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  • "Shaul Knaz moves about in the art world like a stealth plane"

    Meir Ahronson (Spring 2012, Chief Curator and Director, The Museum of Israeli Art, Ramat Gan)

    When I first met Saul Knaz he was standing at the door to his studio in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. He was a tall fellow with a full beard and was dressed in kibbutz work clothes.

    If he were wearing different clothes, I thought to myself as I approached him, he could be a painter in Provence. But Gan Shmuel is not Provence and Saul Knaz is not a French artist. But one can imagine.

    Saul Knaz's paintings are not the kinds of works that art curators are used to seeing. For years, the Israeli art radar never even picked up a signal of their existence. Knaz moves about in the art world like a stealth plane, but he leaves in his wake a visible trail. This trail is made up of practical endeavor, of designs for newspapers, kibbutz parties and celebrations. The practice of making his painting into something purposeful is perhaps the soul of the kibbutznik in him. Being active is a value as cherished as are the reasons why Knaz, a son of the kibbutz, has remained on the kibbutz.

    The canvases are bursting with haphazardly arranged images. Reading the work is like reading cuneiform writing that has been jumbled and put back onto the canvas. The visual texts are the signs of his life, a life made up of memories of orchards that once were, an army that once was, a kibbutz that once was. There is much in these paintings that can be called "once was." Yet, despite this script that speaks in the past tense, there is in these works, in these paintings something very contemporary. Painting that is not trying to be clever, painting without the pyrotechnics of color and form, painting that puts itself on the canvas dressed in plain work clothes and work boots, painting that is entirely a self portrait of Knaz at the same time as it is a portrait of society.

    When we parted, I took note of the kibbutz's old main entrance gate. Saul stood next to it and told me about the founding of the kibbutz and this gate. It became clear to me then that Knaz and his paintings were as one. Today the gate stands at the side of the parking lot at the entrance to the kibbutz. A gate is a type of triumphal entry. The triumphal entry is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the defeat of a place, a defeat that is memorialized by the victor. History is written by the victors, wrote Walter Benjamin. This gate is a triumphal entry that has become a memorial; an entry that one passes through to no particular place. The winners are the private cars belonging to the members of the now privatized Kibbutz Gan Shmuel that are parked in the parking lot of what was, and perhaps still is, the stronghold of an idea.

    The radar may have missed Knaz but Sarah Brietberg-Semel, who is a kind of "super radar" for Israeli art picked up his signal and alerted me to his existence. For this and for many other things I am most grateful to her. Additional thanks are extended to Hila Fishman who took upon herself the task of curator of this exhibition and all the work this entails. I extend my thanks as well to Hezie Lavi for his efforts to bring this exhibition to fruition and to the dedicated staff of the museum for their continuing and valuable work.

    The World of Shaul Knaz

    Hila Fishman, (Curator, 2012)

    One senses a vague feeling of loneliness amidst the clamoring crowd of tightly knit figures that populate the paintings of Saul Knaz. "There is no spontaneity without order; a scream has no meaning without silence" says Knaz. One needs the other; one derives from the other. Knaz needs them both. In his painting he searches for this equilibrium, this balance between opposites.

    His paintings are a colorful mosaic of small images repeated in endless variations filling the entire picture surface. Knaz references his immediate surroundings—people, objects, actions— and translates it into an abridged dictionary of terms that includes representational human figures, familiar everyday objects, and sometimes words and parts of sentences. The letters that make up the words represent an idea, but their linear presence also serves to connect between the visual imagery and the written word, turning both into signs. This is a fragile, intimate world translated into recurring images of human figures with remote expressions; a colorful map made of "sign posts"; a kind of primitive wall painting.

