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WEST JERUSALEM — Roey Heifetz moved from Israel to Berlin as a young male artist in search of a future and returned five years later as a mature female artist. This transition in gender — but implicitly also in geography — is at the center of her exhibition, Victoria, curated by Timna Seligman. The show, currently on view at the Ticho House in Jerusalem as part of the Sixth Biennale for Drawing in Israel, is comprised of a series of 12 large drawings that enclose the small exhibition space on all sides.
Heifetz draws aging transgender people. Her portraits are affected and influenced by human figures she has met in Berlin as well as by her own, which is currently undergoing transformation. The figures are standing or lying down in stretched-out poses, reminiscent of dancers, and they look straight at the viewer. Sometimes their bodies bend, double, or swivel. Their hairstyles are blown out and meticulously finished, and in some drawings, they seem like genies let out of a bottle.
Victoria is a transition exhibition. It deals not with a specific identity category, but rather with the disruption of the categorizing and pigeonholing order. It moves back and forth between what is identified as masculine and feminine, pretty and ugly, profane and pure, without pausing or committing to one identity or the other. The detailed drawing does not spare the body. It highlights every mole, wrinkle, and out-of-place hair. Similarly, the drawn figures move not only across genders, but also between, say, the body image of a diva that is cultivated to perfection and never grows old, and the real body, withered and weary, which cannot overcome time. The result is an exhibition about lack or longing — a yearning for unity coupled with an acknowledgment of the impossibility of realizing it absolutely.
All of that could have made for a critical statement and a gendered proposition, but these do not always suffice to produce persuasive works of art. What makes this exhibition a success is its condensed expressiveness, evident in the raw materials, the act of drawing, and the positioning of the pieces: the sheets of papers hang exposed, their bottoms rolling on the floor at the viewers’ feet. The nightmare of conservators and museum guards materializes in images of women that skyrocket to a height of 2 to 3 meters but also swoop down to the squalid ground of reality that literally wallows in dust. The pieces could have been protected by glass frames, but this would have produced different works that would have lacked the sense of fragile vulnerability that is so essential. Hanging this way, the subjects’ skin and nerves are exposed by an installation that combines compassion with mercilessness.
That same combination is also articulated by the intensive and hair-thin detailed graphite hatchings and by the lacquer stains and pigment powders that cover the images, tainting the surface and sabotaging the paper. Excessively elongated legs, forbidden hairs poking out of the toe joint, exaggerated eyeshades, potato-shaped chins and noses, creases that turn faces into bags of skin, large bright eyes gazing directly at the viewer, translucent yellowish liquid stains, and fur coats drawn in rust powder, wrapping the women and at the same time biting at their bodies.
Heifetz notes the influence on her works of well-known German draftsmen, above all grotesque expressionists Otto Dix and George Grosz. However, in Dix and Grosz’s works, grotesqueness has a context — the city, club, military, etc. The drama in their works is also facilitated by contrasts and circumstances — the emaciated boy vis-à-vis the plump cigar-smoking industrialists, or the soldiers and gas masks on the battlefield. In Heifetz’s drawings, there is no environment. The figures are all alone, and the drama is drawn exclusively in their bodies and facial features. Despite the broad white margins of the sheets, each image feels breathless, as if the air is running out.
This isolation has particular significance: although transgender people are at the center of the exhibition, and despite the known fact that the works accompany Heifetz herself on the way to becoming a woman, this is not an exhibition about gender and society, identity politics, or liberation of sexuality. Even if such aspects do appear, their focus is existential and internal. The pieces have something of the “thirst felt by every man with a soul,” as described by Rabbi Hillel Zeitlin in his essay “On the Boundary Between Two Worlds.” Not a thirst “for something that has a beginning and an end, something inherently encompassed and enclosed,” but for what “lies beyond all boundaries.”
Ultimately, this is an exhibition about anxiety — the anxiety of age, loss, the transition into the unknown, the compulsion to move and the impossibility of return, the larger-than-life image faced by the slowly aging body, the fear of being like “people who sleep off their days, as Rabbi Nahman says — as opposed to the fear of jumping into the depth of self-discovery and the limbo of a search for meaning committed to an ongoing journey that may never reach its end. Heifetz’s layers of lacquer, powder, and pigment, and lines upon lines of intensive, unsettling drawing, have lacerated the gallery with pain, obsession, and passion.
Victoria continues at Ticho House (10 HaRav Agan Street, Jerusalem) through February 23.
This text was originally published in Hebrew in Erev-Rav Art Magazine.