Where Beauty And Death Collide

Nir Hod’s Warsaw Ghetto-inspired ‘Mother’ series plays provocatively with ideas of fashion and glamour.

03/27/2012
Staff Writer
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Nir Hod lives glamorously. When you enter his art studio in the Meatpacking District, his French bulldog, Nella, greets you at the door. You walk up the stairs and out steps the artist himself — a strikingly handsome man with long brown hair and dark denim jeans.

“The artist should be a rock star,” he says. “For me, art is about ego, charisma.”

His artwork, strewn about his studio, is infused with the same glamorous, and provocative, aesthetic. Glass tiles with fake cocaine lines lie on a counter; gold busts of pouty children, some smoking cigarettes, are perched on shelves.

Then, 10 enormous new paintings — all of a single woman with high cheekbones, a brown leather bag draped on her arm — line a studio wall. The paintings are part of a series titled “Mother” that will have its debut in a new solo exhibit at the Paul Kasmin Gallery this week.

“Half of the time, people argue about whether [her bag] is Louis Vuitton or Chanel,” said Hod. “That’s what’s so beautiful about it. It’s a modern, glamorous woman.”

But this being Hod, there must be more to it. 

The image of the woman is, in fact, taken from a famous photograph of the Warsaw Ghetto, shot in 1943, just before its inhabitants were sent to Auschwitz. A Nazi guard took the photo, and later published it in a report celebrating the ghetto’s liquidation: “The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!” the headline exclaimed.

Born in Israel in 1970, Hod grew up in a culture saturated with this image, he said. All four of his grandparents were Holocaust survivors as well, making the Holocaust particularly present in his childhood.

“I want to see her in color, to make her real and bring her back to life,” he says of the nameless woman. “I want to give her respect.”

But her glamour, her expensive looking bag — does that not cheapen her life? Does it not suggest that, had she lived, all she could have looked forward to was expensive handbags and shopping at Bergdorf?

“Not at all,” Hod says. “It’s not like, if she could live, she could have gone shopping at Prada. It’s about how beautiful and fragile life can be. … I always love the dichotomy between beauty and death.” Anyway, he added, fashion needn’t only be seen as crass materialism; it could be high art, too — “Look at Alexander McQueen.”

Hod has made provocation a central part of his work. In the 1990s, he was the country’s enfant terrible, making sumptuous portraits of erotic Israeli soldiers. The paintings both mocked the masculinity of Israeli culture as well as the art establishment’s distaste for the colorful and kitsch.

“All they cared about was dead texts by dead writers,” says Hod. “I said art should be part of the culture. … When you get on all this theory, it doesn’t mean anything anymore; it’s for losers.”

Israel’s curators and critics had a love-hate relationship with him from the start. He was both a product of the system, having graduated from Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem, in 1993. And that same year he was included in a major show at the Israel Museum; at 23, he was the youngest artist ever included in the museum’s halls. 

But he also flaunted the establishment’s tastes, favoring gaudy, in-your-face work — wax sculptures of androgynous self-images; a painting of the pop singer Madonna being butchered by himself— that tested its limits.

“In Israel, he was very controversial from the beginning,” says Tami Katz-Freiman, the Israeli curator who chose Hod for his first Israel Museum show. “He was very popular with the average art lover, but with the professional critics and intellectuals, it was much more difficult.”

It was more than his work that attracted attention, she added.  Taking a cue from Andy Warhol, Hod insisted that the artist be as memorable as his art.

“His narcissism, his glorification of beauty, his attraction to the twilight zones of kitsch and camp, and, of course, his penchant for publicity soon made him a hero of unprecedented scale in the Israeli art world,” Katz-Freiman once wrote in a catalog essay.

That outsized persona, however, has not always translated well in America. Hod admits as much: “It was very hard in the beginning because I was not well known here.”

He moved to New York in 1999, and struggled for years to make noteworthy work. The tropes he could readily call up and critique in Israel — the tough, masculine soldier; the Holocaust-scarred psyche — either were too picayune or already-covered ground. He spent years being “so confused,” he said. “I did art I didn’t feel connected to.”

But by the mid-2000s, his creativity and Brobdingnagian ambition returned. He began making enormous paintings, some seven-by-12 feet, that spoke to universal themes he’d long been drawn to — glamour, death, pop culture and narcissism.

Using a candy-colored palette, he painted porn stars in coffins and tabloid figures with cocaine ringing their nostrils. “Flowers” was a marvelous painted bouquet that acted as a kind of momento mori, its shocking colors suggesting violence and death.

“He’s always been consistent with his themes,” said Katz-Freiman. “He deals with big issues in art history, and love and death, and fame, glamour.”

That body of work landed him his first major solo at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, in 2006. Two years later, he began a new series of paintings and sculptures titled “Genius,” which featured rakish, menacing-looking children. They earned him an exhibit at the prominent Paul Kasmin Gallery.

“I was just blown away with those 20 or 30 little ‘genius’ paintings,” said Hayden Dunbar, an art director at Paul Kasmin Gallery who organized both of Hod’s shows.

“Mother,” in fact, grew out of the “Genius” series. Hod had been looking online for images of little boys to paint and came across the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto photograph. The most prominent figure in it, the one everyone remembers, is the little boy, his hands held up in terror. But while Hod was looking at the boy, he flipped back to his CNN homepage and an image of Hillary Clinton popped up.

“It was such a strong photograph of Hillary Clinton,” Hod said, pulling up the image on his laptop recently. “What’s powerful about it is the background; it’s almost like el Greco.”

When he looked back at the Warsaw Ghetto photograph, the much larger woman in the fore struck him for the first time. Despite knowing the photograph for decades, he had never really noticed her. Her face is blurred and her body obscured by a large black coat, even though she’s much larger than the boy.

“She almost gives the stage to the boy without asking for anything,” he said. “Then, I started to imagine what life she could have had — she seems almost aristocratic, noble.”

He began painting her against a mostly black background, eliminating any reference to where the image may have came from. Then, as more versions emerged, he altered the background details, adding strips of color that allude to famous works of art — Warhol’s “Shadows” series, paintings by el Greco and Gerhard Richter.

Each color, he says, also has meaning: “I started with purple because it’s very safe for me. It represents beauty and melancholy; it’s sophisticated but very dark.” The sepia tinge in the painting suggests history, he said; blue, nobility; and yellow — “it’s the color of the Holocaust, I think of the Star of David.”

Several of the portraits have already been sold, and slowly, Dunbar said, Hod’s American fan base is growing. The “Mother” portraits have a list price of $75,000, and each comes with a reproduction of the original Warsaw Ghetto photograph.

Hod likes when people see his “Mother” paintings for the first time and think she looks stunning, before they learn about her origins.  But he wants to make sure the original Warsaw Ghetto image travels with his painting, lest something critical be lost.

Sitting in his studio, Hod looked at the “Mother” paintings a last time before they were moved to the gallery for his new show. He thought about the sort of beauty he’s returned to the woman, and contrasted it with the kind that’s sold in the fashionable stores just outside his studio. Then he said: “To hear all these stupid girls outside, with their high heels and laughing, then I see these images” — he paused and looked at his paintings — “and I’m reminded of the real thing.”

“Nir Hod: Mother” at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, 515 W. 27th St. (212) 563-4474. The exhibit runs from March 28-April 28.

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