Maya Israel: Water Marks

Photographed by Ami Erlich.

MAYA ISRAEL / Water Marks

December 17, 2015 – January 30, 2016

“All is water” – this apparently laconic statement is ascribed to the first philosopher of Western tradition, Thales of Greece. Water, he wished to say, is the source of all phenomena and the element found in all things in the world. Of course, long before science proved that water is the basis for all life forms, it was instilled by different cultures with the status of the Primary Source. Mythological creation stories of many nations describe how the world burst forth out of the primal eternal ocean. In the Biblical account, after “the spirit of God was hovering upon the water” (Genesis 1:2), God says: “Let there be a firmament within the waters that it may separate between the waters and the waters. And God made the firmament, and it divided between the waters below the firmament and the waters above the firmament, and it was so” (Genesis 1:7). In the generation of Noah, water serves as an agent that destroys civilization, and enables it to be reborn with a clean slate (tabula rasa), a motif that also recurs in Mesopotamian, Hindu, and Greek myths, etc. Water, then, constitutes not only a passive source, but also a punishing, negating, purifying, creating and reviving power.

In the worlds created by Maya Israel through her paintings, water also occurs and echoes as a basic element of the universe and of existence. Water appears not only in its simple, raw form – as lakes, rivers and oceans – but also as an inner trait that wells up in everything. People, mountains, trees, the heavens – all are in flux and constant change, embodying the inherent fluidity that enables them to flow from one to the other, to be absorbed within each other, to be diluted into a unified existence in which the distinct categories we are accustomed to melt away. The relations between man and his surroundings in her paintings are diffuse and symbiotic, and coalesce into a sort of holistic ontological picture that undermines the dichotomy between subject and object, man and nature. The background is also the subject. The margins are also the center.

Israel’s work process is characterized by a repetitive act of erasure, covering and leaving remnants. The finished painting is saturated with layers, and hidden within there are always geological traces of multi-staged creation. In the images there is an inner tension between the two-dimensional flattening of painting, and the illusionary characteristic of painting, which opens up to the observer a possible world and invites him to “be absorbed” (to use the terminology of art theorist Michael Fried). The sulfurous tones and long brush strokes transport the observer to realms of hallucination and dreams.

The images that sprout up to us from the canvas are clue-less: it’s nowhere, no time, no-one and therefore also everyone. The generic geography, the saturated light that contains within it different times in a single place, the unlined faces – all cause us to feel we are not looking at a concrete moment subject to the laws of time and place, but rather at an eternal moment, without beginning or end, that returns to float in a limbo lacking the coordinates of consciousness. This is memory, but not specific or biographic memory, but rather a universal memory of Everyman who represents a primordial human condition. The paintings waver between the dramatic to the dreamlike, but do not hold a yearning to some lost pastoral Arcadia. Instead, they express a primal experience that sinks into the depths.

The spirit of the Romantic sublime rests upon this series of paintings, and also the correspondence with metaphysical Surrealist art is felt here. This is particularly so with regard to Rene Magritte’s “Castle in the Pyrenees”, in which a huge boulder appears bearing a castle, floating like a weightless capsule over the water. It appears that the same boulder of Magritte undergoes with Israel an accelerated process of abstraction, in the frame of which it takes on a meteor-like form, and appears to move quickly toward the ocean waters. This is also the end point of this series of paintings, which gradually breaks away from all human characteristics until only water and sky remain, and darkness upon the face of the deep. Man eventually becomes another layer of existence that is swallowed up and disappears.

Arnon Ben-Dror – December 2015


Maya Israel was born in 1974 and today lives and works in Jerusalem. She graduated with two degrees from the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Arts & Design in 2008. Maya’s work has been shown in solo exhibitions at Contemporary Gallery, Jerusalem Artists House, and Haifa Museum of Art. In addition, she has participated in multiple group shows at the Ashdod Museum of Art, Artist Workshops, Hansen House, and Stein Rose Contemporary in New York. Winner of the Shoshana Ish-Shalom Prize for a Jerusalem painter (2015). Her works are found in numerous private and public collections.