Menachem: Monumental Woodcuts and Related Works
William Koehnline Gallery
Oakton Community College
1600 East Golf Road
Des Plaines, IL 60016
Sept. 10 - Oct. 31 2003
Asaph Ben Menachem Boat at Low Tide 1990
woodcut, 58-3/4 x 58-3/4 inches, courtesy the artist.
The wooodcuts of Israeli artist Asaph Ben Menahem exudes traumatic and
existential meaning through terrifying and violent scenes which are
often difficult to look at. Ben Menahem is a true monumentalist: his
woodcuts mostly measure five feet square, while retaining the raw intensity
of the German Expressionist woodblock tradition through the artist's
personal and universal vision of human crisis.
Though Ben Menahem has lived and taught in the Netherlands for many
years, the dark intensity of his view of life was formed by the destructive
legacy of the Holocaust and by the continuing bloodshed in his native
Israel. The artist explains "If you read the history of this "Holy"
land you would get sick. Hardly any rivers flow there, but there are
rivers of blood streaming all over the place. This is the bloodiest
place on earth I think." Much of Ben Menahem's work metaphorically
refers to stories from the Bible. "For me all these things are
just excuses; I'm not out to illustrate the story, I'm out to confront
the violence that is involved ... and get some outlet for my rage."
Sound and fury are deeply imbedded in Ben Menahem's works, with the
victims often being in the position of the artist who gazes upon the
scene. One large woodblock print titled Last View represents the view
though the eyes of a dead person looking up from the bottom of a grave.
A circle of forbidding looking people are staring down at him as death
looks upon the living and sees their inhumanity and cruelty. In Boat
at Low Tide a seashore landscape is dominated by the ominous hull of
a boat and a stalky monstrous figure which seem filled with menace and
ill intent. King Saul Falling on His Sword depicts the act of suicide
with the antlered figure of the king tumbling in space and skewered
through with his weapon. "I am in the position of suffering from
what I'm doing" the artist explains "this is an outlet for
me which is directed against myself, I feel like I wound myself."
His large print Four Souls Ascending is practically nihilistic in its
view of humanity, depicting four fearsome, ragged shades of human souls
rising up into a night sky, seeming to join the dust of stars in an
endless void of black.
Menachem Four Souls Ascending 1984
woodcut, 58-3/4 x 58-3/4 inches, Collection of Oakton Community College,
Gift of Granvil and Marcia Specks
The artist's working process
to create a single large woodblock print is intense, sometimes resulting
in making 200 or 300 drawings on a focused theme. The large prints are
then made in direct and unchangeable strokes of ink on board. The appeal
of the woodblock medium for the artist resides in the struggle with
the material, the "cutting and the brutalizing it." Ben Menahem
has interest in many sources of art besides Expressionism, from prehistoric
cave art and Greek vase paintings to Michelangelo and Van Gogh. While
his work shows an intense engagement with the German Expressionist tradition,
the artist also makes clear that he has always felt that he was on the
"receiving end of the violence in German Expressionist works,"
the victim of the brutality which these prints often exude.
The Koehnline Gallery of Oakton Community College in the Chicago area
has done an excellent job arranging this rare Midwest viewing of 27
works which is museum worthy in every aspect, from the selection of
works to the stark and and reverent presentation. In today's theory-laden
and overly intellectualized art world the expressive power of Asaph
Ben Menahem's prints reawakens a profound feeling of intense emotional
purpose. His desperate and tragic images have the scorching inner necessity
only a true expressionist can create.