Friday, March 6, 2009

Dana Harel

Thanks to my warm reception at the Frey Norris Gallery covering Josh Hagler's recent show there, I was put into contact with Dana Harel. She and I sat down over tea at the Palace Hotel to discuss how she came to her most recent series, "Kin."

Born in Tel Aviv, Dana Harel observed her father and grandparents paint in their leisure time. Pursuing art only as a hobby, her family members had developed meticulous technique, but did not attempt new content, which shaped her early experiences with art:

“I took some art classes, but I was never pushed to think for myself. It was kind of about learning techniques or painting or looking at other art or landscapes and painting what you see”

The practically-minded Harel studied architecture at university, eventually moving to the Bay Area with her husband and completing her degree at the California College of Arts (formerly CCAC) in Oakland. While the study appealed to her, the profession did not:

“I loved architecture, but I liked it in school where it’s very conceptual and you loved what you do. And then I graduated and started to work and I was very disappointed. I kind of felt broken”

Taking some time off from work when her first child was born, she began to apply her draughtswoman skills towards artistic compositions. At first, her subjects were nominally architectural in nature, but Harel’s interest was more human:

“It would be about intimate spaces, about the body, but I would not necessarily draw the body. I would maybe draw as space that can give you an idea of the body, like maybe confessional booths or restrooms or very small, confined spaces that have some correlation to the body”

These intimate spaces, designed explicitly with the human body in mind, Harel considered to be like organisms themselves that fit into their broader environment. She continued to draw architectural subjects, but began to relate them to their surroundings:

“I was looking at the architecture as landscape […] and was trying to see how the body correlates to the building – like, ‘What’s the connection?’ I knew there was something more than just being in a space”

By introducing natural landscape, Harel explored how the body’s connection to a building ultimately connected back to nature. The interfacing with nature through a building highlights our distance from nature:

“In the building, we know how to behave. It’s a concrete, built environment. It’s manicured to our needs […] We have so alienated ourselves from nature that we don’t necessarily know [how to behave in it]. We pose in nature, we take pictures in nature and then we get in the car and drive off”

Meanwhile, Harel began transitioning away from solely architectural subjects by drawing chairs, which she felt shared structural properties with the human form. As she began to draw from live models, she would continue to draw certain limbs from chairs. The effect is that of surreal subjects in slightly awkward poses:

“[I was] looking at that as a distorted, horrible image, but making it really beautifully. It’s as if we are trying to correct everything in our body that is not perfect. We don’t give in to the imperfection part of life”

Eventually, the architectural elements disappeared from her work entirely, replaced by human subjects. While she continued to draw a natural backdrop, her primary interest was the human form and its relationship to its surroundings:

“I always try to think where the body connects to wherever I’m going, so if it’s in the landscape or the woman, it’s ‘How can I go as close as I can- the closest with nature?’”

Pushing further into the proximity between the body and nature, Harel began to consider the body as the landscape itself. Taking inspiration from her children’s uninhibited ability to relate with nature, her new series, “Kin,” explores hand shadow puppets. Like her figures that were drawn as merged with chair parts, her hand puppet subjects seamlessly become the animals they are meant to resemble:

“[I was] making it magical […] in a very childish way, but the outcome is almost monstrous”

The viewer is confronted with the body as a part of nature in an explicit, though ultimately unnatural, way. By focusing on the hands, Harel achieves the ‘body as landscape’ notion and separation from conventional figure or landscape compositions that can come with preconceived assumptions upon interpretation:

“It forced me in a way not to deal with the big landscapes and the whole human body. Because I would think about everything and I would need everything to be thought of and have a reason. So the face or the lips being in a certain way […] I just felt like anyone could interpret it in any way they want. It’s a story by itself”

Being relieved of the burden of so many other details reveals the depth and thoroughness of Harel’s compositions, as well as her architectural training:

“The rigor and the ideas, the process and the way I think is still coming from that […] The way I imagine things when I do a picture, I know how it [will look]. Then I kind of build it up - maybe I’ll have an outline - and then I go from the inside out”

Even her subjects in "Kin" are drawn to the scale of the actual animal. Similarly, her chosen medium remains the architectural tool of graphite, but more importantly its fineness allows Harel to construct the detailed landscapes that transcend body and nature:

“I think graphite in a way is harder for me because I can’t use color that much to transfer emotion […] but I like that challenge”

See some of Dana Harel’s work in the “Herstory” show at the Napa Valley Museum, with an opening reception this Saturday, March 7 from 5:30-7pm. Her “Kin” series will show at Frey Norris Gallery in April.


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