Noa Charuvi’s paintings convey a distinct sense of place where narratives of the present interrupt those of the past with urgency, sometimes even violence . Yet, her places encapsulate past and present not only as a rupture but also as an ongoing flow of coinciding contradictory forces – ruin and construction, anarchy and order. No matter if the painting depicts an interior of a room or an exterior of a construction site, it frequently portrays a place that is devoid of human figures but charged with the aftermath of human actions. Even if human figures are present, they are typically placed in context of their larger environment, players in a powerful and mysterious systemic forces of history, city, society. Noa Charuvi shares with Art Spiel some insights on her ideas, work, and process.
AS: You are clearly a painter. What brought you to painting?
Noa Charuvi: What brought me to painting is a combination of the natural joy I feel while doing it, my upbringing and my determination to get it right. While most artists are introduced to art making through painting and drawing and then choose a different medium – I just never stopped. I grew up in Jerusalem, Israel. My father was an architect and my mother was a special education teacher. Both families had an art background. My mother’s grandfather was a silversmith for the Russian Tsar and studied art in St. Petersburg. After the revolution in 1917 he ended up escaping to Israel and started a workshop in Tel Aviv, which the family still runs. My father’s father, Shmuel Charuvi, was a painter who came to Israel from Ukraine to pursue his art studies in Bezalel Academy with the original group who founded it in the early twentieth century. Growing up in Jerusalem, I was exposed to contemporary art, cinema, theater and music – It was a special place to grow up in in the eighties.
My parents always supported my interests, signing me up to art classes and taking me to exhibitions. I spent many hours in my father’s architectural studio making watercolors and drawings on the back of discarded blueprints. It was a time when architecture wasn’t digital so he was using pencils, inks and watercolors. I loved trying his art supplies and all the special stencils. He took me along to buy supplies at a little store that actually still exists. He would never buy me the kids’ stuff – I had really good colored pencil sets, pastels and watercolors, German and Swiss made. And so, it was always clear to me that I needed to paint, and I always found my way to continue doing it. I was determined to study it, and then to find a way to make sure that I can do it forever. This drive is something that I cannot explain or control, so I had to learn and manage it and organize my life around it.
AS: Your paintings can be read as fragments of personal moments within a vast geo-socio-political landscapes– ranging from your earlier Ruins series, depicting ruined buildings in the middle east, to your later Construction series, depicting construction sites in NYC. What is your take on that?
Noa Charuvi: The sense of fragment has a lot to do with the fact that I am painting from photographs. The photograph documents a moment, and I then I expand it in the painting. The construction paintings preserve an idea or emotion that I had while being present in a specific location, in a specific moment in time. When I use found images, I try to infuse them with atmosphere and light from memory, even if I was never present there. So the interpretation is always relying on my own senses, memories and experience. I am aware of how every place and every day have a historical and social context. My responsibility as an artist is to acknowledge that. Another responsibility I feel that I have is to always be sincere and honest when acknowledging bigger themes. I can only speak and work from my own experience and so it also has to be personal. In my opinion any effective or compelling work of art is always a combination of a sincere personal moment and a universal idea.
AS: Besides in earlier work such as in Soldiers from 2012 (where you reference human figures as silhouettes), your images are typically lacking the human figure yet reference human life. You depict objects that resonate with fresh memories of trauma, lives that have just been interrupted. For me, this void of human figures enhances the urgency and becomes central. Do you consider that notion of “void” important in your work and can you elaborate on your choices to include or avoid direct depiction of the human figure?
Noa Charuvi: The human presence in the work is usually hinted, since I describe man made environments. The figure might be standing just outside the frame or perhaps left a minute ago. Human figures have a very strong energy in a painting and they draw all the attention to them. Avoiding depiction of people allows me to highlight other elements in the painting that often would never draw your attention in real life – like a bucket or a sand sac. The energy of the figure can become too overwhelming for me. I am describing houses that people lost, or houses built by people who put their lives and health in danger daily. Whichever way you look at it, these situations are about people putting other people in danger. And yet it all looks very beautiful. In a way the void is also my way of reflecting the loss of my father. My father was much older than my mother and I always knew that I will lose him early – and although 21 is not a tender age, it still felt like a huge loss and still does now, 20 years later.
AS: It seems to me that your thematic focus serves as a ground for bouncing off painting possibilities. While shifting your gaze in and out on ruined buildings or construction sites, you are exploring intersections of abstraction / figuration, drawing / painting, tightening / loosening. What are your thoughts on that?
