Ben Menahem: Monumental Woodcuts and Related Works
Nathan Harpaz, Curator
William A. Koehnline Gallery
This exhibition of works by Asaph Ben Menahem at the William A. Koehnline Gallery offers a rare opportunity to experience one of the most remarkable contemporary masters of the woodcut. The idea for this exhibition followed a generous donation of the artist’s works by Granvil and Marcia Specks of Evanston, Illinois, and coincides with Ben Menahem’s arrival in the United States. Ben Menahem opened this exhibition while traveling from his home in the Netherlands to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he was invited to present his printmaking method at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Printmaking.
Ben Menahem’s images are charged with darkness, fear, and death, in a sense of pessimism or even nihilism. These images are rooted in the artist’s life experiences, including the dark cloud cast by the Holocaust, an injury sustained during his military service, and turmoil in his native Israel. As the artist stated in the catalog for his 1988 exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, “In my woodcuts I depict what I’m trying to escape from.”
The most unique quality of Ben Menahem’s work derives from his intensification of the already powerful medium of the black and white woodcut. The artist’s woodcuts from the late 1970s and early 1980s are inspired by German expressionism in their composition and scale; since the late 1980s Ben Menahem’s works have grown in size, but have been trimmed in detail. In these monumental woodcuts the artist uses close-up views, unusual perspectives, neutral backgrounds, and a more primitive approach. While the German expressionists conceptually turned small format graphics into monumental images, Ben Menahem achieves even greater emotional experience and empathy by enlarging the woodcut format.
In addition to 12 woodcuts, retrospective from the mid-1970s to the present, this exhibition features 15 drawings. These small, mixed-media images on book leaf or musical scores represent a significant part of Ben Menahem’s creative process. He works on them spontaneously, obsessively, in an automatic method similar to action painting. Herepeatedly reworks thousands of images, sometimes until the paper is almost torn. These raw materials enable the artist to select preferred images and transfer them to his primary medium of monumental woodcuts.
The only large acrylic painting in the exhibition also demonstrates Ben Menahem’s method. The painting, along with a series of small drawings, didactically illustrates the transformation of a single motif – the vulture. This comparative section of the exhibition highlights the artist’s process of elimination and enlargement. Several small vultures, in a complex setting of architecture and human form, appear in the drawings and the painting, while only a single, gigantic vulture flies over empty space in the monumental woodcut. Ben Menahem intellectually elevates his visual messages to the archetypal level with multiple interpretations, however. For example, the vulture is not only a predator that represents death, but also is symbolic to the mythical punishment of sinners; feminism; royalty; and reconciliation in ancient civilizations. The artist explains, “I felt the need to raise my voice, to express a lot of pressure and fears-personal, local and universal.” It is Ben Menahem’s consciousness, morality, and sensitivity that turn him into a messenger of his vision.