Shai Azoulay: “Pupil” at Zolla/Lieberman Gallery


“Pipe,” 2016, Shai Azoulay, Oil on canvas, 11″ x 17″
Photo: courtesy Zolla/Lieberman Gallery

Israeli artist Shai Azoulay paints strange and evocative vignettes that reveal a tender imagination and an empathy for the range of the human comedy that can be both amusing and revelatory. They seem one-offs at first, quick little allusive narratives—a man futilely chasing a wheel, two tightrope walkers about to run into one another as they cross paths above an infinite void, a man in an arid landscape dreaming of blue skies and green grass—that are painted with cursory but sufficient waves of the brush, as if too much attention would disturb the dreamy fragility of the mood they evoke. It’s all a kind of lissome surrealism (would that be surrealissome?), a whisper of scenarios that touch on, in turn, universal states of being such as desire, fear, isolation, joy, confusion, social intercourse, and more.

Take, for example, Pipe (2016): about a dozen figures, described with great economy but still revealing gender and age, mill about the entry aperture of a large metal pipe, big enough for them to walk through standing up. Are they going to do so, and exit to our left, are they refugees or day-laborers entering Israel illegally, or is this tube—inexplicably here placed above ground—the tunnels Hamas builds to enter Israel for military operations? Azoulay depicts this scene as almost sylvan, he has a delicate but apt color sense and the pure painting of the pipe and nearby tree is, well, lovely. Or Mingling (2016), where 16 figures are presented in a rough circle in an interior space, gesturing toward and interacting with one another. Azoulay concretizes this by having orange/gold painted lines physically tie two or more individuals together, as if their encounter is a literal as well as social connection, a true linking of individuals. Or A Plan (2016), where six tiny figures are swimming at the bottom of an enormous bowl of milk from which they cannot escape; whatever plan they concoct an exercise in futility that nonetheless shows optimistic gumption (the olive green, raspberry and orange palette here is terrific). These are warm images with just a touch of the askew, almost, within the processes of painting what Saul Steinberg was to the processes of illustration and cartooning—visual conundrums that nonetheless ring true. While sometimes Azoulay’s interests drift to the life of his studio or odd, totemic studies of multiple heads, it’s all a bit as if the Jerusalem Post met the illustrators from the New Yorker—no bad thing, that.