Frame 61

Gal Leshem

Frame 61
Gal Leshem

"Using textiles allows these works to function as a symbolic mould for the body while at the same time providing a space for the body to react or distort the strictness of geometry"


Could you tell us a bit about yourself. How long have you been a practicing artist and where did you study?

I am originally from Israel and have been living in London for the past five years. I’ve had a bit of an unusual journey into the art world. After studying art and philosophy in high school/college I joined a newly established artist collective that grew into an organization of artists-educators in Israel. I spent 5 years living and working as part of that group, facilitating and developing artistic projects, seminars, workshops and exhibitions in various community settings across peripheral Israel. We were trying to generate collective modes of art-making in the community, focused around political and social issues while also creating a radical new structure of living collectively.

About 5 years ago I decided I wanted to focus and develop my own practice and enrolled on a Fine Art & History of Art course at Goldsmiths.
Coming to Goldsmiths from a background of cultural activism was both frustrating and incredible. The idea of working alone in the studio seemed very foreign and alienating to me. It took me a while to realize that the same issues I was dealing with before - the construction of national Identities, questions around communality and collectivity, notions of social and political otherness and sameness - could be brought into my practice and inform both my work and writing.

Your work is a nod to early 20th Century geometric abstraction, could you tell us what draws you to this form of abstraction and the decision to use fabric?

For a while I’ve been occupied with the significance of history and collective memory in contemporary cultures. I set out to explore the construction of identities and belonging through the histories of modernist thought as a visual-ideological discourse.

My interest in geometric abstraction grew out of a research I took into early Israeli communities (Kibbutz) which were formed by eastern european immigrants who were dedicated to setting up socialist societies in their villages. They were very Idealistic and drew from Marxist theories to form new ways of living. I was looking for the visual aspect of this revolutionary experiment, and started linking it to similar early modernist approaches.

20th century geometric abstraction can be seen as the artistic manifestation of that sort of utopian thought which characterized early modernism at different moments across the world. Looking at Russian Constructivism particularly shows how geometry was used as the visual language in the service of political ideals. It was the attempt to design a new, universal, utopian world. This universality of geometry as a political tool is complex as well- on one hand it is an inclusive language accessible to all, but on the other hand it could be be seen as ignoring difference in the struggle for equality.

When thinking about Identity and collectivity, I’m wondering about the individuals in these revolutionary structures. The ways in which ideology is embodied and marked on individual bodies. That’s where the use of fabric comes in, bringing all these questions and references into the realm of the body. The fabric always wraps the body, it is the garment, the tent, the blanket, the cover. Using textiles allows these works to function as a symbolic mould for the body while at the same time providing a space for the body to react or distort the strictness of geometry.

Imprint of his Native Landscape, 2016

And She Is A Mummer and Queen (back left), 2016

And She Is A Mummer and Queen (back left), 2016

Do these shapes having a narrative? Whats your starting point?

Generally, these shapes are the result of my research and consideration of modernist architecture, art and design. Looking at monuments and structures which were typical during the first half of the 20th century, and stand for the modernist “project”: cityscapes, buildings, and designs which have shaped our visual world.

Different movements at that time were doing similar gestures in diverse ways. Bauhaus, Constructivism, the Elm model, Functionalism were all different approaches to the same abstraction, a search for making things using the simplest of forms, reducing it to the basics.

So I “gather” these shapes and then begin to play around with their placement and composition. I try to do it in a way that still directly references their “origin”, while creating a landscape which integrates all these different forms into something new.

Sometimes the work is more specific though. The work Imprint of His Native Landscape, for example, refers to Israeli architecture in the 50’s and 60’s, a time which saw a massive growth in construction and development initiated by the state. The important thing for me about that history is that israeli architects at the time were heavily influenced by European and American architectural trends, and what they built reflects that. This obviously had a massive impact on how many public spaces that were built at that time looked like, and in return shaped local sense of identities. The fact that the influences for these buildings and public spaces were European, reveals something beyond the aforementioned link between the modernist aesthetic and the promise for universal progress. It also unveils the national desire to separate the culture from any sort of orientalist connotation, or a relation to the local Arab communities in the area. It shows the commitment to actively regard the land as clean slate on which a new society will come, rather than addressing its geographic and cultural locality.

Untitled 1, 2016

Untitled 1, 2016

What do you hope the viewer gains/reacts from looking at your work?

I think that one of the most dominant aspects of these works is that they have some kind of a retro feel to them. That they refer to and draw inspiration from a different time, a different artistic intention than what we find today. It is both the form, but also the scale of them -they could almost be seen as murals- that would make the viewer see them as material anachronism. I hope that that is something that comes across. A sort of out-of-date-ness that could possibly re-open some of the questions from that time, or

maybe revisit its relevance. I hope that to some extent they could bring about a sense of both nostalgia and critique of that particular aesthetic and its use.

How do you go about naming your work?

I think that titles are actually a really important part of the work, and that they provide a way in for the audience to understand or get a general context for the work. My titles usually refer to specific cultural references, a song, poem or ritual from the Jewish/Israeli tradition. Currently working in London, I freely translate the title to English which is quite productive as well. It places the work in a specific context and misplaces it at the same time. The name is never something I spend time thinking about, rather it kind of comes to me- at some point in the process I’ll just know it. It’s a great moment because I suddenly understand the work better as well. I know what is the work really about.

Tell us a bit about how you spend your day/studio routine, what is your studio like?

Since a big part of my work is research based, some of my time goes to that. Looking through old picture albums, archives, libraries, reading about those materials. At the moment I am looking at old propaganda posters - their visual pedagogy is fascinating. My studio is the final stage of the process and it is more like a little production workshop at the moment. Before that comes a lot of planning and reflecting. And daydreaming, which I recently understood is crucial for me. Thinking through things, imagining, linking and making critical or visual connections. Most of the creative work happens in my head.

The Monument, 2016

Untitled 2, 2016

What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?

I recently came across Artur Zmijewski’s work Democracies, currently showing at Tate Modern. It’s a film that is comprised of 20 different videos which the artist took at protests, parades, marches and funerals at various locations around the world. The jarring aspect of the work is that it shows the whole spectrum of the political map, from peace protests to extreme nationalist groups. By doing that he makes us observe the structure rather than the content of the gatherings, as well as the structure of democracy itself. For me it was both the similarities between the different groups, the political drive that brought people together, that seemed important, but also the symbols, emblems and images people used to manifest their collective identity and unite them.

What does the future hold for you as an artist? Is there anything new and exciting in the pipeline you would like to tell us about?

I am currently working as artist-in-residence at the Tate School Workshop Programme, which is a great experience that combines my own practice, the museum collection and the young people who participate in the workshops. So I hope to do similar stuff in the future, developing artistic project which happen outside the gallery and come to life through collective engagement.

I am also organizing and curating an exhibition about Place and Memory in the Middle East, which is a collaborative project that brings together eight artists from across the middle east who are working with the theme of memory. It’s really about creating a dialogue between ourselves and our works, and it’s already proving to be a very intricate and exciting exchange. 

Artist's website

Publish date: 25/11/16
All images courtesy of the artist