    The Artist's Creative Space
    From Knaz's first days as an art student at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in the early 1960s, painting was his private haven of freedom. Through it he overcame what he called the "gravitational force of life," an idea which through the years he tried to integrate into his work as a graphic artist and as an illustrator and designer of projects installed throughout Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, where he was born and still lives. For over the last decade, Knaz has been working in his small studio on the kibbutz, formulating and developing his unique style that reflects the matters that occupy his thoughts. The paintings in this exhibition highlight the artistic language in which he has been formulating his ideas over these last years.

    Knaz's densely filled canvases take up almost all the available space inside his studio. The paintings, lined up one next to another, crammed and crowded together, echo the repetition found in the works themselves. The scene in his studio envelops the visitor in a colorful profusion of forms, creating an impressive sensory, almost hypnotic experience. The actual scene inside the studio reveals much about its occupant, who through the works lined along its walls shows himself to be an intense and vibrant individual, who has instinctually maintained a measured and thoughtful outlook on the disquiet of his inner world.

    The grassy lawn at the heart of the kibbutz echoes in the symbolic background against which the figures in the pictorial space are gathered. In this collective, group space, the figures appear next to each other but do not touch. They are clearly defined and delineated through contour lines that turn them into flat two-dimensional signs, archetypes of people. Knaz divides the pictorial field into a sort of game board or layers with invisible netting that separate the figures from one another. The figures sometimes seem as if they are trapped inside transparent bubbles, in worlds of their own, despite their proximity to one another.

    The repetitive figures and their nearness as well as the simplicity and clarity of the visual language Knaz employs in response to his subject derive from the world of graffiti and street art, similar in style to the imagery of Keith Haring, who translated his street art into dynamic, anonymous human figures delineated by thick contour lines. These images convey the conflicting messages of the human condition: unity of the group, of being one among many in the midst of a city teeming with people, and alienation of the individual who, as if swallowed up by the crowd, has no connection to the place and instead is searching for momentary pleasures. This seemingly urban language is mingled with the local kibbutz world of values that is private and unique to Knaz's art. The closeness of these two distant worlds, the flattened compositions and the delineation of the figures through contour lines, convey a mood of detachment and disorientation, despite the proximity of the figures to each other and their graphic joie de vivre. It is as if some bright light has erased all the middling hues and has left only a white background and the borders of things. What was clearly defined in the past, what was once tangible and alive, is now only an empty shell, a vision, a flickering memory.

    Dream, Home, War
    Knaz generally gives titles to his painting series, as if they were definitions or opening lines of a story, but he considers these titles more as suggestions than sets of givens. Thus, he has this to say about a series he titled "Letters from Israel": "People come and go, and go to war, and don't remember for what, and a man and a tank, and a woman and a child, and a tree and a house and a car, and they never meet up; but one doesn't give up; the letters from Israel that were once love letters are now a kind of disillusioned love."

    Man and woman, the central, fundamental images in Knaz's paintings, represent the basic human urge to connect, but also the difficulty of maintaining the connection. The man usually carries a kind of phallic-shaped tool or rifle and the woman carries a child in her womb—typical social stereotypes. These stereotypes appear as well in the images of cypress and citrus trees which are prevalent in the kibbutz landscape where Knaz lives—the citrus bearing the female fruit is opposed to the maleness of the cypress tree. The man and the woman usually are trying to reach one another, but are prevented from touching by some unseen force. Wearing some kind of inexplicable smile on their faces, they appear to float in the pictorial space, surrounded by other images that appear as momentary echoes of the man and woman's presence at that moment in time. Sometimes their hands are joined but their bodies face in opposite directions, as if pulled apart by a mysterious, conflicting desire impossible to escape. This dance of figures—united for a moment and then torn apart, imagined through a line that curves in and out as if it has "gone for a stroll" on the picture surface— evokes the sense of the potential for love and happiness, but also of mechanical, perfunctory emotion. "The end of being together," is the state around which the figures move in endless repetition.

