Ofri Cnaani is a young Israeli artist based in New York. The theme of “The Colonel and I,” Cnaani’s first solo exhibition at Andrea Meislin Gallery, centers on power, war and eroticism. Presenting a video installation, a DVD and ink wash drawings on mylar and ceramic plates, she delves into the darkest regions of human experience with harsh wisdom.
The video installation “Master, Slave, Hunger” (2004) is projected on a wall above the entrance corridor to the gallery. Based on a text by Lior Galili and in collaboration with composer Grundik Kasyansky, the imagery is simply a dark grid receding in space. Lights passing erratically through the bars of this grid create an illusion of movement, but the camera never moves. Meanwhile, the sound track entails a dream narrated by a female voice interspersed with low, rumbling white noise. The combined effect is haunting. At one point the narrator says, “If I show no fear, I could win.”
The 22 brushed ink drawings in “The Colonel and I” provide a fascinating counterpoint to the high production values of her video work. Painted in a rough yet deft style, there’s no clear narrative, but it’s possible that “The Colonel” stands for war and its soldiers, and “I” stands for art and the artist.
The drawings meander over a wide terrain of Biblical metaphor and legend, history and archetype, yet deliver their absurdist scenarios with reportorial conviction. In one, the dominatrix disappears and the soldiers multiply, crouching amidst black rocks in the shape of Philip Guston hoods. Wolves prowl ominously. In another, she stands in a dinghy above a huddled crew of captives and commands the waves like Moses. Cnaani also transports “The Colonel and I” to ancient Greece in four ink-brushed drawings on ceramic plates that look like a collaboration among Sophocles, Louise Bourgeois and Aubrey Beardsley. The presence of the plates erases any tendency to perceive the drawings as exclusively pertaining to the 20th and 21st centuries.
The video, entitled “Quartet,” entails a tabletop view of three or four women dressed in black, rolling a large, egg-shaped plaster sculpture across the table to each other. The camera’s tight framing centers on the sculpture—Brancusi-esque facial features were carved into it—and seems calculated to induce claustrophobia and identification with the head displayed. The women’s own heads are never seen, but their hands and arms become covered with dust as they shove the sculpture roughly but catch it carefully. It rumbles across the frame, gradually breaking apart. The amplified sound of its bumping contributes to a growing sense of violence and destruction.
This is not a cheerful show. Indeed, it suggests that our times are but a tiny part of an epic, ongoing conflict being fought in forests, deserts, seas and bedrooms throughout human history. Cnaani’s fearlessness, I suspect, stems from a deep reservoir of moral courage and belief in the transformative power of art. She sustains a fantastically high level of psychological tension through the contrast between her sophisticated use of video and the blunt, almost crude style of her ink wash drawings. “The Colonel and I” is emotionally volcanic, and highly recommended.