AOTA’s Israeli Painters Bring Rich Symbolism to Manhattan
by Joshua Levitt
Liora Rosenman is an Israeli artist whose work infuses the trappings of modernity with ancient wisdom of the Kaballah.
“The world today allows one to believe life is about growing up, getting an education, having a job, buying things, but then we find that is not enough,” she explained to a packed hall of a hundred enthusiastic patrons who attended a private opening art reception, called “Art Tel Aviv,” at the beautiful Ana Tzarev Gallery, on Fifth Avenue and 57th St., last Thursday evening.
“What I’ve learned in eight years of studying our ancient wisdom in Kaballah is that there can be a greater purpose to the world; that we may go through many years of life doing just the every day, but everyone, at some point, realizes there is an inner need to do something greater, to impact what is around us, and this is to get back to the original energy that we speak about in Kaballah, bringing that light into our lives, and that is what I aim to show through my work.”
One of her most enduring motifs is the ladder. Not necessarily Jacob’s ladder, from Genesis, with angels ascending and descending from Heaven, but riffs on the ladder of the 10 Sefirot, the divine structure of all beings, that Kabbalists interpret from Genesis. Rather than a geometrical “tree of life,” as its often depicted, Liora’s ladders are built from ersatz piles of modern materials which she infuses with symbolic meaning.
In “The Colours Ladder,” she stacks 11 multicolored paint cans towards the sky, itself painted in vibrant hues of orange, red, blue, green and purple, swirled in a ribbon of Hebrew letters bringing the wisdom from above to our Earthly plane.
In “Seven Sefirot,” (pictured above) the traditional steps from Heaven are re-created from a stack of used tires. Hebrew letters are attached to each layer, with an ephemeral Shin, for Shaddai, G-d, floating above the pile, in the orange sky. What triggered the reaction amongst guests at the exhibition on Thursday is that we see a dozen figures of man, painted to resembling blue paper doll cut outs, rappelling up the levels.
The struggle of man to climb towards Heaven that we all must embrace, she answered, when asked what she hoped to represent. The juxtaposition of the sacred imagery on top of the ordinary discarded tires embodies her vision of superimposing a higher goal of spiritual ascendance onto our everyday surroundings. We, the paper cutouts, are compelled to climb towards holiness.
While Liora attributes her message to the spirituality she embraced later in her life, in Israel, the bright colors are from a childhood spent in Colombia, where she lived with her family from the age of 9. Living abroad gave her an expatriate’s perspective, teaching her to interpret the world in new light. In essence, the originality of her work comes from the triple combination of the Kaballistic imagery, with modern building blocks (tires and paint cans), and the painting style of her adopted Latin America, and, in particular, Colombia, with its strong artistic tradition and bright colors.
The Colombia connection was something that she shared with Astrid Amaya and her son Alejandro Garcia-Amaya, the creators of AOTA, the organization that produced “Art Tel Aviv,” in collaboration with the Ana Tzarev Gallery, and with the support from event sponsors, including luxury real estate company Stonehenge.
In 2008, Astrid, an accomplished businesswoman, partnered with her son, a financial and business consultant, leveraging her wide network of society art lovers and his natural charm, to form AOTA with a very unique approach to supporting emerging artists.
Astrid and Alejandro believe art enhances an individual’s ability to establish meaningful connections with others. Their goal is to use art to help raise cultural awareness. AOTA produces cultural art exhibitions for professionals across the United States, with a mission to improve recognition for emerging international artists, to raise cultural awareness through their programming and to foster a greater appreciation for the arts.
Rather than focus on individual galleries, the mother and son team built a unique business model; instead of having the high fixed costs associated with owning a gallery, AOTA created alliances with the top echelons of the corporate world to hang artwork in the skyscrapers of New York City, including the Condé Nast building, for example, enriching these office environments and allowing the public an opportunity to gain exposure to promising artists and learn about their cultural backgrounds.
By partnering with leading Fortune 500 companies and leading law firms, re-purposing grand entry halls and boardrooms to showcase their original artwork, AOTA, so far, has enabled over 200,000 professionals to raise their cultural awareness and, for many of them, to establish their own art collection.
What began as a passionate hobby for Astrid became her mission five years ago. Her business network now involves alliances with 18 leading law firms, including Shook Hardy & Bacon, 18 non-profit organizations, such as Latino Justice, and some 40 major Fortune 500 corporations, including Pfizer.
