It was while the Israeli artist Liora Kaplan was traveling in Costa Rica in the 1990s that she had an epiphany: rather than following the advice of her Lonely Planet guidebook, she turned to a seasoned traveler for tips on favorite destinations.
“His advice was to go to the central bus station, find the dirtiest looking bus, and take it to its final destination, and do so again and again repeatedly until I arrived somewhere with no more bus stations,” she recalls. That was how Kaplan found her way to the Boruca tribe. Interested in learning how to carve traditional wooden masks – a craft reserved for men – she waited patiently by the side of the village master for three days until he agreed to let her join in.
Kaplan would later spend time with craftsmen and artists in Ecuador, too. There she learned to identify medicinal plants, and became a participant in shamanic ceremonies. Today she credits that experience with helping her to find her true voice, and inspiring her art practice. Take, for example, the motif of the snake, an ancient symbol of healing, that finds its expression in Kaplan’s work, including Feather Bed #1, one of several pieces included in Only Connect, a group show at the Braverman Gallery in Tel Aviv that has been curated by Thomas Rom, drawing on the fascinating premise that artists are shamans in spirit, helping us connect the realms of reason and spirituality.
In each of the seven artists gathered in this intimate and illuminating show, he has found a kind of call-and-response that exemplifies his broader theme: only connect.
For Rom, who was born in Israel but now lives in New York, the impetus for the show came from E.M. Forster’s classic novel, Howard’s End – a profound touchstone for him as a young man trying to figure out his place in the world. Rereading it, he saw how the novel’s signature mantra, “Only connect,” felt as relevant in this particular moment as it had for readers at the turn of the 19th century.
“It’s a book that has been with me in really hard times in life,” explains Rom. “I was trying to think why does it resonate so much, and realized there was a really interesting connection between the time in which the book was written and our time today – the sense that machines are taking over, that there’s pollution everywhere, that technology is imposing itself on us, and there’s a need to come together as a tribe and connect – and how does that inform the art world and how do artists inform that space through their practice?”
For Kaplan, the role of the shaman – like the artist – is to guide people into higher realms. “Through a work of art you can reach transcendence,” she says. As for the show’s title, she takes it as a reminder that she needs to be a channel in her own work…“to always let life go through me, into my work, into my practice.”
Trenton Doyle Hancock, another artist in the show and one of the youngest to have featured at the Whitney Biennial (in 2000 and again in 2002, when he was 26 and 28 respectively), believes that art has no choice but to be shamanic. “Whether it’s through illusory means or mere charting and mapping, art allows space for advanced interpretation,” he says. “This interpretation generally has little to do with science and more to do with the indefinable spirit.”
In the show, Hancock’s fabulist art leaps out from his canvasses, elaborate explosions of cartoon-like images that blend humor and narrative in ways that are playful and personal. One outlier is his piece The Den, that presents itself as a purely abstract work, until you understand its genesis as a decorative floor tile redolent of the artist’s childhood.
“The Den is a painting based on a floor tile from my youth, the pattern was popular in late 1960s and 1970s home décor, and I remember laying on this floor tile as a toddler, tracing the linear elements with my finger. I became obsessed with the repeat, and I found it rewarding to locate and identify the similarities and slight differences in the colors. This pattern became synonymous with my grandmother’s house, and therefore became a symbol of safety, warmth, and unity.”
Which brings us back to the show’s guiding spirit. “The painting’s shamanic function is that of transport and time travel, because when I ruminate on the quatrefoil, I am magically and psychically moved, reveals Hancock.
Rom says that the show is designed as an invitation to viewers to think about how shamanic practices manifest within their own world. “It asks more questions than it answers. Much like shamanic practice itself, it opens questions, and encourages you to do the work later on.”
Many of the artists are friends of Rom’s, or have worked with him in the past. Jordan Nassar, a Palestinian American artist with a major show opening September 19 at CCA Tel Aviv, excavates the meaning of home and identity in richly-embroidered textiles that draw on Palestinian traditions and symbolism. Much like Hancock’s The Den, his work reminds us that the past itself is shamanic – a siren call from our own mythos. It’s through such symbols that community is born.
Reuven Israel has a long history of working with Rom. Inspired, among other things, by ceremonial artifacts and religious sites, Israel’s highly precise structures, made from MDF and coated in smooth layers of car paint, have a quasi-religious aspect, like deities of the machine age. In fact, they are made by hand with strict adherence to detail, giving them the quality of something from a high-tech factory. Rom points out that Israel often begins his process while engaged in sound meditation that incorporates instruments popular in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries and indigenous to the East and West. The result, says Rom, is like “the love child of Donald Judd and Andy Warhol…they’re completely abstract but they have this lusciousness to them and a slickness.”
Rom has even made space for art world darlings the Haas Brothers, who took Art Basel by storm last December and currently have another show at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York. The brothers have long synthesized their copious knowledge of pop culture with brash Dr. Seuss-style colors and imagined figures, but recent years have found them drawn into an artistic dialogue with spirituality and nature, traveling to South Africa, for example, to learn beading from women in the Xhosa tribe, who now go by the name (tongue firmly in cheek) the Haas Sisters. Their work, like Nassar’s, honors the historical (and often unacknowledged) role of women in the creative arts, while simultaneously expanding the concept of art by engaging them in the artistic process.
Because in Chinese schools there is no tradition of teaching modern or abstract art, Li Shurui jumped from studying traditional Chinese ink paintings straight to contemporary art, and now works primarily with LED lights that conjure a hallucinogenic quality. Think of a Burning Man light sculpture, and you’ll see how her work fits into Rom’s theme. He says her work speaks to the “technologization of spiritual experience.” Shurui herself, in a profile for Forbes magazine, said, “I try to use light and space to capture an atmosphere and state of mind in a way that leaves people with a strong emotive impression rather than a concept or idea that must be dealt with logically.”
But while all these artists explore ideas that tap into shamanism, only one is an actual shaman: Solange Pessoa, who was born in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. Her work incorporates elemental materials and feels tactile, earthy, and deeply expressive. Made using minerals, clay, and dyes from native Brazilian plants, she manages to bridge past and present, recalling ancient ritual and prehistory, while being rooted in the contemporary tradition. It’s a salutary reminder that we can’t isolate our past from our present, and that it is in the shamanic arts that we achieve full connectivity – with nature, with ourselves, and with each other.