David Reeb’s recent paintings address themes that should be familiar to people who have followed his work in the last two decades. Some paintings picture aspects of his everyday environment in Tel Aviv, while others represent events related to the occupation of the West Bank. The latter works explore the relevance of painting to the political reality of the occupation and at the same time address pictorial issues that can be said to be specific to painting itself. As with many of the works Reeb exhibited at the Tel Aviv Artist’s House in 2008, these apparently political paintings were made from video stills derived from footage he shot while on demonstrations in West Bank villages such as Nabi Saleh and Bil’in that have been affected in recent years by settlement expansion and the building of the West Bank Barrier. It is in these paintings that Reeb addresses both the need to make the political struggles in these places more visible and the necessarily self-referential nature of painting as a mode of representation.
For example, Facebook Painting (2010) depicts a demonstration in Bil’in in August 2010 during which activists engaged in a performance that made reference to a recent scandal around photographs posted by the former Israeli soldier Eden Abergil on her publicly accessible Facebook wall. These photographs showed Abergil posing in front of detained Palestinian men who had been handcuffed and blindfolded. The activists in Bil’in handcuffed and blindfolded themselves before posing in front of a line of Israeli soldiers, with the intention of creating a photo opportunity for the media. In this way the soldiers were made unwilling participants in a re-enactment of the Abergil photographs. Reeb’s painting shows members of the press with their cameras in front of the activists, thus including something that is rarely seen in media images themselves. This inclusion enables the painting to function as a picture about picturing; a meta-pictorial role that is not just about the inextricable relationship between contemporary political protest and media coverage, but also about painting as a different kind of pictorial production (on ‘meta-pictures’, see W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory, Chicago, 1994). Painters have explored picture-making as a subject for centuries through the genre of the Artist’s Studio. This genre involves the depiction of the studio as the context for the production of art, representing this space as a way of taking stock of the means, subjects, and representational limitations of painterly practice (See Svetlana Alpers, The Vexations of Art: Velasquez and Others, Yale, 2007). Reeb has himself produced a number of studio paintings over the years and continues to do so. Yet in some of his recent paintings of Bil’in and Nabi Saleh he seems to have transferred something of the meta-pictorial function of the Artist’s Studio to the picturing of political events.
When Reeb’s paintings and videos are exhibited together each affects how the other is viewed. Seeing the video footage from which a particular painting is derived reframes the painting, adding context and a sense of location within a narrative (for example, see the video of the demonstration at Nabi Saleh on 26 October 2010, from which Reeb took a still that formed the basis of a two of his recent paintings. This video will be shown alongside the paintings in his forthcoming exhibition in Tel Aviv). The stillness and quiet of the painting is potentially invaded by the action, violence, and noise of the video. The contrast between the videos and the paintings also establishes a strong sense of difference between them in terms of the directness and indirectness of their respective relationships to reality. However because works like Facebook Painting take the lens-based news media as a key element of their subject matter, they suggest the need for an understanding of Reeb’s own video work as the result of particular decisions and actions on his part. This does not devalue the documentary status of the videos. Instead it places an emphasis upon their nature as representations imbued with values and commitments.
Reeb has recently made other paintings that appear to present straightforward depictions of events in Nabi Saleh. 29.10.2010 (2011) pictures the moment when a soldier pepper-sprays two men from the village who are protesting by sitting in the road.
The work appears to involve a realist approach primarily concerned with the visualisation of a political situation. Yet in a later painting entitled 500% (2011), Reeb interrupts this apparent realism through the combination of the same scene in Nabi Saleh with abstract elements that flatten the depicted space and emphasise the constructed nature of the painted image.
These abstract elements are literal blocks against the apprehension of an easy access to non-pictorial reality and signs that even Reeb’s ostensibly realist paintings are always more like other paintings, including abstract ones, than they are like the realities they depict. 500% is in turn depicted within subsequent works that picture Reeb’s studio.
Here the image of the studio is overlaid with red, green, and yellow vertical stripes meaning that the duality of seeing the painted surface and seeing-into depicted space characteristic of the experience of looking at paintings is emphasised. All visual representations of the world are defined by productive relationships between specificities of medium and genre on the one hand and chosen subject matter on the other. When it comes to lens-based images this relationship between the means of representation and the represented subject is rarely as apparent as it is through the manifest twofoldness of painting (on ‘twofoldness’, see Richard Wollheim, Painting as an Art, Thames and Hudson, 1990). However it is this very twofoldness that might provide an alternative starting point for re-viewing lens-based images as actively made visualisations of the world.
For all the heartfelt conviction that Reeb expresses through his activism, when it comes to his paintings there are no simple relationships between political concerns and artistic interests, or between what is experienced directly on demonstrations in the West Bank and what is depicted. Through the paintings we are more likely to encounter layers of simulation – for example, the simulated incarceration pictured in Facebook Painting depicted through the simulation of the painted image – than we are to encounter a straightforward understanding of political issues. The dialogue between surface and depicted depth, and between painterly concerns and political subjects that is structural to these paintings cannot be resolved. Nor should we necessarily want it to be. It is this dialogue that makes these paintings what they are and which also allows for a complex dialogue between Reeb’s paintings and videos when they are seen alongside each other.