From a distance, the dozens of images that hang from the walls at CB1 Gallery in downtown Los Angeles look as if they might have emerged from a highly stylized comic book. Lines in black, blue, yellow and red come together to form pictures of people, urban landscapes and explosive abstractions. But look closer and you will see that the lattice of delicate line work covers an array of photographs: images from the Israeli bombing of Gaza nearly one year ago showing wrecked urban landscapes, mourning women and children picking their way through the rubble.
Artist Jaime Scholnick is generally known for producing sculptures that play with material and form, such as the milled wood abstractions inspired by Styrofoam packaging she showed last year in the spring. But in her latest show at CB1, she takes on a far more visceral topic: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- specifically last summer's bombings of Gaza.
The exhibition's title, "Gaza: Mowing the Lawn," takes its name from a term that has been used by Israeli military strategists to describe the every-few-years bombings of Palestinian territories. Scholnick says the images of the conflict, which she saw bubbling up in the news and in her social media feeds, left her feeling outraged, powerless and conflicted (she is Jewish). Out of a need to face what she was seeing in the photos, she began drawing on the pictures -- ultimately producing the 50 works that are now on view at CB1 through mid-July.
The L.A.-based artist took time to chat with me about how the series began, the controversy it has generated for her with her friends and family, and the new public installation in Los Angeles that her work method has inspired.
How did you come to these images, and why did you begin drawing on them?
This was how I would doodle. I would just cover things with line and line and line. It’s an obsessive way of how I process things. I’d cover my Styrofoam pieces in lines as a formal thing. But this is the first time I worked with photography. And when I did it, I was like, "Wait. This is exactly it. We cover it up because we don’t want to see it."
This particular work I came to when I saw the images [of the Gaza bombings] on Facebook. A friend was sharing them. And I was like, "Why are you doing this?" And then I was like, "Wait a minute. This is happening in the world."
I printed out one and started drawing lines over it. It really made me look really closely. There was one image that I didn’t understand, and in drawing over it, I realized that it was a little girl reaching up. She’d had her foot blown off. I don't care what your political view is on the situation, but this is not OK.
Why do it? What does drawing over the images do for them?
It was a way for me to honor them. By translating it into art, it is easier to look at. Susan Sontag wrote about how photographs document war and how they can be so easily ignored. But art isn’t that easy to ignore. With these images, I'm seduced by the sheer line of it. Then you look and look and you start to uncover depth. You see the image underneath.
There’s one image of a girl, and her eyes are black and blue. If I had been painting this, I wouldn’t have made those black and blue eyes. It would have been too much. But that’s the reality of it. So for me, with these, it's the decision of what to show and what not to reveal. I cover it up because we don't want to look at it. But it's a screen. You still have to look through.
A number of the images show terrible situations: bodies, the wounded, injured and dead children. What was it like to spend hours staring at this as you worked?
It was cathartic in a way. It was also sort of like a bandage. It was like lines and wrapping them up. And protecting them. I don’t know exactly. It was so emotional. It makes them easier to look at.
What has the reaction been?
I just was doing them and doing them and I had them in my studio, and people would say, "What are these? ... They're beautiful, but they're really dark." The most surprising part has been the reaction from other artists. One friend was like, "Why are you doing this? Why would you do something so dark?" And I said, "Why would we avoid this?"
Someone told me, "You know these are all staged." I find that interesting because there are Holocaust deniers out there, too.
I don't necessarily seek out politically charged work to do. I once did pieces with glitter of the [George W.] Bush cabinet. But with the photographs, I like this reality of creating a window that you see through. I don't necessarily come up with the composition. I just take it.
The installation consists of 50 images -- 49 show the destruction in Gaza, and one shows a group of Israelis at an outdoor picnic or social gathering of some sort, watching the bombings (a phenomenon that has been covered in various media outlets, including the Guardian). Were you concerned that this would give an imbalanced portrayal of the conflict?
I’ve gotten a lot of flak for it -- showing that scene of the picnic. But it’s inhuman. [On the Israeli side], they have these parties. People bring their lawn chairs and they bring beer, and they watch people get destroyed and they cheer. I found out about this by doing some reading and I was like, "You’ve got to be kidding me?" I felt like I had to include it.
I won't name names, but there were artists who said to me, 'Oh, Jaime, there’s two sides to every story.' Or they’ll say, 'Why isn’t there just as many images of Israelis?' And I’m like, well, because it didn’t happen. [In 2014,] you have more than 2,000 Palestinians killed, with 1,500 of them civilians, and you compare that to 66 soldiers? The fact is there weren’t as many casualties on the Israeli side.
You are Jewish. What kinds of issues has this project raised for you on a personal level?
Yes, I was born Jewish. I was very into the religion when I was very young. I loved the fasting, and I loved all of it. I took it really seriously. But as I started studying and getting older, I was like, "What do you mean we’re the chosen people?" Does that mean other people aren’t chosen? Does this make some people more important than others? How can that even be? In speaking to an Israeli friend, he said, "That’s the problem. Because we think we’re the chosen people, we can do this to others."
I can’t talk about this with my family. It would not be OK. I didn't invite them to the opening. But I know that I’m not alone. I know that there are enough people who are Jewish who feel this way, too. We just don’t hear from them.
Have you been to Israel?
Never have. I have a big problem with parts of it. In Israel, if you’re against what’s happening, you’re a traitor. And if you’re not Jewish and you're against what's happening, you’re anti-Semitic. And that’s how it is.
I understand that you're using a similar technique -- photographs covered in lines -- for a public art commission for the L.A. Metro.
Yes! I got the commission at the Expo Crenshaw station. We are working with the community on the photographs that will be featured. We go down there and we ask them what they want to see and then we go out and shoot. It’s a really happy piece: 4 feet tall and 200 feet long.
I’m working with the photographer Sally Coates. She gets my point of view. I’ll say, "Oh, shoot that and shoot that." I'm also doing this community action with the RightWay Foundation [a nonprofit based in Leimert Park that works with area foster youth]. On July 10, we’re going to give away 15 cameras. Foster youth can come and check out a camera and they have 24 hours to shoot. When they come back, we'll have a barbecue.
These kids live there. They’ll be privy to things that I would never be privy to. I'm really looking forward to seeing their pictures.
Will you continue to work in this style?
Right now I’m seeing where it goes. I’m really intrigued by it. This feels like a good time. It all feels like it’s flowing.