Israel was the birthplace and cultural crucible where Hagit Barkai witnessed meaningful battles waged in the name of selfhood, as well as deaf and blind walls erected to keep the Other out. A growing rift between the culture of the Diaspora and the culture of the Settlers happening while Hagit was growing up, seared her psyche with a thirst for truth. While in college, she turned first to philosophy in search for answers. But, writing, she discovered, favors an omniscient gaze that tends to silence the Other. Art, instead opened doors to finding an ethical balance in her relationship with the world. Thus, since the year 2000 Hagit Barkai paints.
The art of Hagit Barkai centers on mysterious and why not? mystical processes that underlie personhood: she reveals to us glimpses into other beings, instances when their becoming drifts to the surface. It is no surprise that Hagit chooses to paint the human body, grounded in the rigorous tradition of Western figuratve painting. Yet, in her work, there is a deliberate departure from Modern canons. Her point of view and her creative process are philosophically rooted in what Heidegger termed "Dassein" or being in the world. Since Dassein, requires authenticity according to the philosopher as well as " a kind of situadedness that involves both the discursive meanings of a cultural field of significance and the corporeal experiences of an embodied subject", (pp.9, Irigaray and Deleuze; experiments in visceral philosophy, Tamsin Lorraine) Hagit, in her own search for authenticity, explores both the sensual and cultural situatedness of her "self" and her subject. In “Home is a Metaphor: there is a quest for greatness” from 2009. we find a young couple dressed in costumes that bring out their cultural differences as well as their “gendered” attitudes. The young woman is posed a couple of steps behind the young man, as if in a submissive mode. She is sheathed in a white tunic, with a headdress that evokes an Andean woman or a "cholita's" garb. He appears assertively dressed in a contemporary, flaming red suit, seeming to complacently exert dominance in the scene. Yet, in this provocative “mise en scene”, where the subjects deliberately perform their parts, the artist captures that instant when the masks drop and an inner spark illuminates the uniqueness and depth of each player. To the viewer, it is evident that an exchange took place between the artist and the couple: this particular and unexpected instance of self awareness is a shared one. Here, in this in-between space, the space of becoming is where the artist finds the fertile ground for meaningful exchanges between subjectivities. Selfhood exudes from human exchange, not alone, not from the outside, nor from the inside alone, but from a meaningful dialogue. As the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray states it " a sexual ethics would treat the body's contact not as a corpse but as something living: angels maintain the body's contact with the divine by mediating between the mortal body and its infinite valuable contact with the sensuous world" (pp.40, Irigaray and Deleuze)
The painter, desires no particular prefixed idea of her subject, but to explore the infinite variety of unpredictable sensations, a "jouissance", a feeling of “ giving herself in the moment to be shaped in a manner she cannot predict" as Irigaray puts it, “the sensible transcendental in the feminine subject, a dynamic becoming” Thus, insofar as the artist is solidly rooted in the here and now, she explores a fluid, ever changing intersubjectivity. In this sense, Hagit accomplishes Irigaray's idea of every little girl’s dream of achieving intersubjective communication. Technically, this is stressed as we approach her canvases, noting how the artist consistently adopts a one to one scale, triangulating a one to one relationship between canvas, her own presence and that of her model, thus allowing herself to witness and trace transformations occurring in each other’s space. An example of this kind of psychological transference happens in “Beside:Touched” from 2009. A pale and evanescent standing figure of a naked young woman, appears frozen as she covers her genitals with her hands, in a gesture of shame or timidity, while her facial features are clouded in a red stain. The artist's decision to erase the face evokes not only her subject’s particular condition, but it echoes loaded cultural images, spanning from Lucas Cranach’s Biblical Eve to the recently overexposed photograph of the humiliated naked male prisoner in Abu Greib, Irak. Thus, the particular and the universal merge in a powerful cultural statement in this work.
Seen in a contemporary art-historical context, Hagit’s art reflects a tendency towards the abject, as in the figurative work of Lucian Freud and Marlene Dumas, painters whose subjects are magnified or reduced in scale tending towards voyeuristic portrayals of the dark side of human nature. Instead, Hagit's taste for the abject is intimate, empathetic. As the artist choses not to minimalize, or magnify the subject’s scale, she avoids creating precious icons, which tend to symbolically reduce the particular to some form of essentialism. Thus, her paintings not only capture the subject’s sensuality, but also register momentary absences, accidents of unselfconsciousness, subtle truths that make the subject- and artist unique. In fact, as these truths touch upon the abject, we see that the dark side of an occult intimacy opens only in moments of trust, instances when the vulnerable self lets go of its boundaries to admit the possibility of the other’s gaze. We can catch these glimpses in “Cross: Chances (no matter how many times) from 2009: the portrayal of Siamese twin babies, fatefully entangled as they gasp for breath; or in “Beside: Entrance” from 2009 an oversized naked female model, posed unbalanced, as she sits facing the viewer on a small stool, or in “Home Metaphor: why wait?” from 2009, a profile figure of a naked girl stooping towards the floor, her long black hair cascading downwards in a fury of expressive, downtrodden, messy strokes.
In spite of her academic and deft representational skills, the artist seeks to flee from the constraints of the frame or the one point perspectival renaissance window. Instead, she attempts to merge the picture with the gallery's blank wall, joining the viewer’s space, not through the theatrics of a "Caravaggioesque" depth, but through the dissolution of the picture’s boundaries. In fact, she frees the unpainted margin of the canvas from its stretcher to show underpinnings of her spontaneous, expressive brushwork and subsequently her paintings are transformed into wall hangings. With this gesture, the artist invites us to enter a space-time where "generation and regeneration" takes place not only in the here and now of the “mise en scene” where her art experience happened but also where our own experience as viewers takes place.
Hagit Barkai”s creative process brings to mind Luce Irigaray’s description of a "place for love" stating: " The body is always touching upon new ground It cannot help but be continually feeling and losing itself in the immediacy of the experience it has never already had. In this opening up to thoughts .feelings and sensations that can never be anticipated, one may lose the illusion that one has a familiar and repeatable shape that has an established place in the social matrix. But one opens up to a new kind of possibility: the possibility that all socially significant possibilities cannot contain one , that one is perhaps not containable, that one indeed touches upon the divine." (pp.39. Irigaray and Deleuze) It is in this sense that Hagit Barkai’s work spans the improbable distance between the abject and the sublime.
Surpik Angelini is an artist, critic, independent curator and director of the Transart Foundation for Art and Anthropology in Houston, Texas.