Looking back at us with a mixture of intent, fear, and defiance, Hagit Barkai’s paintings increasingly implicate viewers in the process of seeing. Her haunting images do not smooth over disruption and anxiety. Instead, they open the abyss between knowledge and unintelligibility. Such figures of discomfort and vulnerability knock us down and make us wonder: Do these pictures fictionalize or give testimony to events? Why are couples crowded in picture planes? What is provoking someone’s urge to vomit? Is the repetition of certain scenes an emphasis, a cinematic sequence, or a form of reenactment? And what are we to make of blurs, shift of focus around edges, unfinished figure/ground relations?
In Memory, History, Forgetting, the French philosopher Paul Ricouer examined the relationship between remembering and forgetting, while questioning how historical narratives overly remind us of certain events at the expense of others. He pointed out that imagination—our ability to imagine and to form a mental picture—has a double meaning. On the one hand, imagination signifies fiction, fantasy, visualization, and on the other hand, it is equated with memory, recollection of prior events, and the experience of remembering, as such (as the iconic dimension of memory itself), which is the opposite of forgetting, effacing, and erasing. In art, life, and increasingly in the production of historical narrative, these two meanings of imagination are entangled and progressively combined in our collective mediated and largely unconscious memory.
In Barkai’s work we sense this history in distress, no longer with the certainty of a linear temporal sequence. Without the possibility of asserting fiction or non-fiction, her images point to the epistemological crisis of not trusting one’s own eyes. The artist’s effacing or erasing body parts further emphasizes the opacity of the medium and destroys the illusion of pictorial representation—the assumption that images are transparent windows into “reality.”
In contrast to the fast-paced flux of technical images, which include design, photography, cinema, video and digital animation, made with ever more sophisticated options for manipulating them, Barkai combines nineteenth century classical technique with contemporary scenes of discomfort and intimacy, which she renders with a beauty that simultaneously move, disturb, and seduce. Her pictures collapse skin and surface as well as the distance between the slower “breathing” life of the body of painting and the living bodies, screaming or laughing depicted on her canvases.
By focusing on ambiguous and anonymous identities whose bodies are the locus of political and power conflicts, she explores inner contradictions that are at the same time religious and political, social and ethical, philosophical, psychological, and emotional. These images share the charged territories explored by a few other contemporary artists such as Kara Walker, William Kentridge and Shazia Sikander. And although these artists are not stylistically related, they share a certain disillusion and melancholy, as they expose break-downs and violence, rapture and ecstasy. Their deeply complex imagery engages art making and narrative from a well of social conflict, in which history and personal stories are inseparable from the gestures of drawing and painting. Here, image making and writing divide the same original meaning of in-scription, and in-formation, which the philosopher Vilém Flusser explored in the essay “The gesture of writing.” Barkai echoes this shared origin of drawing and writing through painting in-sights.
Simone Osthoff is Associate Professor of Critical Studies in the School of Visual Arts at the Pennsylvania State University. She is the author of Performing the Archive: The Transformation of the Archive in Contemporary Art from Repository of Documents to Art Medium, 2009.