Holy Moly

On a postcard from Tel Aviv, bathers wade at a crowded Mediterranean beach shadowed by a stretch of resort hotels and condo towers. Artist Hilla Lulu Lin has blown up and manipulated this typical shot of Israel's modern secular attractions, replacing the perfect blue sky with a slab of marbled raw meat and making it appear as if the happy beachgoers are cavorting under a swirl of bloody currents cleft with bolts of lightning. From an idealized image, she has created a powerful apocalyptic vision, repulsive yet magnetic, that induces a sense of vertigo and anxiety.

"Every time I'm in Tel Aviv I have this feeling," Lin says of the work, part of a triptych that's hanging in the Bass Museum of Art's upstairs gallery. "It looks so nice, but you feel like it's the end of the world -- and it's become more and more and more that way."

A second element of the triptych shows another enlarged postcard image -- Moslem worshippers gathered in front of the golden Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem. (Situated near the Wailing Wall, the site of the mosque is a holy place for Jews as well, and thus a site of contention.) The addition of a blood-flesh sky evokes both biblical sacrifice and contemporary carnage in the historic city. On the wall between the two large landscape scenes hangs a smaller altered photo -- a gruesome self-portrait of the artist in which her eyes have been replaced by circles of the same raw red meat.

A tall, strikingly attractive woman with a shaved head, the 32-year-old Lin works frequently with issues concerning the body and is not ordinarily so overtly political. She created Cold Blood (A Poem in Three Parts) specifically for Desert Cliche -- Israel Now-Local Images, the Bass's provocative exhibition of works by eighteen artists who are Israeli natives or immigrants. Lin says the piece was a gut reaction to her return to Israel from an extended visit to New York City; she arrived home just after the assassination of Itzhak Rabin.

"People are mad because they want to live their own lives and they can't," Lin says, referring to the interminable political conflicts and the ever-present threat of violence in Israel. "The situation is heavy, it's depressing. And it's impossible not to be involved."

Over breakfast at a South Beach cafe, conversation among Lin, fellow artist Tsibi Geva, and Israeli curator Tami-Katz Freiman, who has lived in Miami since 1994 and who organized the show with MDCC Wolfson Galleries director Amy Cappellazzo, shifts casually between recent bombings and art-world gossip. Similarly, "Desert Cliche" emphasizes the degree to which the political intertwines with the personal in Israel, and how that nation's weighty history and utopian promise overshadows the present-day culture.

In one of the museum's downstairs galleries, Gil Shachar's realistic wax-and-pigment sculptures of a machine gun and a flak jacket hang casually on a wall, while a replica of a soldier's bedroll sits on the floor like a common piece of furniture. Pinchas Cohen Gan has painted bright contorted faces, pup tents, planes, and suggestive Hebrew texts ("Who will replace the youth industry?") onto army fatigues. Meir Gal takes a cooler approach to socially committed art with Six Hundred and Seventy Two Centimeters of War Decorations (War Decorations Enlarged to My Body's Dimensions). Four wooden boards covered with striped satin look from afar like geometric abstract paintings. At closer range they become immense military medals, their size seemingly mocking the perceived importance of such decorations, as if to say their symbolic grandeur dwarfs the actual achievements of the individual who wears them.

In the same way that American pop artists and their descendants have employed Brillo boxes, comic strips, or icons such as the Marlboro Man to critique our culture, these Israeli artists have elevated their own everyday images -- M16s, tanks, and terrorists. While only a few of the works here have much to offer beyond that, "Desert Cliche" is intriguing purely as evidence of cultural difference.

As its snappy (if semantically confusing) title suggests, the show is intended to deconstruct facile stereotypes of Israel -- religious mecca, desert paradise, war zone -- and question typical tenets of "Israeliness," particularly Zionism, military heroism, and the very idea of a "holy land." The irreverent young artists included seek to reinterpret Israeli history, cross established cultural borders, and explore the politics of identity in a place where the very idea of identity arouses the most violent emotions and actions.

But many fall victim to the very banality they profess to attack, resorting to empty stylized gestures, to art-world cliches. Too many of the works here are a testimony to the globalization of art production. Though impeccably executed, few are particularly original; and some are blatantly derivative of sources ranging from Andy Warhol to Jeff Wall.

David Reeb offers a series of paintings depicting the Wailing Wall and other religious sites with a computerized bar code in the corner of the canvas. These are rendered in a delicate hand, but the bar code as a symbol for exploitation has been used by artists everywhere so much over the past decade that it's become a rather annoying prop, a cliche. Elsewhere, Nir Hod's photographs of sassily posed female soldiers mock the notion of the beautiful and strong girl in a uniform as the ideal Israeli woman. An interesting idea, but Hod embues his subject with tired shock value by posing for some of the photos himself, in drag.

Despite the overwhelming sensation of postmodern radical chic, there is more than enough substance here to make for a compelling show. Gilad Ophir's stark black-and-white photos from Kiryat Rishon, a development of tract houses in a suburb of Tel Aviv, are outstanding. Ophir photographs these generic homes for the upper middle class in varying states of construction; his bleak, unpopulated landscapes are a sharp contrast to typical images of awesome ancient architecture or lush kibbutzes.

Ariane Littman-Cohen cunningly embraces a cliche -- and transcends it stupendously -- in Holy Land for Sale, a wooden crate filled with small sacks of dirt. Earth from Jerusalem and water from the Dead Sea are commonly sold as tourist souvenirs. But Littman-Cohen has given the concept a wonderfully subversive twist, by convincing Arim, a government-owned company, to participate in her work. Arim, whose logo is embossed on the bags, administers technological development projects throughout Israel, essentially selling off the scared land for capitalist gain.

The Bass's upstairs galleries are devoted to sections titled "Anxiety and Terror" -- which includes Lin's Cold Blood -- and "Local Identity/the 'Arab' and the 'Israeli'." This last subject is subtly evoked in two beautiful abstract paintings by Tsibi Geva, one of the few artists who successfully take banal images and make them their own.

The first painting, a large, lightly textured work that takes up an entire gallery wall, is inspired by the flecked pattern of the typical terrazzo floor tile found in most Israeli apartments.

Geva says he first became interested in the tile as a subject because of its Arab name, balata, by which it is also known in Israel. Balata is also the name of a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. As Geva studied the surface of this common material he'd never taken particular notice of before, he began to think about its significance in both Arab and Israeli cultures.

"For me the idea is to take an object that is a symbol of the other, to work with it and to learn to talk through it, so it develops new meanings," the artist explains.

His other painting, Kaffiyeh #21, is based on the black-and-white Arab headwear typically identified with Palestinians. Geva has been making paintings inspired by the head covering for some years; in this version the scarf's gridded pattern has evolved to look like a chainlink fence, floating over a row of vertical stripes that recall the design of a Jewish prayer shawl, or tallis. The painting can be interpreted as a symbol of the violent conflict and common bonds of two cultures or appreciated simply as a lyrical abstraction.

"There's a relationship between a romantic and a frightening feeling, which I think is very typical in my country," says Geva, aptly capturing the atmosphere in both his homeland and his work. "That's what you feel when you live there."

Desert Cliche -- Israel Now-Local Images. Through June 30. Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave, Miami Beach; 673-7530.

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