    The images filling the canvas touch upon ever-widening circles of intermingling relationships: couple, family, social circle, society, war. Images of children—playing games, holding balloons, or pulling little cars by a string like a pet—are mixed together with graphic images of games like tic-tac-toe and other more violent objects like tanks. The tanks float in the painted space along with all the other images, implements of war that look like toy cars or other children's toys. The image of the tank as a womb-like alternative to the home blends the reality of home with the reality of war so that it appears as an almost natural state of being.

    In a series of works, the promising words "On the Way to Happiness," appear along with the figures with the clown-like grimaces. They are like acrobats going about their daily routines, trying not to fall while they balance on a tightrope. The absurdness of contemporary life finds expression in other words integrated among the figures, such as "Happiness," and "Success," which are written in English in order to stress, as Knaz explains, the emptiness of their meaning. The "road to success," is the momentary, fleeting celebration of life, but it is also a phrase that has replaced the notion of collective happiness with that of individual happiness and, is still far from being achieved.

    Painting as a Life-script
    Painting as a visual text was first developed in the cultures of antiquity, beginning with the pre-historic cave paintings followed by cuneiform writing and hieroglyphics. Knaz's paintings are made up of familiar cultural signs that distill life into an array of images that repeat themselves in a variety of sequences. The measure of time that is individual, sequential, and linear, is broken down in his paintings into the seconds or parts that comprise it; the representational images appear frozen or preserved in time. The images are grouped into seemingly clear formulas and placed together in a new order as if they are trying to realign themselves. Sometimes the images are made uniformly smaller, turning into signs that almost blend together, and other times they are made more and more abstract throughout the planes of the painting until they become biomorphic forms that seem to float in the pictorial space. The narrative aspect breaks down into a balance of form and color reminiscent of visual texts having a logical, decipherable and readable sequence. Nonetheless, the familiar signs become indecipherable through this game of free association and the constructing and deconstructing of the series of words and images. Some, like the beginning of sentences ("maybe tomorrow, maybe me") can change from being a private quest to a collective analogy.

    Knaz's attraction to texts and his use of words in his work point to his writing as another important aspect of his work. Over the years, he has written a number of books in which he gave expression to his thoughts and unique perspective on reality, his own internal and emotional world, and the changing world of the kibbutz in which he lives. For example, in 1974 he published a series of personal reflections and illustrations which he titled Letters to Tanks. He wrote and illustrated this as a spontaneous reaction to the Yom Kippur War in which he fought as a member of the armored division of the Israeli army. These "letters to tanks" symbolically take the place of the letters sent by soldiers to loved ones on the home front. In an absurd shift from reality that can only be explained in the context of war, Knaz, who, out of necessity was bound in life and in death to his tank, poses questions to and argues with it. In another book, Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe Me (2009), Knaz recollects on the formative as well as destructive moments of his life on the Kibbutz and in Israeli reality. Knaz mainly expresses his own outlook on life and his sometimes conflicting hope of being able to express and follow his inner voice without losing the framework entirely.

    These are the moments that resonate in the paintings of Saul Knaz. A picturesque world on canvas; a colorful world made up of many unidentifiable parts that exist on the fragile seam between order and chaos. The arrangement of the images allows him to think about private moments in a more detached way, the shadow of a dream and its shattering, while society breaks down around him.

    "Maybe Tomorrow, Maybe Me"
    The moment when the familiar world loses its constancy and becomes unfamiliar is the moment that characterizes the works of Saul Knaz. His paintings hint at questions about how to carry on after the period of transition comes to an end, once the change is finally made where what was once the collective search for meaning and happiness becomes an individual, personal, private search for meaning and happiness. It is this moment in time where Knaz's mood shifts from individual truth to the need for "keeping things together," like the tightrope walkers in his paintings who are trying to keep their balance as they move forward.

