The mysterious elevator door facing the busy corner of Broadway and Canal takes you to the vast and brightly lit space of Ulterior Gallery, which is currently presenting Keren Benbenisty’s second solo show with the gallery titled Tristeza II. A continuation of a 2021 show by Benbenisty, named after the same lethal virus that infects citrus trees, comprises a series of new works in various media. At the center is a 14-minute video narrating the artist’s attempt at cultivating a blue orange, a project she has been occupied with for the past several years: The bluranj, as she named it, or Tapuchol, from the Hebrew word for orange, “Tapuz” and blue, “Kachol”. The video takes us through footage from her visits to an Israeli agricultural research institute, where she met with scientists who specialize in grafting new citrus species. They questioned her ambition – why a blue orange? Benbenisty does not offer a logical explanation but rather a poetic one. The works in the exhibition tell her personal story and provide a window into the larger narrative of the region.
Each work is made with apparent care and attention to detail and offers many beautiful moments. In the video, the camera rests upon orange trees wrapped in fine white muslin, turning them into monochromatic silhouettes of leaves and fruit gently moving with the wind, evoking the beginning of cinema. Another frame of orange flames against the stark blue sky creates a dramatic moment.
Microscope glass slides on one of the gallery walls present a series of desert-like landscapes or bird’s-eye images of a sandy beach. The drawing material is dust created from decayed, moldy fruit the artist initially hoped to preserve but had to use in their new substance.
Oranges float on the Mediterranean surface in a long, narrow strip on another wall, sailing away into the blue sea. In another collage series, Benbenisty uses images from slides her father, an agricultural researcher, kept of orange trees from the 1960s. She combines those vintage images with the inversion of themselves – turning all orange into blue, dark into light. Her father, Yossi, is making a guest appearance in one of the collages as a young agriculture student in 1968.
The only sculpture in the exhibition is a 3D white ceramic print of an empty wrapping paper, missing the round orange but keeping its shape. The loss of the orange, the sadness – or tristeza (sadness in Portuguese), marks the lost dream, the challenge of bearing fruit, and the threat of losing a whole culture surrounding the cultivation of citruses.
In the video, Benbenisty recalls her grandmother, who used to work in an orange packing house after immigrating to Israel from Morocco, another orange capital. She describes the wrapping papers, their smell, and how the stamping of the paper with the variety and origin of the fruit served as an “orange passport .” The tie to the land and its agriculture from both sides of her family is evident in Benbenisty’s work. What does it mean to leave that land? What remains, and what is gone?
Benbenisty keeps poking at the surface while revealing what is underneath. She has a history of exploring orange peels, fish skins, fruit wrappers, silk, and other paper-thin materials. The attention to surface materials enhances her viewer’s sensitivity almost immediately. You are called to be careful and gentle in front of fragility. The X-acto knife used to cut the images for the collages echoes the knife used at the lab, shown in the video peeling the orange seeds and cutting the saplings to reconstruct them. Recreating new species demands accurate surgery and careful piecing together, much like the immigrant artist’s identity.
All images are courtesy of Ulterior Gallery and Keren Benbenisty.
Keren Benbenisty at Ulterior Gallery, through February 17th, Ulterior Gallery is located at 424 Broadway, #601, New York, NY 10013. Hours: Tuesday–Saturday, noon–6 pm, and by appointment.
About the writer: Noa Charuvi is a visual artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an M.F.A in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York and a B.F.A in Fine Arts from the Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, Israel. Her work was exhibited internationally in venues such as The Bronx Museum of The Arts (Bronx, New York), Haifa Museum of Art (Haifa, Israel), and Mishkan Museum of Art (Ein Harod, Israel). Her paintings are included in “Landscape Painting Now,” an anthology of contemporary paintings published by D.A.P and Thames & Hudson. Charuvi was a recipient of the Pollock Krasner Foundation Grant in 2018. Residency programs she attended include Art Omi International Artists Residency in Ghent, NY, Yaddo Artist Colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, The Keyholder Residency at the Lower East Side Printshop, and a studio membership at the Elizabeth Foundation for The Arts in New York, NY.