplicity reveals what the “simple” may never comprehend, assert or expose.Perhaps this is the meaning of artmaking – thinking in terms of the (always legitimate) decorative, simple and familiar

and going beyond those terms without compromising them. As if artmaking involved creating a space for these terms,

while simultaneously subverting this space by projecting it beyond the realm of the selfobvious. For Shani, this movement involves deploying the decorative, the simple and the familiar in the most accomplished manner. In this context, it may become both possible and legitimate to approach the work as if there was nothing above, beneath, before or beyond it. As if the artist was not at all bothered by the idea that it presents itself as having said and manifested everything, as having unveiled all there was to unveil – while simultaneously keeping everything hidden and secret. As if everything was “confirmed” and “known in advance” – the black, blue and white strokes delineated in a manner that gives the impression of total control – while the work’s core is simultaneously inhabited by a profound and untouchable enigma: what Shani would most certainly call “anguish.”


The Doubt Beneath the Surface

Why employ this terminology to describe what is being undertaken here in Shani’s name? Perhaps not only because he does not claim to present or transmit any doctrine or body of knowledge, but also because the laws that govern his work operate in accordance with a strange and almost imperceptible “law of avoidance,” according to which a “clear conscience” must be avoided at all costs – for the belief in the possibility of such as subjective certainty, or autonomy,

is incompatible with the absolute risk required by any artistic undertaking. It is as if Shani protects the act of artistic creation by perfecting and realizing it to the point of theoretical mastery. In this sense, he constantly underscores the self-assured quality inherent to the artwork’s most salient features: its compositional arrangement, lines and balance.

In doing so, however, Shani also comes to unexpectedly reveal the radical transformation of this pre-established program. It is as if, in its perfection, the work of art subverted its own essence and revealed all that is not, and never can be, perfectly portrayed. As if exceeding the order of determination, of the simple line, of knowledge, of certainty – or, more generally and more essentially, the simple order of presence in representation – necessitated an engagement with the insistent, infinite act of repetition that deploys and displays itself before us, layer after layer, layer upon layer, giving rise to the unexpected and the unforeseen, to the work of art itself. Shani does not consider himself to be a painter, and these “works” (so as not to call them “paintings”) promise nothing. They contain no “background,” no “horizon.” Their

ground, so to speak, does not open onto a world, a horizon, a process of signification. The works cannot be reduced to signs oriented toward the production of meaning.

One could almost intuit the question posed by Shani – a question that he, in fact, never raises: What if there was nothing else other than the realm of what is immediately visible? Or, in any event, no hierarchy between the nonvulgar concept (of vision, of the line, etc.) and the one referred to as common or decorative? In such a case, there would remain nothing

but an experience – a certain experience other than the one that consists of opposing meaning and phenomena, the horizon and the world, the necessary and the contingent, right and wrong – on the two sides of a clear and indivisible line, which imposes itself in the case of any reflection on art.

What, then, would such an experience consist of? The word “experience” describes a passage or crossing – yet it can

also evoke a movement that does not involve traversing a border. Is it possible that what is at stake in this body of work is precisely the act of enduring an oppositional line, or of understanding or otherwise putting to the test the experience of aporia? And is this a case of either or? The word aporia, rather than antinomy, imposes itself in this context and involves a series of contradictions, or at times antagonisms, between different yet equally imperative laws: the one concerning

all that is determinate and the one concerning the enigma and its radical indetermination. In order for some kind of “exceptional” artistic event to occur, the aporia must remain unresolved. Although we are not far from the Warholian copy, the artist’s touch is present in Shani’s work in an almost obsessive manner: The process of layering is infinite and the line emanates from the human hand, whose presence becomes increasingly clear as one approaches the image. Apparently graphic, illustrative and simple, the image is constantly effaced and remade – the preoccupation with reduction paradoxically leads back to the act of erasing. Is the final state of the image shaped by a simple act of unification, or is it

constantly inhabited by another gaze, which redirects us to the “doubt” that defines it beneath the surface? In Shani’s case, it is the clearly demarcated line, more than anything, that offers an explanation; it presents itself as already interpreted, pointing us toward the fear and anguish that lie “beyond” it.


The Empty Supermarket

The world devoid of anguish that appears in Gil Marco Shani’s oeuvre calls for a more intense and sustained examination. His work stops us in our tracks, blocking and impeding any sort of genealogical, transcendental, hermeneutic movement. It reverts to a radical face-to-face encounter with itself and, thus, engages in an alienating confrontation with its own seductiveness – that is, its own will to power. The work erects a partition of sorts between it and us. At first glance, there seems to be nothing to discover, regardless of the distance separating us from the image. It precludes any possibility of intimacy – it has, so to speak, nothing “friendly” about it. Nothing draws us to it or calls for a more sustained examination of it, so that we seem almost to be suspended in a state of “unconcerned concern.” Shani might argue that we are seeking to determine, to detect meaning and a process of signification in the work’s simple lines and borders, while continuing to ignore what is truly at play. So we “systematize” against a ground of anguish, a “ground without background,” as if asking: What is left after we engage in this process of systematization?