Noa Charuvi: Yes it is true. I just love to paint. I am also interested in history, politics and philosophy, but I just love oil colors so much, their buttery quality and the beauty of the colors. It is a sensual experience for me. While I am not the kind of artist who just does one thing, when you look at everything I did there are actually many connections between the ruins and the construction, as well as the soldiers and the workers. My style is heavily influenced by my years at the Jerusalem Studio School, where we studied painting from observation only, plein-air landscapes and figure drawing. The technique we learned is based on abstracting the shapes and colors and finding the correct relationships between them to create a perfect illusion of reality.
Every painting is done with a balance of the elements you mentioned, that is basically the essence of painting for me – moving between abstraction and figuration, flatness and volume, tightening and loosening. So in every piece I am also doing this exercise again and again of finding the right balance to create an impact. The falling apart architecture has many opportunities within them for abstraction and exercising color mixing and drawing without being caught in “picture making”, that is, trying to create a familiar image and ending up relying on your memory rather than observation. The already broken down and fragmented image, leaves a lot of space for me to play around with the colors and shapes even while still relying on observation. In that sense it is the perfect subject for painting.
AS: Let’s look first at Ruins with an overall view. Tell me about the idea behind this body of work and your work process.
Noa Charuvi: This body of work began while I was in graduate school in New York, and back in Israel things seemed to again be falling apart with another operation in Gaza that was incredibly cruel – ‘Cast Lead’ in 2008. I could express my remorse without worrying about anyone’s reaction. I was never an activist – I was just scared to get hurt, as many of my friends did while protesting. I started realizing how deeply traumatizing it was to grow up in Israel and live in Jerusalem for so many years (I left when I was 28). I have lived through the first Intifada, the hope for peace during the Clinton era, the murder of Rabin, then seeing everything falling back into chaos. While in undergrad in Jerusalem, during the second Intifada, constant terrorist attacks on public transportation and public places became routine. And we were just living our lives, studying art, working, going out. It is hard to believe.
While working on this series, I wanted to suspend my gaze on news images that would typically be swept aside due to an overload. Images that are not provocative or revolting, but we do not care to look at them because we saw them so many times. For example bombed streets, people standing on a pile of rubble and crying, children climbing on the ruins of their own family house. Sadly these things in 2008 seemed too invisible. I felt that being in New York, I could finally address these painful subjects because they are far enough so it won’t break me. I started gathering images from the Internet, newspapers websites and human rights organizations and NGO’s websites. I reached out to some of the photographers whose work I kept seeing online and asked their permission to use their work. I also had a friend who was working in television broadcasting in Israel at the time and she got me some materials. I was obsessed with these images and I built an archive from which I could pull out and paint.
What was on my mind was the way photography and news media shape our reality, and how maybe painting can expose it and give me a chance to really look at what happened. I discovered that painting was a way for me to make reality more bearable, to offer an alternate space of hope. I was then criticized for taking advantage of the Palestinian tragedy for my own art. I disagree with this judgment but just hearing it was a punch in the stomach. I stopped making this work for several years and only recently found my way back to it, thanks to a publication I am very proud of – “Landscape Painting Now” – which had these works in full display.
AS: I am looking at Hole, from 2011, for example. Can you take me through the genesis of this painting?
Noa Charuvi: ‘Hole’ is based on a photograph by Tess Scheflan whose work I saw online, on Activestills’ website. I emailed her and asked her if I can paint it and she was happy to send me the image. This is a complex image made of many different elements, it happens to me often when working on a larger canvas. So there is a hazy neighborhood in the background that is quite naturalistic, there is the mass of rubble down inside the hole that is very flat and abstracted, and around the hole there are spills and splashes that create the illusion of mud or freshly dug earth. The flatness of the hole against the background throws you out of the painting and creates a very uncomfortable space, an impossible space. You cannot penetrate the plain, there is nothing inviting or guiding your eye gently inside the picture plain. It is more like falling in and being spat out.
AS: Forward a few years, you start your Construction series. What prompted you to start this body of work?
Noa Charuvi: During a time I was already looking for a new subject that is less tragic and controversial than bombed buildings in Palestine, I was invited to join an artist residency at a construction site. The ‘Artist In Construction’ residency was run by Art In Buildings. Their curator at the time Jennie Lamensdorf recognized, even before I did, that construction was a perfect subject for me. Construction materials, tools and colors: its whole appearance is very similar to sites of destruction and rubble. The difference is it is the opposite of loss and tragedy. It is all about renewal, power and also money. I turned my gaze to where I am now instead of where I am from. It was also shortly after having my first child and it felt right to focus on the future, on rebuilding and not on crushing. My children are American and all of a sudden I got rooted here so my work started reflecting that.
