Nir Hod’s most recent body of work, titled Mother, opened last night at Paul Kasmin Gallery. The Israeli-born artist is known for creating work that is both strange and beautiful, sharing the sumptuousness found in glamour and fashion advertisements. This new series of paintings takes its inspiration from the widely discussed Holocaust photo “Boy from the Warsaw Ghetto.” History has mainly focused on unmasking the identity of the young boy, centered in the photo with his arms raised in surrender, leaving the matriarchal female figure to his immediate right largely unnoticed. In tribute Nir Hod has singled out the woman, depicting her repeatedly—ten times—in a variety of hues, in an effort to give her story new life. In a recent visit to the artist’s studio in Chelsea, Art Observed had the chance to discuss this new series with the artist.
Art Observed: Are these works all finished?
Nir Hod: Yes, and I will have them framed. I want to push the ideas of beauty and decadence with the frames, I want them to be very rich objects. They’ll be in floating frames with gold on the front, very thin frames. I think once they are on the wall it’s very much about the shadow paintings of Warhol, Gerhard Richter. Then when you see them with all the packaging, the frames, there will be a big switch. I like the sudden impact of information that changes your knowledge. When you see these you think its beauty, fashion, Prada, a woman shopping, and then at the end of the show you’ll see the original photograph printed on a metal surface. All of a sudden when you turn around and see that photo it’s a totally different story.
AO: It’s another narrative.
NH: Yes, and I’m so much about narrative.
AO: Taking it apart and rebuilding it.
NH: Yes, and correcting it. This was a very iconic photo to grow up with, in Europe and many other countries it was all about the child. It became a symbol. When I was 23 they did a wax sculpture of me in Israel as this child for my first show. The child is such an iconic symbol, and even after all these years of looking at the photo I only just recently saw the mother. No one has really looked at her. One philosopher I read said that “everyone looks with their eyes open, but not in the right places.” And she is right there. Of course, she is not his mother. The other woman and the child are assumed to be related. But this woman in the front is a mystery. There are four or five people in the world today who claim to be the child.
AO: I remember reading that, there was one in Florida…
NH: Yes, Florida, Israel, Canada, Miami, and London. Something like that. In England there was a big documentary done about 3 years ago with a lot of research—it was fascinating. Yet still, no one really knows anything about her. This is why I called the show Mother. Usually my art is very emotional, larger than life and very spectacular from the titles to the images. I want my work to be seductive and to create an emotional response. I try to be a step beyond intellectual art—in being emotional, first you need to be honest. Many people are afraid of being honest or showing that, especially in art. I think Mother is such a strong title because it is a correction, it brings back attention to her. There is something very strange about her—for instance, look at the bag. Do you see the face?
AO: I was wondering about that in your paintings—and in the photo—whether that was a something you’d added or not.
NH: No, it’s just there! And look at the woman’s hair—it looks like the Holbein painting “The Ambassadors.” It almost looks like death surrounding her, there are so many meanings found in the photograph. It almost looks like a soldier’s face in the bag, but there’s no way it could have gotten there, it’s just a coincidence from shadows, wrinkles, and light.
AO: Images are a huge part of your work, and we’re part of a visual culture that manufactures images you can move in and out of quickly.
NH: What you said is so right—do you know how I found this photo? I used to work with this photo a lot and it’s called “The Boy from Warsaw Ghetto.” Three or four years ago when I was working on the Genius show I was approached by a gallery in Italy who wanted to show the Geniuses; I said I can’t let them leave the studio yet. They said that there is something very strong in the work that I do of children and then I thought maybe I would do something with this boy. I went on the internet, to CNN, and there was this image of Hilary Clinton in the same pose as the woman in the photo. I like to make things that are familiar but are twisted, that we recognize them but not in the right way. But you are so right about images today. It’s almost like being a narcissist, being in the center of the world where everything is around you can just take from wherever you want. You can get images so instantly and they are still so full of other things, which is brilliant.
AO: So what you’re saying is that images still do have a fullness of meaning today, and that you try to bring that into your painting? You’re trying to re-inflate imagery, to bring back the thought that images do mean something and that they can have an emotional effect on the viewer.
NH: If you’re talking about this one specifically, and in painted form with all the different colors, it shows this woman as a real person. It almost looks contemporary; you could almost see this one as a big billboard about an Apple store. I find that so interesting because I didn’t change the image.
AO: You’re only affecting the image in a way that’s similar to how the original photograph may have been affected while being developed. So now the question is why paint this? Why not work digitally? And also, why work in a series—is it talking about Warhol’s screen-prints where his images would be repeated in different colors? He was commenting on ubiquity and mass production, with some emotional effect in mind. So, why painting?
