Charleston

Yaakov Israel: The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art

In 1981, John Baldessari said, “Probably one of the worst things to happen to photography is that cameras have viewfinders…” but artist Yaakov Israel would certainly disagree.[1] Israel’s photographs in The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art in Charleston, South Carolina, are carefully constructed. Israeli-born and -based, Israel relishes the serendipitous encounters he’s had while exploring the geography and people of his native land, and this show is a case in point: As he was packing up his equipment after a long day in the desert looking for subjects for his photographs, Israel was approached by an elderly man riding a white donkey. He convinced the man to sit for a portrait, quickly assembled his equipment, and captured the image The Man on the White Donkey, HaBiqah (2006). Intrigued by this chance occurrence—it uncannily invokes the Orthodox Jewish tradition of the messiah arriving at the end of days on a white donkey—Israel then used it as the titular inspiration for this series, a body of work rife with chance findings and encounters in the Israeli landscape.

Yaakov Israel. Abandoned Water Park, Dead Sea, 2010; c-print. Courtesy the artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Yaakov Israel. Abandoned Water Park, Dead Sea, 2010; C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Composed of forty-two photographs of various sizes, the exhibition offers a glimpse of Israel’s inquiry into his native land. The documentary-style photographs demonstrate his curious mind and portray the noteworthy people and places that the artist has encountered in his travels. The work captures unique moments, such as a man praying on the trunk of his car at a gas station in Breslav Hasid Praying, Petrol Station, HaBiqah (2011), or an eerily empty view of the usually crowded Ein Gedi spa on the Dead Sea in Sunshades, Ein Gedi (2011). A wide variety of portraits are mixed in, ranging from a peculiarly staged photograph of two police officers on a highway, Police, HaBiqah (2011), to a candid glimpse of two men waiting for a ride to work in Riad and Mahmoud, Almog Crossroad (2010).

Yaakov Israel. Riad and Mahmoud, Almog Crossroad, 2010; c-print. Courtesy the artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Yaakov Israel. Riad and Mahmoud, Almog Crossroad, 2010; C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

If Israel’s approach to capturing simple yet deliberately composed photographs does not read as contemporary, it may be because his very method of creating these images is downright old-fashioned. Eschewing the ubiquity of digital photographic equipment, Israel opts to use a large-format 8×10 camera instead. Though certainly more onerous to transport through difficult terrain and challenging climates, Israel prefers a process-oriented technique that requires close attention to detail. Unlike a smartphone, for instance, which is capable of snapping several images in a matter of seconds, the time to set up a large-format camera, as well as the high cost of materials, forces the photographer to construct each image with greater care than if using a more present-day camera. Likewise, the process of setting up the equipment and capturing photographs renders the artist more as a performer integrated within his setting than as a distant observer.

Yaakov Israel. Sunshades, Ein Gedi, 2011; c-print. Courtesy the artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Yaakov Israel. Sunshades, Ein Gedi, 2011; C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Apart from their function as documentary photographs, the works are also serve as statements on the relationship between natural and manufactured landscapes. Many images include structures built by humans; often these elements appear as ruins, such as Abandoned Water Park, Dead Sea (2010) and Swimming Pool, Northern Judean Desert (2011). Israel romanticizes his native scenery, and while this theme becomes overwrought—repetitively similar in fashion throughout the body of work—it does well to reinforce photography’s essential function of framing a particular cut-off view.

Yaakov Israel. Police, HaBiqah, 2011; c-print. Courtesy the artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

Yaakov Israel. Police, HaBiqah, 2011; C-print. Courtesy of the Artist and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Charleston, South Carolina.

The work is presented in a dense configuration in the galleries, a format that ameliorates the sense of predictability throughout the photographs. As a consequence, viewers read the exhibition as a flashing slideshow of aesthetically similar images, further divorcing each one from any specific narrative. Aside from the few anecdotes presented in this text—which this reviewer only learned from hearing the artist speak about his work—the show presents a body of photographs unencumbered by supplemental information. While such contextual information assuages the curious, the lack of it within the gallery empowers visitors to project their own estimations and perspectives on each work. In doing so, Israel allows the viewer to explore facets of the Israeli landscape through the lens of his camera. Engaging in a project to excavate sites of an explicit personal connection, Israel links viewers’ own personal histories and the subject matter of his images, thereby discovering underlying connections between disparate people, geographies, and cultures.

Yaakov Israel: The Quest for the Man on the White Donkey is on view at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art until October 4, 2014.

[1] John Baldessari and Nancy Drew, John Baldessari (New York: The New Museum, 1981), 61.

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