Published via XIBT Magazine of Contemporary Art, November 15,2021
Shiri Mordechay’s visions envelop you and pull you in through their dark and absurdist gravity. Threatening, mysterious, sometimes violent and abusive figures from your dreams or nightmares find their ways to Mordechay’s watercolors and large-scale drawings. When looking at them you are looking at yourself. Psychologically these visions are unsettling, culturally they run parallel by Hieronymus Bosch, Edgar Allan Poe, and absurdist poetics of Samuel Beckett. Presenting three of Mordechay’s large-scale watercolor and ink drawings as part of Theater of the Absurd, a dual ongoing show at the Border Project Space, Bushwick area of Brooklyn is a treat for me because of her very raw and yet, rich, metaphoric visual language. Interview below only adds layers of complexity to these works.
Nina Mdivani: How did you come to art? Was art and drawing something that surrounded and occupied you since your childhood? An obsession or an entry to a dreamworld?
Shiri Mordechay: I did not grow up around art or artistic culture. In fact, one of my first visits to an art museum was when I was 20. I was born to a family environment that never explained things to me or answered questions so I was creating my own world and my own explanations about it, in sort of a savage way. It was like a puzzle putting itself together as I created my own vocabulary and meaning of my existence.
NM: You went to School of Visual Art in New York and graduated with a Masters of Fine Art from there. How did studying there affect you as an artist? What do you think about art schools in general?
SM: At the School of Visual Arts, we were pretty independent. We got our own studios and then we would have a studio visit at least once a week by a professor. It was in the heart of Chelsea and it was a different time in the art world, before social media. So, we relied on galleries and physical spaces. I don’t feel that art schools in general are necessary. Young artists should be primarily focus on finding and developing their own voices. One important encounter I had at SVA was meeting professor Thomas Lanigan Schmidt. Tommy is a very special being. His work is filled with sublime and divine qualities, religious iconography and at the same time the tragedy of being gay during 1960s. He was a part of the Stonewall uprising. I feel that his work was so anti-Art and instead drawn from life itself, it was pure survival. I used to get emotional and fascinated in his classes with all the stories he would talk about with his life and art.
Schmidt also introduced Jack Smith’s films to us, which had fascinated me to the bone. I was blown away by Flaming Creatures, the collage of images and chaos making a perfect composition. A make-believe, a fantasy world mixed with tragedy and its struggle, bringing death and beauty into a close proximity during the AIDs era. I just fell in love right away. Real art comes from direct experience.
NM: Over the last few years, you have slightly changed your mediums. Moving from multilayered works with 3D shapes to intricate and meticulously drawn watercolors and ink in one dimension. Why did you make the change?
SM: My work always adapts to the space that I have. If I don’t have a studio or if I only have a table, this is how it morphs. It’s like a fish in an aquarium, you grow with the space.
During my residency at 4heads I had huge wall spaces and I wanted to take advantage of that so I went big. Before that in order for me to make a big piece, I had to make many smaller parts and construct the whole later. In the last year I also changed from the heavier and thick ink paint that I was using, to watercolors. I was able to cover large spaces and move my hand quicker because the watercolor is fluid and the transparencies have a luminous quality.
NM: Let’s talk a little bit about your works for the exhibition Theater of the Absurd. Being curator of this exhibition, I am a bit partial to the large drawings that we chose. Where does this arresting imagery come from?
SM: The phrase is derived from a movement that came about in Europe after World War Two. I think its members believed that there is no meaning in the world, a world that is illogical and meaningless or that we will never know the meaning and we just go on as humans.
I see my work as a dream state when you are awake. Or ecstatic/altered states of Consciousness. The work has performative elements: it has drama and the characters are involved in a psychological action. It’s real and it’s dreamy.
NM: You have spent your childhood in Israel and Nigeria and before moving to California. How did these diverse environments influence you as an artist? Do these places reoccur in your watercolor and ink drawings in some form, transformed by your reflection over the years?
SM: I think that the places where you have lived create lenses of memory and filters and therefore embody the experiences within. Even a small moment in childhood, combination of a specific time and place- somehow the emotions of an occurrence still appear even if unconsciously. I think the first few ten years of my life spent in Nigeria were full of wonder, nature and many strange mystical experiences.
My journey and experiences through Israel and later in the US were very hard and complex. Between warfare and the difficult reality of Israel as well as many of the experiences I had in the USA this has been a challenging time. I also think that certain past experiences are in our genetics through our parents and our grandparents, down to our ancestors.
NM: Some of your works have violence, loss of innocence and various physiological or psychological perversions as their subjects. Do you try to address a question of trauma in any way? Or are you acting more as a voyeur, watching over other figures and their ways of existence?
SM: Trauma would be the answer. The world is based on chaos, war, migration, fucked up caregivers, power dynamics and abuse. It is like breathing- one cannot avoid it. We all live and die.
Now there are different degrees and deep trauma makes you become a detached observer. Trauma has a way of splitting you and making you feel like your story is not your own, but someone else’s, like a movie passing by on a screen. It brings many gifts with it though. Because trauma creates warps in your being that bend you in different directions. I think that is the beauty of life. But in our society, we try to put veneers on all the time. Our imperfections and vulnerabilities are actually gorgeous. But especially in American society we prefer to mask them, as presentation and packaging are so important. I think we are learning globally very fast how to shed our masks of hypocrisy. But we still have a long way to go.