AS: Let’s look at Seven Buckets from 2016, and Color Group, from 2018. These seem to reflect to varying degrees a more loosened painterly approach and tendency to simplify forms. What would you like to share about these 2 paintings in this context?
Noa Charuvi: It is so interesting that you noticed these two. I think they are probably two of the most spontaneous paintings in this body of work. I started them from a small section in a photograph because the combination of colors and shapes was very bright and I just found it beautiful. It is basically piles of garbage, discarded objects, but the way they stood together seemed to me very sweet, as if they were a group of creatures leaning on each other or hanging out together in the sun. The loose approach is a way to keep the impression fresh and the painting dynamic.
AS: Your residency experience documenting a 64-story luxury residential skyscraper in lower Manhattan, was covered by Ralph Gardner Jr. at the Wall Street Journal. Can you tell me a bit more about this residency, elaborate on your experience there and how it impacted your work?
Noa Charuvi: The Artist in Construction residency was an amazing opportunity run by Art in Buildings, who invited me and three other artists to come and work adjacent to a construction site in lower Manhattan and describe it in our work. We could treat it any way we wanted – we had complete freedom. Initially thought this would only be a side project, like a temporary commission, while I use the studio to keep searching new themes, but construction became my main interest for several years. When I started in 2014, the skyscraper was at that time a muddy hole in the ground, so my studio was never inside the construction site but right next to it. I was given a hard hat and a vest and I was allowed to go into the site and do whatever, which for me was photography. I could come into the site and photograph whenever I wanted, as long as someone was there to open the gate for me.
Being at the work site felt almost ridiculous – this girl with a camera among all these hard- working people with heavy machinery and tools. I was in awe and also a little overwhelmed at first, but everyone was super-nice. I used the photos as sketches and references for the paintings, so a one-hour shoot kept me busy for a few weeks. I didn’t have to go that frequently into the site, and each time I came back it was different. I returned to the residency a second time in 2016 after going back to my Elizabeth Foundation Studio in between. The whole tower was already there, with some interiors put into place. I liked the muddy hole better but it was incredible to come back and actually be on the top. The area is fascinating – Wall street area, just in front of WTC and the 9/11 memorial pools. Every day I got off the train in Wall Street with my work clothes, and entered my little carpeted office, side by side to engineers and hard working builders, and I would do my paintings. It was amazing. It was special to have my space there in the midst of all this action, right off Wall Street.
AS: How is your work developing these days?
Noa Charuvi: I recently got back from a research trip to Israel that was funded by Asylum-Arts, a non-profit supporting Jewish Artists globally. It was the first time for me to go home mainly for work and not just for seeing my family and friends. The goal of this trip was to revisit my grandfather’s work, and specifically look at his landscapes of ruins. After looking at and listing all of the landscape paintings I could find in my family’s possession, I took my camera and toured Israel, visiting the locations or approximate locations described in them. Of course I did not expect to find the same views he described. I wanted to see the changes and I wanted to try and channel his way of looking at nature. His style was naturalistic but also idealistic. He was clearly in awe of nature, and he rarely described any human figures, similar to me. I let myself express my own take on the Israeli landscape as a layered, densely political and of a long and bloody history. Now back in my studio in Brooklyn, I am examining the archive of photographs I took in Israel, and I am slowly working my way through it. The project is still in its very beginning, but my goal is to create a series of paintings as a dialog with his, and eventually do a two person show.
AS: Our interview was conducted a while before the Corona pandemic. Life has changed since. How are you coping these days and what are your thoughts about the road ahead?
Noa Charuvi: We are all still home while I write these lines: my husband, our two children and me. We suddenly have all this time together as a family that we never had before. It is very intense with the children – I worry about them but they seem totally fine. As far as studio work, I am blessed to have a studio that in in the same block as my apartment so I do go there every other day to work both on my own stuff and on other projects as a freelance painting assistant. We try to take turns with childcare and work. With my own practice I feel on the one hand that I just need to make something in order to maintain my sanity, but on the other hand – what do I make when the world is shifting all around me, and the foundation of my practice is documenting my environment? I use what I have, my archive of images, and feel like it is becoming nostalgia rather than a reflection of the current moment. It is interesting to think about the relationship between now and then, before and after. In general, think this is a good time to take things slowly, reconnect to people you could not find the time to talk to or check on when we were all immersed in our routines. It is time to show you care, we all need that, and art can be that. It can be hope and it can be care.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: firstname.lastname@example.org