The difference between style and hand
Last week, I heard Brooklyn artist Abshalom Jac Lahav speak about his 48 Jews, on display at the Oregon Jewish Museum through 6 September. The artist talked about his many influences and inspirations, including Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits and Andy Warhol’s 10 Portraits of Jews of the 20th Century, and spoke of the push and pull of likeness which he exploits beautifully in these paintings of well-known faces. But what has stuck with me since the talk is Lahav’s understanding of style. With 48 Jews, he was looking to explode the strict and restricting sense of style present in so much of contemporary painting. Using Richter’s blurred photorealistic manner as an example, he talked about style as a filter that the artist puts over an object which he is representing so that a Richter is recognizably a Richter whether the subject of the painting is an apple or a person.
Lahav wanted to avoid that sameness—that filtered feeling—in his work, but, from the moment I walked into the room, the cohesiveness of his series was striking.
Many of the works in 48 Jews are similar in composition to this one: a face set in the middle of a large and mostly flat area of color.
And, like Silverstein’s portrait, Marceau’s face, among others, has been painted with a painterly realism and fleshiness.
This portrait of Chagall does not, at first glance, have a lot in common with the other two examples that I’ve shown so far, but, on closer examination, Lahav has used the scraped paint technique in the face area of this image, much like he used it in the headdress in Marceau’s portrait and in many others.
Like Chagall’s portrait, Nancy Spero has a Warholesque delineation overlayed on the fuzzy or jumbled area of a face, an approach that Lahav uses a few times in the series.
And the blurred photorealism of the Derrida faces in this painting is very similar to the technique used in the background portrait of Cindy Sherman in Nancy Spero for example, and is seen throughout 48 Jews.
Shunning style, Lahav has nevertheless maintained a distinct hand, which he developed over the course of the series, as becomes clear in the examination of these two versions of Noam Chomsky. Lahav has created several portraits of a number of his 48 Jews subjects in order to replace paintings that now belong in various public and private collections. And I am fairly certain that I know which of these two portraits was created later even though they are both dated 2009. The portrait on the right (on view at the Oregon Jewish Museum) is much more developed than the one on the left, which is a fairly straightforward exercise in painterly style with a blanking out background.
Similarly, the Elvis on the left has much less to say about its subject than the one on the right (on view in Portland), which has an individual flair that the clean pink Elvis is lacking. Lahav’s reworkings of the same subjects reveal how his well-defined hand did not simply stagnate but developed over the course of this series.
An artist’s style can be like a filter as Lahav describes it, and, as such, it can be imitated to some degree. Conversely, an artist’s hand is entirely her-his own. It’s composed of all the approaches to media and subject matter that an artist has ever used along with all those she-he will use. The hand of an artist is recognizable across media, techniques, styles, and genres as well as between individual works…or, rather, it should be, as it is with Lahav’s portraits. If a painter is too much of a chameleon—if she-he has no definable hand—the work loses out.
Art should give its audience a sense of its maker because a conversation without personality is a conversation without charisma. If I can’t see the artist in her-his work, I can’t engage with the work.