Zohar Cohen won the Abstract/Non-representational category award for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with his work Kigali. Tiny brushstrokes completely cover the canvas in this large scale painting, creating a unique vision of a landscape that breathes with colour, movement and depth. Here, Zohar describes his process from drawing to canvas, his incredible Odem Forest series and his studio practice in Haifa, Israel with a view of the Mediterranean Sea.
Above image: View of River Rahar, 2019, Zohar Cohen, Tempera on canvas, 164 x 252 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Zohar: My ties to art date back to my early teens. I remember the first art book I held in my hands, it was a book of Osias Hoffstatter’s black ink drawings. Hybrid figures, images that combine the human with the phantasmagoric, forcing one to delve into the smallest details. I also remember a book with photos of sculpture and monuments in public spaces in the kibbutzim.
I am a graduate of the Kalisher Institute of Art in Tel Aviv. It was a pluralist, active and open academy of contemporary art. It was a school which taught in an open mind based on dialogue, a place in which my artistic thinking was formed and evolved. Kalisher of the 90s was a school where a sensitive encounter was forged between conceptual art and painting.
The teachers were theoretician artists and painters, engaged in conceptual and political art. They created an exploratory definition of human relations with nature and culture. It was a particular and viable method; there was a sense of rebellion among the teachers and the students. The discourse between conceptual art and painting developed in Kalisher in an infinite mode and in this environment I had to invent myself. That was good for me as part of my development as an artist. I dedicated myself to painting with determination. I knew that my love and interest was in the methodical work with brushes and palette.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Zohar: The painting is a powerful mantra. It comes to life long before I even sit out to work. It begins with an internal process I go through, that is gradually translated into a painting on the canvas of a specific format.
This drawing derives always from a certain context, site specific, which provides me an inner source of action. I make my preparation on canvas, drawing or watercolours. In the studio, the first impact on the canvas is linear. It is a composition without colours that helps me put down the seeds of a construction. In this construction I apply a certain concept of the space as well as a physical experience of my work movements on the canvas. The original landscape becomes a gestural painting.
Then comes an almost opposite process: methodical, long and meticulous. The canvas is covered by small brushstrokes that respond to very delicate chromatic and tonal relationships. At this stage, I am incredibly careful because any small incorrect brushstroke might unbalance the entire composition. The painting acquires a spatial, optical and chromatic depth. It is expanding simultaneously over the entire surface. The image of the specific landscape is gradually disappearing. The composition gains its autonomy and projects its singular language with its specific laws.
Clare: What can you tell us about your colour palette? Which colours can you not do without?
Zohar: I work with an open and rich palette and use a mixture of colour that creates a physical sense of body. I use flake white which is related to a colourful array of the body, and titanium white which is related to light and landscape. In this way I keep a wide palette, open on the one hand and one that connects everything back to the body, to the viewer, on the other hand.
The dominant colours are blue, yellow and white. The idea always starts from the sky and the sea – Prussian brush for black, cobalt and ultramarine, ocher, lemon yellow and cadmium. From the red – alizarin and vermillion; Green are viridian and cobalt.
I cannot do without small brushes; they give me a feeling of transparent movement.
Clare: Can you tell us about your Odem Forest series?
Zohar: I am surprised by the question. It is interesting, the choice of the region is not accidental. Odem Forest refers to my four years of adolescence, when I lived in the Golan Heights in Northern Israel. The hills of the region are made of a basaltic plateau, fields of basalt. It is related to the bare landscape of freedom, and all those places that seemed to me like a lunar landscape. The wide expansions of the hills inspired me and offered introspection.
The specific location is an oak forest near the Syrian border. I went back to that place to regain a foothold in the hills, I stood in front of a low and complex stirks officinalis bush surrounded by basalt stones and realised I had found a site.
The site of the Odem forest is like an internal movement for me, it escalates into an act that has developed into a site of departure towards myself. The series launched an accelerated evolution of myself and follows the development of my painting as it has formed over recent years.
It is based on a study, a certain experimental mode. Unlike other arenas, my experience of the Odem forest is more sensory, direct and authentic. The works of the series are in tempera. The second painting I created was Odem II. The tempera colours suit my work because they are soft and flexible, they dry quickly and allow me to work in one flow.
In the Odem Forest series, I feel I am back in the same landscape where I first self-determined my individuality out of freedom. But the series drove me into an accelerated evolution of myself. The series follows the development of my painting as it has evolved in recent years. It is a study, a certain experimental process. It depicts a direct experience, gestural and authentic.
The inner circles, their movement changes, from the sensation of water lining the space to movements that disintegrate into vessels, from linear points to neural colour strokes and rhythm.
With this painting the definition process begins to expand, the internal scene is more present.
Clare: Do you have a practice of drawing? If so, what materials do you prefer to use? Is your drawing style similar to your painting style, with many small marks?