    Knaz pines for and practically clings to the notion of togetherness in the picturesque world he imagines in his paintings. Yet, his unique view of life, sharpened by irony and introspection, enables him to borrow from the familiar images of his surroundings and create out of them a new sensation that moves back and forth between estrangement and confusion. He searches simultaneously for an exit and a new path—a moment that both shatters as well as frees him from the illusions of the past—that leads him and the viewers of his works to a freer, he would say, "less dramatic," place. Knaz is striving to reach that first balance of opposites that will steer the familiar to a new past.

    The End of the Road

    Sarah Brietberg-Semel, (2012)

    Perhaps it is an image of happiness; Utopia in pinks and reds; families relaxing in a paradise-like space. If indeed this is the subject of the painting, it should evoke distant memories of those joyous paintings by Yochanan Simon, a member of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, as is Saul Knaz, of families at work on the kibbutz. Simon, a member of Hashomer Hazair, the radical socialist kibbutz movement, was the official artist of the kibbutz ethos in its heyday. Back then Kibbutz Gan Shmuel was a site of joy. However, a second look at Knaz's paintings filled with the tiny figures that are so characteristic of his work, and so different in their visual language from Simon's, offers a more precise reading: These figures do not make up families in any sense of the word, and bear no characteristics common to a society. There is nothing linking the figures to one another. This is a human mass, without context or basis, a collection of individuals—a brief history of humanity told as a story of loneliness, dipped in the saccharine colors of simulated happiness, complete with slogans that have lost their bite. A circus of life, Knaz would say. It's a tired circus, judging from these last works in particular. A decade ago Knaz's paintings still featured central characters, generally a man (carrying a rifle, alongside a tank) and a woman, who stood out from among the anonymous sequence of images. They represented the fundamental conflict. With the passing of time the conflict dulled/faded. It has become a march of folly, but there isn't any ground on which to march. Now, each is responsible for his or her individual fate. There is a cognitive dissonance going on in these works; dystopia masquerading as utopia. Precisely from this abundance, human features, human contact, basic human skills have been taken away. Perhaps, this condition points us to a very specific point in time, our own time, today's western world. This is our post-modern world, which Jean Francois Lyotard characterized as a world without any grand narratives, devoid of ideology, a world that has lost the ideological tension between competing economic systems. One could say that capitalism and the sated West are at the base of the crumbling humanity in Knaz's paintings.

    Even though these works depict foundational experiences devoid of specific context or time, since I am familiar with Saul Knaz's roots as well as with his incisive and expansive writing which is almost entirely a rearguard effort to salvage his home and the communal life of Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, I will allow myself the privilege of pointing out the possibility of a specific reading of his work that draws a line between polar opposites—between Yochanan Simon, painter of the kibbutz at its zenith, and Saul Knaz, painter of the disintegration of the kibbutz ethos and of Israeli society and its comfortable affluence. These paintings tell of the shattering of a great vision. It is the private, personal, and painful case of the collapse of the kibbutz movement's collective ideology seen through Lyotard's broader theory of the disintegration of ideology in the western world. Knaz still remembers the world that was: "Today everything is just a semblance; a kind Facebook friendship—without true camaraderie and without obligations. It is a cushioned and somewhat withered existence. It is a community without members; a people that is 'together' but one where 'every man is for himself'" (from "A Krechtzen," A Unique Sigh, written, edited, illustrated and published by Saul Knaz [January 2012]). Though Knaz himself disagrees with such a one-sided reading, it seems to me that his writings could be considered the source from which his paintings and the figures depicted in them, the negatives of our society, stem. His writing reveals a communal existence without having to participate, lacking nothing but the "inner recesses" and meaning of life.

