Past Exhibitions

Sketches of Time

Shir Meller-Yamaguchi

Sketches of Time: Ruth Norman and Dror Ben Ami
Curator: Shir Meller-Yamaguchi
11/2011 – 3/2012
Should someone ask me,
‘Just what sort of thing is it—
what you call Buddha?’
I say, ‘Icicles hanging
from a mosquito net!’
— Eihei Dōgen1

The drawings of artists Dror Ben Ami and Ruth Norman accentuate the beauty of nature precisely in the fragility and impermanence of all its life. Both artists devote themselves to concentration on the ostensibly inconsequential: cobwebs in the corner of a room, a broken branch or garlic shells burst open. In the process of drawing, as they turn to an ostensibly trifling object, its great value is revealed as a guide. It is precisely in the disintegration of matter that the secret luring them lies: the delicate balance between order and chaos, life and death, matter and spirit.

Norman and Ben Ami’s attraction to the beauty of the evanescent and the space as an integral part of their work, is linked with Zen-Buddhist aesthetics in which space and form are granted equal importance. It is a breathing space from which form is created, each time anew. The avoidance of color enables both artists to address textures and their relations with space and light. The intensified tension between white and black, between existence and disappearance, gives rise to a chiaroscural drama.

Ruth Norman’s current series of paintings began with the gathering of plants that have dried or ones left along the side of the road, which attracted her attention: “While wandering around the fishponds of Kibbutz Hama’apil I was struck, time and again, by the beauty of the dry plants gradually withering in the Israeli summer. Nature concocts countless forms for pods, the seed vessels. When the fields were planted with cotton, I followed its growth. I watched the development of the plant in the field phase after phase. I began collecting its parts throughout the process of growth, ripening, and withering. I did the same when the field was planted with peanuts, season in, season out… This is how the collection materialized.”
In the studio, the collection was given a place of honor. Each session Norman placed a different plant on the stage, illuminated it and devoted her time to close observation of its finest nuances. The painting was executed with white-out—an inferior material ordinarily used to correct mistakes—on black paper. This work method demanded reversal of her mode of observation: she must depict that which is illuminated, rather than the shadows. In the first works in the series the surface on which the plants were placed is emphasized, creating a defined, yet very minimalistic space; a neutral space of uniform color which functions as a backdrop. In later works the horizon disappears, and the space becomes increasingly softer, airier. The distinctive black is treated with diluted correction fluid. The compositions are looser, and only the game of shades implies a possible distance between the object and the background. The stains engulfing the dry plants resemble dried-up puddles. The realness of the black shadow gaped in the dissolving surface becomes as certain as the plant; an inkling of the thorniness also clings to the treatment of the space surrounding the thistle. The movement of the curved branch continues to the space around it with a confident, wide brush stroke. It is a profound realization that existence does not cease with the disappearance of its defining form. In the processes of splitting, peeling, drying, and wilting, form sheds its familiar image and matter returns to its constituent elements.

In Dror Ben Ami’s works, existence is at once corporeal and incorporeal. The painting is a space in which signs of life appear and then gradually dissolve. Ben Ami works with extra brittle paper which he grooves, perforates, covers with a layer of charcoal, and erases. The result is a fine, sharp etching-like line.
The exhibition features works from three series on which the artist worked simultaneously. The first, the thistle series, began with drawings of a thistle placed in a vase in the studio, which in the course of time was covered by cobweb, like gradually spun slip stitches which generate an ultra-thin web. Ben Ami was lured by the apparently solid and organized natural constructions, which turn out to be as fragile as a leaf. The cobwebs, according to Ben Ami, are spun in deserted, marginal places, precisely those in which he is interested; the traces of time are discernible on the surface. In his paintings the cobwebs create entire cities within an infinite space, cities hanging by a thread, revealed in soft light out of the darkness, cities whose realness is doubtful.
In his window series too, Ben Ami depicted the traces of a tangled vine seen through the milky glass of the Museum of Art, Ein Harod. Its leaves have fallen and its existence appears unreal. In both series he generates a sensory space in which there is nothing to grasp: “That which is apparently existent is, in fact, an illusion. In Western culture, beauty is associated with peaks: blooming, youth, heroism, but disintegration and desistance also contain a whole world, a perfection of their own. It is beauty that must be touched.”

Japanese art, and especially artworks influenced by Zen Buddhism, acknowledges this beauty which forms a reminder of our transience. The Japanese terms “wabi,” “sabi,” and “yugen”2 indicate aesthetic qualities which differ from those customary in the West. Referring to Kenkō’s Tsurezuregusa, Jacob Raz asserts that, “Yugen is often perceived as art’s loftiest revelation, one in which the forms virtually consume themselves into emptiness… virtually dissolving into the void. Form leads beyond form.”3
Western art, too, boasts the 16th- and 17th-century Vanitas paintings which functioned as a memento mori for the transience of corporeal life and the inevitability of death. While the message conveyed by the latter, however, was that “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity,” Norman and Ben Ami depict the impressions of time without judgment, out of realization that time skips no-one.
“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty…”.4

Shir Meller-Yamaguchi, Curator


1. Dōgen Kigen (1200-1253), aka Eihei Dōgen or Dōgen Zenji, founder of Soto Zen, in Japan, in Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology, trans. Steven D. Carter (Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 1991), p. 268.

2. Wabi and sabi are synonymous notions denoting the quality of aging, perishing.

3. Jacob Raz, Zen Buddhism: Philosophy and Aesthetics (Tel Aviv: Broadcast University, 2006), p. 158 [Hebrew].

4. Kenkō Yoshida, Essays in Idleness: The Tsurezuregusa of Kenkō, trans, Donald Keene (New York: Columbia UP, 1998 [1967]), p. xviii.