Yet how does Shani conceive his work and how would he like us to conceive it? Or, rather, by what means may one enter into it? At first glance, it seems to harbor no mystery, enigma or secret, just as it is sustained by no “backworld”.

At the same time, his work is inhabited by something deeply moving. The question, then, is this: How to create emotion with the most minimal means, with hard, tenacious, obstinate lines, in a cold and distant manner?

To begin with, it is impossible to reduce this work to illustration, to comics or to animation. Yet since it contains no recipe for the “making” of art, it cannot explain this impossibility in terms of a “why and how.” The artist supposes that his work – and its interpretation – can stop at this point. In a certain sense, he accepts any and all definitions of his work. Yet this acceptance is only understandable if one recognizes the profound, radical, wordless abyss that underlies any definition. It is as if the work were simultaneously opening itself up and precluding any possibility of entrance – not in order to remain hermetically closed, but rather in order to reveal the manner in which it constantly exceeds its own limits.

Shani would have liked this entrance to resemble an entrance into an “empty supermarket” or abandoned department

store: an experience of plenitude, of richness, of ease that is, perhaps, at the same time, an experience of loss that evokes a sense of sadness. The uniformity of color, of direct lines that are at times abruptly simple, underscores the lie, or rather the fragility, of the desire to dominate. In other words, what simultaneously authorizes and forbids, exercising its desire to control, is the anguish that lies below the surface – fleeting, constantly withdrawing itself, at once visible and invisible. This anguish does not belong to the order of simple visibility, and it is this indeterminacy that makes it susceptible to being controlled. It is true, Shani seems to be saying to us, that we all want to feel protected

and secure, to ensconce ourselves within our homes, in places of residence where we can be ourselves – the frame, the order. Yet something from outside calls, continues to call.... This is what the “non-friendly” dimension of Shani’s work plays upon; its characters remain nameless, shaped by a sort of anonymity.


Everything Disappears

This anonymous line, which at first glance appears to be entirely devoid of mystery, occultation or dissimulation, is the line that, more than anything, redirects us toward the vague, undecided or undefined “origin,” toward anguish as an experience of loss, of the indeterminate. The familiar, ordinary, protected space and the exposed, devastated space

interpenetrate; the catastrophe is never far away. An injured, unprotected world inhabits a secure, self-evident, transparent and certaintyfilled world. The infinite work of layering gives rise to a scene that is created in the course of an entire day; the following day, however, it is “destroyed,” “ruined” by the process of erasure, by the application of a dark layer that causes everything to disappear. The quest for the lines effaced for the umpteenth time constitutes a sort of radical experience of catastrophe for Shani: the sensation that in the end the line appearing before us is “false” or “misleading,” that it cannot re-create the catastrophe that is constantly coming into being. How, moreover, can one re-create the experience of anguish? The catastrophe evolves alongside the line while simultaneously constituting its trace, at once outside and inside.

Once again, we are confronted with the question that seems to traverse the work – an aporetic question that is invoked at the line and in relation to what, within the line, simultaneously unifies and separates: Does the embracing couple represent a meeting or a separation? Is their love a manifestation of faithfulness or a means of camouflaging

unfaithfulness? And what, here, should be labeled as love? Can we honestly think of faithfulness and unfaithfulness as existing in simple opposition to each other?

Shani’s work exceeds this question. It is a site of anguish that exists in close proximity to catastrophe and to the experience of loss, and that involves a certain kind of “liberty” – or, more precisely, something akin to desire: the cliché, that which reveals itself, the project as a site of ideology. Instead, what the works seems to declare is this: “There exists no ideology in which I really believe; from my point of view, the world is decomposing.” Indeed, everything in the world is constantly in the process of decomposition, of crumbling – the law, values, institutions, justice, the economy, buildings, the couple, the house, the home. Precisely because everything is collapsing, we desire stability, we constantly build and construct. Yet the act of artistic creation is an instant in which Shani never clearly indicates (in accordance with a causal order or hierarchy) the passage between the manifest and that which does not manifest itself, between the stable line and the catastrophe. And so he remains on the brink of a certain passage, defined by a step that does not know which direction to set off in – or, rather, which thinks itself based on a certain experience of the unknowable. As if the only line that presented itself was the separating line, which carries within it, from the moment it is first traced, the threat of paralysis.

Shani’s work “paralyzes” us in a manner that is not necessarily negative, while directing us toward a site devoid of hierarchies, a site that is apparently “under control,” whose palette is restricted and seems to exist in proximity to minimalism or to animation. Shani prizes this moment we have called “experience,” which never fails to arrive at the point where one asks oneself: “Why continue?” Or, “What good are artists?” Or, “Why make art?” The importance or preciousness of this moment is linked, for Shani, to another moment – the moment of disruption related to the awakening of thought – one of those rare moments when he feels he can detach the viewer from his satisfaction in being, and thus uproot him from the order of discourse, divert him, stop him from turning in circles. ¬