Zohar: Yes, definitely. In addition to my works in large oil formats, I have been developing another channel of works on paper. First, there is the drawing. However, these are not preparatory sketches or drawings for oil painting. They are autonomous works that have their own development. Drawing on paper is remarkably like the first phase when I face the canvas to start an oil painting.
In general, the drawing series reflects a direct connection with the environment. At the same time, it allows me to express something personal and more intimate and internal. There is something intuitive in my drawing, but at the same time, it is a support channel in a perceptual reality.
Nature is a good source for achieving the connection with reality and this is reflected in the paintings. I work in open air, but it can also be in an intimate sitting by myself, an inner source of inspiration. The construction of space is in line with anointing, which produce empty spaces and a rhythmic and neural experience for the eye. The dialogue with the material, in this case – the paper – is a constant dialogue and involves its own process.
In this context I also refer to my watercolours in which this intimate and sensitive dialogue with the paper is manifested. But, with watercolour there is a lyrical dimension that sometimes tends to be also narrative in which details or figures can be detected. Although I put the accent on the rhythm of the spots, these works are less abstract. The sensitivity of the material is pronounced through the lyricism that the image projects.
Clare: Can you describe your studio to us?
Zohar: My studio and my home are located 30km from each other. The studio is in the port area of Haifa, in the north of the country, facing the Mediterranean Sea. It offers a fascinating interaction between Jews and Arabs, and the neighbourhood is made of eclectic architecture. I have been working in this studio for the past 10 years.
My studio is located on the second floor of a building that previously served as a government tax office. It is a large space with high ceilings and good natural light. I have a good sound equipment and I like to hear background music while I sit in a meditation armchair. The studio is 40 square meters. At its centre stands my massive wooden easel that I use for the large-format oil paintings. Next is the paint table and a large table to do my work on paper. An adjoining room serves as a storage for the completed canvases. There is also the metal chest of drawers in which I keep the drawings and watercolours. In another small adjoining room, I have carpentry materials and tools that I sometimes use to cut racks.
The studio has the minimal facilities for living which is useful since my painting sessions can often last several days. Every time I get to the studio, I need to reacquaint myself with it; to immerse myself in the creative process and this requires some time to adjust. Time in which I must disconnect from the other activities that make up my routine. Therefore, the work in the studio is not only the painting on the easel. It is also to keep it clean and tidy.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Zohar: Daylight. Linen cloth. An arc of colours. Soft brushes, thin sybil and standard brushes. Quality paper that supports techniques with pencil, graphite, ink, watercolour or gouache. I put a lot of emphasis on the search for quality materials that adapt to my work. The main material is oil which I take great care of. I am a painter who takes care of the materials.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Zohar: There was isolation, of course, that made time seem to stretch out. It is a time for greater introspection that leads me to contemplate and think about the creative process in which I have been immersed through lately. Other aspects of everyday life joined, like a intimacy of the personal life, such as family and home. This is an approach that somehow broadens the dialogue with painting, too. The lockdown brought on me a compulsion for drawing. I made many of them at home.
While painting in the studio, I continued to dedicate myself to issues related to the city of Kigalli. This led me to develop another work whose theme is the path down in the hills of Jerusalem. A painting that appears to me as paired with Kigalli’s painting. Somehow, they are related and connected. The time of isolation due to the pandemic influenced, above all, the work on exhibitions.
Over the past two decades every two years I have been exhibiting my work at a solo exhibition in galleries in Tel Aviv and other cities in the country. I’ve also constantly participated in group shows. In 2020, with the galleries and museums closed, projects have all been canceled or postponed.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Zohar: I am influenced by diverse artistic sources ranging from abstract Israeli art. At the 2015 Venice Biennale I discovered the work of the Australian artist Emily Kame Kngwarreye who paints with dots, works that break away from a structured pattern and tell narratives of dreams. I enjoyed the new reading she offers: the pictorial depth, the beauty that Brute art challenges the conventions and expands the discourse.
On the other hand, I appreciate Lucian Freud, who constructs a form with brush strokes, employs the qualities of the colour, which is evenly distributed on the canvas. The entire surface is worked on in the same manner. The painting of the body, the flesh, depicts a subtle and transient physicality. The painting is autonomous and is not a copy of reality.
I am interested also in Peter Doig the contemporary artist. The way he puts paint on canvas is refreshing, the way he distributes his colours, the landscapes and the relationship between interior and exterior. He is a little bit of vagabond.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Zohar: A good day in the studio is a day when two ideal circumstances join together: the time for contemplation about the painting in work on the easel, and the pictorial practice either slow and meticulous or intuitive and intense. The moment when doubts are resolved and clarified; when obstacles are overcome and the dimension of the painting is extended.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Zohar: I’m taking time to work on a new series. My works are in private collections in the United States and Israel. In my studio in Haifa I keep a large part of my work. I upload my work to the Facebook page and maintain the zoharcohen.com site where my works, including my early ones, can be seen.
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