NH: Why painting? In my past, I always used to do paintings but I didn’t consider myself a painter. I saw myself as an image maker or a storyteller. I’m interested in paintings and their effects on people, but I don’t consider them as a painter. Before the Geniuses I had a big show at the Tel Aviv Museum, and they were big paintings that looked like advertising from the 70’s and they were very realistic. People always ask me how I make them, it’s like magic. I mean when people see realistic paintings like Gerhard Richter or John Currin they don’t even look at the painting, they only think about how the artist created it. I’ve always believed that good art is magic. It goes beyond theory, it lets it go. Good work can be seen in any context, even if you changed the title or if in one show it was said to be about light or real versus abstract in another, it’s all politics. When I was working on the Geniuses I started to think about painting from a completely different place. There was something about brushstrokes, and underpainting, so many things that seemed cliché and not really relevant, but when you look at the Frick or the Metropolitan, Chelsea seems so weak. Those old paintings have such charisma and such energy that you just cannot capture in a photograph. No matter what, a photo is not interesting in that way. I think it’s important for them to be paintings, no matter what technique I used to change them. And as for the repetition, I thought a lot about the shadow paintings by Warhol. They were a big influence on me. After I did the first piece, I shot it and brought it into Photoshop and it just reminded me of the shadow paintings. I started to think about Warhol after somebody said to me that ‘it’s so beautiful to discover her after all these years, that she was in the shadows’—and that’s where it started. Originally I was going to do four, because I liked that aesthetically and because it’s much easier to build a narrative with three or more paintings. The original four were about showing her in different colors, it was about mood. There was this documentary on the history channel that showed footage from World War Two in color for the first time, and the green and blue and brown in the paintings was from my first memory of seeing that documentary. Then came the purple and blue, and then the red. It puts it in sort of a twilight zone.
AO: The color adjusts the mood of each painting quite a bit. The red has such a sinister feeling, the possible aggression of the red makes her seem even more fragile. And with each color you can almost feel one second of her experience. Each flash of color is a different flash of feeling or emotion.
NH: Yes, absolutely, absolutely. And I didn’t plan it, with each painting it was about different things. With one painting it was about the highlight on the jacket, or the expression, or the lips; but in very gentle details.
AO: Have you worked in a series like this before?
NH: Not really. With the Geniuses I did two paintings that were twins, because I wanted to do some kind of repetition with a twist. I find it really, really hard. I’m sure as a painter you know—sometimes you just don’t want to paint another set of hands or another bag. But at one point it became so much about things I didn’t plan or think about, details like technique. With repetition you start to really understand a lot about painting. I was recently in Amsterdam and I saw Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch” and it completely changed these paintings. I think there is a kind of tension that emerges from the repetition.
AO: It’s amazing to see how much each painting changes in the series. Did you ever think about giving the ‘face’ in the bag more of a presence? I think everyone will notice it and wonder about it.
NH: I think maybe I’ve pushed it a little more than in the photo, and in some I gave it a little expression. Once people notice the bag, they think it’s about Prada or Louis Vuitton, and then ninety percent of people think it’s about a woman shopping. It’s the way images are marketed.
AO: We look for the glamour first, or see the glamour first. There is something in that these paintings ride the line between what could be a glamour shot and the opposite extreme, which happens to be one of the most talked about photos from World War Two.
NH: That’s why you carry something so heavy on your shoulders when you recognize the image. I want to talk about beauty but I also want to talk about something deeper and darker. It’s like driving by an accident between two cars; you drive slowly and you want to know about it, maybe you see blood. But at the same time when you see an accident between two Ferraris you say ‘Wow, look what happened to the cars.’ In a second you don’t think about the people, you are in a sublime moment when you look at certain beauty or icons. That’s why I want these works to exist in a place that is not obvious at all. I want there to be confusion for a few seconds before you realize what you’re looking at.
AO: You almost feel guilty.
NH: You feel guilty, and sometimes when I work on this I feel like I’m correcting my reality. Compared to what’s going on outside this means something.
AO: That’s a great phrase, correcting my reality. So how long have these taken you?
NH: Between three weeks to almost five weeks.
AO: Do you work on more than one at the same time?
NH: Only one at a time. The colors are so different and each one has a different energy. I always listen to music while I work and each one has different music, it puts me in a kind of trance. A few times I tried to work on few paintings at once and it was a disaster.
AO: Is this the largest painting in the show?
NH: Yes, and I think it’s important because at this size you feel something from her that you don’t feel from the other small ones. I think it’s from the jacket—in the large one you can really see her body. In the small ones she feels like a ghost, but with the jacket you can really feel her body.
AO: These pieces are so different from the work in the Genius show, is this something you’re going to continue doing? Working with this image specifically, or other source material to make something heavy have the appearance of being light, playing with the kind of realization we talked about earlier?
NH: No, not really because I think these works are very similar to the Geniuses, for me. It isn’t about repetition but having a narrative or story emerge. I think it would be interesting to see a room of Mother and a room of Genius next to each other, they both appear as something familiar that I twist into a different story, so I think they support each other. The next thing I plan to do is something about dictators and play with ideas of beauty and destruction. I want them to be objects as well as being paintings. So I think they will all support each other.