He may have no formal training, but the daring work of Israeli artist Drew Tal, which mixes photography with other mediums, is catching the attention of critics across the US.
To say that Israeli born artist/photographer Drew Tal’s work is an assault on the senses would be an understatement. Nothing can quite prepare you for either Tal’s searing images or the mixed medium he uses to create his work that is as riveting as it is unapologetic. As yet, no term has been coined for these creations, which even Tal simply calls a medium somewhere between a painting and a photograph. His layered works may be printed on handmade paper, canvas, metal or silk.
Tal spoke with ISRAEL21c on the eve of his latest New York solo exhibition, entitled ‘On Edge,’ which runs through April 30 at the Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in Soho. It’s a huge coup for the Haifa-born artist who has called the Big Apple home since the early ’80s. It’s only in the last four years though that Tal has really made his mark on the prestigious New York art scene.
One critic described him as being “in the forefront of a nascent movement of post modern romanticism… with a gifted photographic artist’s ability to imbue humanistic and spiritual themes with the eye-catching impact of a high-end advertising campaign.” Others have said he has a “special gift to make idealized human faces and figures speak volumes about the conflicts between the flesh and the soul.”
That’s no faint praise for an artist who has had no formal training per se, although he did study architecture for four years. But when it comes to art, fashion and photography, Tal says it’s all self-taught. From architecture he moved into fashion photography and eventually into the art world. Nonetheless, he says that much of his work is still influenced by his Israeli roots.
Roots in Israel
“I always acknowledge my Israeli roots. As a matter of fact, the first line of my artist statement starts with: ‘Growing up in Israel…was a blessing for me…’ ” Tal tells ISRAEL21c.
That blessing, he says, stems from the fact that he grew up in the ’60s, “as Israel was absorbing millions of immigrants from all over the world, and that colorful mosaic of languages, costumes and customs has opened my eyes to the exotic, and taught me that the world beyond was a vast and fascinating one.
“Many of my art pieces are portraits of ethnic faces, dressed in their native garb, just the way I remember many of my traditional Arab and Sephardic neighbors in Haifa. And many of my portraits are of nostalgic reflections of my childhood,” he explains.
Those “portraits” though are hardly traditional. Tal began experimenting with digital imaging software shortly after Photoshop 1.0 was introduced in 1990. “When most photographers looked down at this new medium, I kept experimenting with it and learning the unlimited possibilities hidden within it. Imaging software allowed me to use my computer-mouse as a fine-art tool, like a painter uses his art brushes. Suddenly I could merge and infuse images. I could create textures, depth and effects that conventional film could not do. It became a powerful tool for expressing myself,” he recounts.
Edgy, confrontational and provocative
Tal’s current ‘On Edge’ exhibit is a collection of spiritual, Asian-inspired works created between 2005-2008 as well as a dozen, very recent works (some completed this year) that have never been seen before. Tal describes them as having a “more edgy, confrontational and provocative nature.”
Faces contorted in pain, bodies consumed by fire, people wracked with anguish, naked men blindfolded and tattooed with expressions in both Hebrew and Arabic are just some of the searing images that leap out at you from Tal’s canvases. They’re difficult to look at and even more difficult to forget.
In his artist’s notes, Tal says the exhibit represents his feelings about war, suffering and social injustice. However, he says none of the work was inspired by or connected to the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
“When it comes to social injustice I have tried to bring attention primarily to unfortunate political and societal situations in Asia; the systematic oppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese Government; the human rights violations taking place in countries like Cambodia, Burma and India, or the suppression of women’s rights in many Muslim societies,” he explains. “So far the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has inspired frustration in me, not artistic expression,” he adds.
Beyond this current exhibit, Tal’s work includes a myriad of pieces broken down into galleries on his website. One of them is called ‘Sinless’ and experiments with iconic Christian and Catholic images. Has he ever considered attempting something similar with Jewish imagery?
“Heroic themes from the Torah, such as the stories of Esther ha’Malka, Avraham Avinu and David ha’Melech, are sure to find their way into my work in the future,” he promises. “I am inspired by the strong character and conviction they represent.”
Tal, whose entire family still lives in Israel, says he also has plans to show his work to various galleries in Tel Aviv on his next visit. “I’m just starting to learn about the art scene in Israel,” he says. “And from what I’ve seen so far Tel Aviv has a vibrant, current and relevant art world with a global appeal and a lot of promise.”
He confesses to only having been back to Israel about a dozen or so times since he left in 1981 after completing his IDF service. “But I grow increasingly sentimental towards ha’aretz so I have started visiting more often,” he says.
He says he’s also inspired by the growth he’s seen in the Israeli art market. “Back in the ’80s the art market [in Israel] was inactive, limited and conservative relative to the US where controversial photographers like Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber, exhibiting erotic, graphic and provocative images, were thriving. The situation has changed remarkably since then,” he says.
For now, though, he’s busy with his current exhibit. Next up are two art fairs in New York and a solo exhibit in Santa Fe in May, a Surrealist group-exhibition in New York in November and another art fair in Miami in December.
With a number of successful exhibits in New York over the past four years, does Tal feel that he’s ‘made it’? “Definitely,” he replies. “At every opening night, as the guests are starting to arrive, I have to pinch myself.”