Amikam Toren: Species of painting, sculpture and other pieces

John Slyce

Georges Perec, in his monumental novel Life: A User’s Manual, casts the jigsaw puzzle as the central metaphor representing his life and work. Perec describes the art of jigsaw puzzles in the following way: ‘the parts do not determine the pattern, but the pattern determines the parts.’ I would suggest, in the sample of works before you here, that you approach the art of Amikam Toren in a similar spirit of appreciation.

Toren’s project–reaching back to the middle years of the 1970s–is profoundly consistent in the quality and conceptual rigour of its concerns and output. Individual pieces do not determine his project, but the project determines the identity of his pieces. Very few artists have plumbed the status and identity of image and object through painting and sculpture to an equal degree. Representation–defined as a structure that guarantees the imaginary capture of a subject by an object–is a major area of concern. Though in this, Toren’s approach turns the common understanding of representation in painting, where the representation excludes that which is being represented, on its head. In his art there is an immediate link between the materials which comprise a work and the process of its making. This is a great part of its economy, just as simultaneous acts of destruction and creation are a central feature of the logic that unifies Toren’s practice.

Amikam Toren explores the nature of representation by approaching an object or an image at a perspicuous level and employing its own material, use, or form to restate or reconstitute meaning in ways that are always strangely familiar and yet novel. Built as much from a poetry of absences, fragments and silences as the given material and form each piece adopts as its own, the point with Toren’s art is to enter into the journey and give oneself over to the pleasures–teasing as they may be–offered in reaching an always elusive harbour of meaning in each individual work and series. It’s not a practice to be measured by the utility of the model of consumption it presents but by the degree to which the process of making and consuming art are offered as one-in-the-same thing. To make one’s art in such a way is a tremendously generous thing in that it allows a viewer to experience the work from the point-of-view not only of, but also as its maker.

The art works gathered here are an apt representation of Toren’s interests in the simultaneous destruction and resurrection of an object which date back to the 1970s and a more developed appreciation of the problems of representation he went on to explore in painting and its image in the later 1980s. The Armchair Paintings, an on-going series begun in 1989, are a form of adjusted readymade. Toren buys thrift-store paintings–unambiguously sincere and earnest efforts by Sunday painters–and brings found language to their surface by cutting text into the picture plane. The violent intervention of words cut from the canvas renders the surface truly ambiguous and creates a surplus of meaning where once there was only a lack. This magical act of destruction stimulates a painted surface into newfound life. Toren locates the language in his everyday: some of it is graffiti from the streets around his home in Whitechapel, London, some drawn from signage, or comments read or phrases overheard. Each source is shared in the public domain and drawn from his daily experience.

Folded into the Armchair Paintings is a powerful suite of recent sculptural works that begin with Golem, 2002 and include Plan B, 2003, Received Wisdom, 2006, Deus Ex Machina, 2006 and Black Hole, 1997-2006. Golem could seem a material departure in Toren’s practice but it should not. In my experience of his art, historical works often combine to contextualise a would-be departure as a refined development in Toren’s overall project. Four elements are required for the creation of the golem or homunculus of Jewish folklore: earth, water, fire, and air. That of legend was a sixteenth century collaboration between Rabbi Loew of Prague, his son-in-law and a favoured pupil who shaped the giant servant to the children of Israel from river clay dug along the banks of the Moldau. Toren’s Golem is made of a half-tonne of steely black Kilkenny stone, a Jonelle ironing board refabricated in stainless steel and a silver scorch-proof cover retained from the John Lewis original. The piece, painstakingly stated as sculpture–a mass of worked stone elevated and at once grounded on a plinth–possesses a supernatural aura shared with the golem of legend as it convincingly defies the laws of physics and logic of engineering. As with so much of his work and project, Golemachieves its wondrous status not as sculpture so much as allegory and an object that breathes life into the myth of creation and the making of art even as it takes it away.

If made to stand alone, whatever its supernatural powers, Golem would not communicate the depth or even the lightness of touch in Amikam Toren’s practice. The direct and immediate feedback of drawing as a practice informs and underpins these more overtly sculptural works here and even if Golem first announced itself to Toren as a dream-like vision that demanded to be made, it had to make the journey from a two-dimensional image to the three dimensions of an object via a drawing. Plan B and Received Wisdom are clearly related works as they explore a process of accretion and adjustment that informs not only everyday objects but the drawn and painted image.

Two works seemingly stand outside the above production. Each, however, powerfully illuminates Amikam Toren’s working methods and finds its fitting place alongside neighbouring pieces. I saw Burglar 7 hanging in his studio during visits there on a number of occasions. Made in 1986, I watched Toren finish the piece finally in 2007 as he thoughtfully re-adjusted the sash cord as if he was redrawing a line. The handling of materials in this important piece connects to his remarkable Actualities series and the immediate environment of his working life and everyday. It is a beautiful piece that is at once picture, image and object. The final work here Carrots, 2008, is a video that is most productively approached as first sculpture and then perhaps literature. Carrots lends its name to the whole but is only one of five touchingly powerful vignettes culled from episodes and experiences in his daily life. Here language mixes with picture and place to form one plane and re-present what is occasionally magical in our everyday and ever present in each part, piece and whole this is Amikam Toren’s wondrous art.

John Slyce, July 2008, published by Anthony Reynolds Gallery

︎︎︎ Appendix