    * * *

    I met Saul Knaz through my friend the artist and photographer Dalia Amotz, also a native of Gan Shmuel, and who knew Saul from infancy. She left the kibbutz. He stayed. They remained brave friends, partners in many battles, but the battle over art was a battle unto death. During those years Saul painted very little. Saul felt that modernism, which concentrated on the "how" of painting rather than on the "what," limited his artistic expression. He therefore devoted most of his energies to practical art. Like Yochanan Simon, he too was a graphic artist for the kibbutz movement and party newspaper "Al Hamishmar." He executed a mural for the kibbutz factory building, created decorations for the holidays, filled the paths of the kibbutz with images of its history. He believed in art that takes the community into account, art that understands its role as visual communication. Dalia, a strong-minded Modernist, and unique photographer, aspired toward the absolute, without compromise. She believed that art must strive to reach beyond the visible, to create a universe of its own. This argument echoes the great twentieth-century debate in art between western formalism, art as an expression of freedom, and the varied notion of art held by the Left. Engraved on Dalia's tombstone are the words chosen by her friend Saul, and which we all agreed were a most fitting tribute to her: "Here lies Dalia Amotz . . . possessing absolute and uncompromising honesty in art, love, and life." Saul and Dalia's heated debate had turned on this very point—how does the artist live his life, how is art created, how and should an artist "go all the way." Only after her death and with the rise of post-modernism, which Saul sees as the antithesis of modernism, as offering a place for the "what," and not only for the "how" in art, was he able to devote himself to painting with a new-found intensity, to portray the tragicomic predicament of man in the world-after. The fruits of this late phase of his artistic career are presented in this exhibition. Knaz's concluding remarks bear witness to the process he has undergone, and which echoes back to that old debate: "I worked very little in pure art. I always said to myself that I don't want my feet to become detached from the ground. And when they finally did, I could not and do not ever want to go back to that place."


    By Yuval Danieli, Jan. 24, 2010

    While looking at Shaul's works I am reminded of a visit I made years ago in Andalusia in a carpet weavers' village. Carpets are woven out of hundreds of folkloristic items which together create an impressive aggregate. So Saul Knaz weaves together a tapestry of his life. His personal story is Gan Samuel. His work contains the whole story of his life. Shaul is first and foremost a painter telling us a story. His work is literary, ideological and artistic.

    The adult Saul Knaz has never parted from his childhood. In style he has remained faithful to respectable styles in the world of art. Naive, deliberately childlike, stereotypical. He creates a prototype of images, copies and repeats them in his works. Creates a personal language with innocence components

    Saul Knaz's works lead us along the years of his life, as I understand them from his work. They are full of contradictions and dilemmas. Childhood, army and tanks – a love hate relationship, love and disappointments, farewells and memories. Love of his home the kibbutz and mourning its dissolution. A conflict between the individual and togetherness, society and loneliness.

    In fact Shaul paints his home. He chronicles events - political, collective and personal. Shaul is an opinionated, inherently political figure not indifferent to what takes place at home and outside it. His base is his home Gan Shmuel but his works are in many ways from all over the place.

    Saul is a master of details. His work is constructed from dozens and hundreds of symbols, motifs that leave no free space on the canvas, no breathing space.

    To decipher the elements in his work they should be dismantled, the details isolated and then the components reassembled. Saul deliberately loads his works full of his imagery and compresses them into one. He uses every scrap of fabric to form an image. To grasp the essence of his work one should look at it patiently, not abruptly. He becomes clearer as the time passes.

    Saul Knaz created a unique personal language in the world of Israeli graphics. A language that is witty, humorous and stereotypical. In this language, the word has an integral part of the work as a whole.

    In this respect, he is a multidisciplinary artist. It is difficult to separate his stories and his books from his complex pictorial work. Its hard to separate the graphics of political posters from the works done for the sake of art. I find it difficult to categorize the different areas. His artistic works can easily be used as graphics at their best. On the other hand, his graphics can also be regarded as artistic works that stand in their own rights.

    The exhibition that is spread here today before us is a small section of the larger complex of his work.

    For instance, I have not talked here about Shaul the political caricaturist with his sharp eye and expressions.

    I'm looking forward to "broader showing" that will bring together all the components of his work and give us the opportunity to better understand the code of his craft.