New art exhibit comments on body-image, gender and victimhood

The Davidsonian >Arts & LivingBySara Claire Chambless

Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Art faculty, Hagit Barkai, opened "It Looks Something Like This," an exhibit of evocative figurative paintings on Thursday, November 3, 2011. A crowd of students, faculty and art enthusiasts gathered in the Katherine and Tom Belk Visual Arts Center (VAC) to celebrate as Barkai debuted her work to the Davidson community.

Art Department Chair Cort Savage introduced the artist and expressed his pleasure in welcoming such an accomplished artist and teacher to the faculty after a long and drawn-out candidate search. Barkai came to Davidson after several years of teaching in Houston, TX and receiving acclaim for her past exhibits in the United States and Israel.

Barkai took an untraditional approach to an artist's talk and invited Hardin Minor, a co-founder of Omimeo, a mime performance group in Charlotte, to participate in a performance. The interactive performance allowed audiences to connect with the themes present in Barkai's paintings: restraint, binding, and other limitations placed on the body.

Barkai's large, gestural oil paintings leave the viewer unsettled, but not sure why. The figures engage in a wide range of postures; their bodies twist, crouch, lay and stand tall. The paint's varying thickness defines some body parts and leaves others ambiguous and unpolished, and draws the viewer's eye toward highly developed areas. The artist's unique lines and strokes give life to her figure's faces.

Studio art major Lauren Kaperman '12 says, "She has a beautiful energy in her brushstrokes but contains it for just a moment on certain features, like a nose, just defining the body enough to put the body in our real world with us."

Like contemporary artist Doug Auld, Barkai's figures stare out at the viewers, captivating them with desperate glances, pleading for them to hear their story. The narratives flood the viewer with intense empathy. When looking at the paintings, viewers experience the figures' vulnerability, desperation, insecurity and conflicted identities.

Figurative art traditionally uses narrative to communicate larger socio-political messages; such is the case with HagitBarkai's work. Barkai explores body image, the way our bodies form self-identity and way bodies function as vehicles of cultural communication.

In an interview with Creative Loafing, Charlotte, NC, Barkai says, "I grew up in an environment with strict restrictions on the body, its expressions and its movements. These have always been underlying themes in my paintings.

"There is also the Israeli ethos of victimhood and growing up to learn about realities of victimizing, which have been a tone in my paintings since I came to the U.S.," she continued. "I find that I see the people in my painting and sometimes the paintings themselves as victims, but free at the same time to leave or choose how to be in their space."

Students have found the work highly accessible. Art history major, KaitlynMcElwee '13 says of the exhibit,"Hagit's paintings are emotionally charged. They have a sort of gravitational pull that brings you into the painting as they simultaneously push you away. As such, they serve as a commentary upon the way in which we perceive social and political conflicts."

Barkai's work responds to the ongoing discussion of body-image, gender and victimhood that has dominated contemporary art since the late 1980s.

Her work shares strong ties with Kiki Smith's abject bodies and with Mona Hatoum's exploration of cultural and national identity.

The familiarity of subject matter and the clarity of content make this exhibit accessible to students of all disciplines. With its powerfully evocative paintings and artful curation, this exhibit is a must-see.