As I work all the suffering I have experienced and all the stuff that came before me is coming through my body and onto the paper. It begins when the brush touches the paper with the paint on it and then the imagery tells me what it wants to become.
NM: Who are the artists or movements, historical periods that have influenced you over the years? Who is your current influence or subject of your curiosity and why?
SM: Among the names and movements, I feel attuned to German expressionists, the Dada movement, works from the Renaissance. I like Goya and Chaim Soutine, Lucian Freud and Marlene Dumas and so on.
One movement that I have been a part of for many years is ANARKOARTLAB, name derived from anarchist movement. In 2007-2009 we used to come together at the Living Theater on the Lower East Side, when Judith Malina was alive and was running the place. Now the movement continues in different spaces, leading a nomadic existence. In those where we tried to destroy the myth of the artist. We were an artist collective even as each one of us would do our own thing. But often we all merged together and interacted with the audience that also could participate. There was no separation- it was painting, music, performance and we were all in. Every month we would get together starting at noon- then we’d be up all night till the next day and just make art. And as the night grew, we totally lost ourselves and it was like ecstasy. We became freer by the hour, that’s what art can do. Especially when you are surrounded by other artists who are making music or performing on the edge. I think we were a bunch of freaks at the end of each night. Sometimes I would feel that the walls in the theater were going to explode or grow wings.
I want to mention an artist who left a very deep impression on me — David McDermott. I got to hang out with him a few times in Ireland through a friend. He lives in a time capsule; everything is frozen in time. This is part of his artistic philosophy and he has lived in this manner since his time on the Lower East Side in the 1980’s.
During one of my visits, I stayed with him for a week at the Belmont House in Mullingar. It was as if I entered a time machine. Every item was from before the 1930’s including the bathroom- all lit by candle lights and so on. This is how he lives his life and to be with him is a total transportation from our present reality. His mind is fascinating and out of this dimension. He very much lives in his own rule system and he believes in the reality that he has created. This has always been his life. What fascinated me about him is that there is no separation between art and life, it crosses all boundaries and he is just himself. Strangely, it was so calming to be around him. Yet very raw at the same time. I think that art should be life and reflect who you are.
NM: Hieronymus Bosch and his fantastical gardens come up as immediate visual references when one observes your immersive pannos. Have you ever researched and/or studied him in any depth? Are you as influenced by traditional narrative sources such as Greek mythology or source material of the Bible?
SM: Hieronymus Bosch – I love his sharp edges that almost feel they are being cut. It adds up to a terrifying feeling. A danger. Then the humor. He’s all about the body. Often vulgar. He is also very realistic and outrageous. Also, what I love about Hieronymus Bosch is that he’s able to condense so many images into one composition. He has a way of isolating groups of images into vignettes and yet the whole makes sense, while simultaneously putting a multitude of experiences into a two-dimensional plane. But I did not study him deeply.
I’m also not influenced by classical myth storylines or the tales of the Bible, but rather the essence of existence. With the Bible, I am more influenced by the question of God and searching for a spiritual experience or encounter.
NM: We spoke before about how a lot of presented art leaves you hollow, creating an aftertaste of being a well-constructed design or presentation, but not much more. Can you please elaborate on this a bit more? Where did this conclusion come from and why do you think this devaluation of meaning and substance is happening?
SM: Yes, it’s a big question that I keep mulling about. Lately I have seen a lot of artworks and have noticed how important the design element, today’s art seems like it is commenting on art from another time or another master, it is almost borrowed or subverted. The world today is bombarded with images more than ever and so does pop culture, but there is a hollowness to all this imagery. If I ask my body or my nervous system how I feel when looking at an art work, I honestly don’t have any reaction even if the piece looks amazing on the surface. In other words, it is missing an extra thing that is called soul or mojo. Maybe because the inner, the invisible or the struggle or introspection is only on the surface of this work. And an experience that happens inside the given artist is very thin.
NM: Also, we have talked before about how the art system has changed a lot in the last years. Where do you now see the role of a curator and of a gallerist these days?
SM: Artists have a lot more power in their career these days. And there are lots more opportunities now. But galleries are very important as are curators. They act as a nexus for each artist while magnifying artists’ impact through their connections and voice. Artists cannot (and generally prefer not to) do everything themselves.
NM: You have participated in many solo and group exhibitions. What have been the most important ones so far and why?
SM: One of the most memorable and important exhibitions that I had was at Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles in 2010. I made an installation piece titled Pneuma Pleats that I worked on for three years, it consisted of paintings inside of other paintings. I decided to be completely uncensored and go to the rawest parts of myself, within all the possibilities of my psyche and its darkness. I stayed in that space for three years making meticulous ink paintings and constructing entire worlds. To me it’s very important. I don’t think I could ever repeat that. I also believe that diving full on into your shadow without thinking was essential for me.
NM: What shows are coming up for you next year?
SM: I will be posting that on Instagram, so just stay tuned.
NM: Where do you see yourself as an artist in ten years?