The pharmaceutical giant gushes about their work: “We strive to provide our colleagues with creative professional development programs and AOTA’s cultural art exhibitions have been a breath of fresh air,” Angelica Wong, Pfizer VP of Operations, said.
In addition to major corporations, AOTA partners with media outlets, including Private Equity International (PEI) magazine, whose covers feature AOTA artists. Partnerships with PEI, for example, generated tremendous exposure for the artists with 20,000 investment managers across the globe, many of them potential art collectors, with each monthly issue.
Financial firms, with their rows of well-heeled partners seeking to add some color to their lifestyles, have become somewhat of a specialty. William Robalino, an Executive Director from UBS, said, “Our company, UBS, has worked with AOTA for years, which is how I came to know about the organization. I had a wonderful time viewing the artwork and listening to the stories of AOTA’s artists; I’m happy to have seen AOTA grow throughout the years and I look forward to continue attending their high caliber exhibitions.” As well as a fan, he’s also a client, having acquired work by AOTA artists for his own collection.
The AOTA team chooses a country to focus on each year that usually has been overlooked by the global art community. So far, they’ve completed 20 national collections from many countries where US collectors have been unlikely tourists, including Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, plus many Eastern Bloc nations, and now Israel. They travel to the country, deep dive into the artist communities, and leverage a wide network of friends, contacts and gallery owners to discover tomorrow’s leading artists.
For many young painters, selection by AOTA is a fast track to notoriety. Cuban artist Ibrahim Miranda had two pieces acquired by the MOMA NY this year. Victoria Kovalenchikova, from Belarus, was awarded the Gold Medal of Honor at the VII International Florence Biennial of Contemporary art in 2011.
“Discovering a talented artist in countries where little attention is paid by the international art world is very exciting for us; introducing them to potential collectors here is even more of a thrill,” Alejandro said.
Alejandro learned about Yoav Brener, a 27-year old painter, from a family friend connected to the local Tel Aviv artist community during his first trip to Israel, in June.
Yoav grew up in the small farming community of Alfei Menashe, a mile to the east of the Green Line, where he often thought of the contradictions between his life and his Palestinian neighbors in Qalqilyah, the next town over. But more than today’s political strife, it was the striking forces of desert nature all around him that captivated Yoav’s curious mind.
“I was inspired by so much nature, the beautiful mysteries of how the environment around me had come together so preciously, about the symmetries I saw in plants,” Yoav said. “I never could really study science, formally, in school, but, on my own, I educated myself to see the world like a scientist, to learn from what I saw in nature.”
Where other artists often see the world in colors and shapes, Yoav sees a grand equation of the universe. In fact, he’s tattooed it onto his forearm as permanent reminder and inspiration. In the context of a Jewish artist, it’s hard to avoid the comparison to a concentration camp prison number, but where those tattoos stood for destruction, Yoav’s stands for creativity.
In revealing on-stage interviews by Alejandro to introduce the artists to the invited collectors at the reception, Yoav diagnosed his own Freudian and chemical causes of his mad artistic genius.
“As a baby, I was allergic to my mother’s breast milk,” he told the audience, most surprised by his unexpected candor. “What they know now is that the sense of calm adults have is learned as a baby, at the mother’s nipple. I never had that, so I never learned calm; I paint all day, through the night, sleep maybe for an hour, work for two more days. I can never rest, I am not at ease, I am always awake, thinking, dreaming, painting.”
With his faux-hawk, over-sized glasses, scraggly beard, and deep insights, and on a constant emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows, that tossed him out of classes and jobs for years as he struggled to find his place, who could have handled him as a child, he asked the audience. Here, in the US, we are trained to diagnose a disorder, brand each other as manic, prescribe drugs to solve the problem. But in Israel, thankfully, the chemical solution is less common. Fortunately, in the art world, that manic unease can sometimes lead to greatness.
“It took me a long time, but in Israel, in Tel Aviv, the art community was kindhearted; it took me in, it’s spirit was big enough for me to grow, to find my home. The community of painters became my family. In Tel Aviv’s art world, I grew into my art. I painted and painted until I became a painter, and painting has given me a voice. Here, today in New York, thanks to AOTA, I can share my understanding of our place in the world with you.”
At the conclusion of the event, Alejandro and Astrid thanked their guests, and Yoav and Liora thanked their hosts. Yoav said, “It has been a privilege to be part of this event. To work with people who care about art and want to encourage it, to help us bring our work to America, to teach them about Israeli culture.”
(For more on Yoav Brener and AOTA, see related story: Symbolism Versus Reality and Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.)