Wandering about Amnon Ben-Ami’s work space, it’s often hard to tell if one is looking at the artist’s work, or at the excessive by-products of a life spent in the studio. Aside from those pieces which unmistakably declare themselves to be ’paintings’ or ‘sculptures’, the almost 20-year-old studio is cluttered with objects which on first glance seem picked out of a neighborhood dumpster: clumps of dry resin and epoxy, melted down plastic and wax, and other mundane debris.
In certain cases, it only takes a second look to discover that a piece of ‘scrap material’ is actually a fabricated artefact. At other times, one needs to hear the name of a piece before being struck by how curiously intriguing it is.
Some of the names are whimsical. Several buckets, flattened out and melted down but with identifiable metal handles still attached, are titled ‘Swans’; a piece of seemingly left-over dry plaster taken from the bottom of a large plastic soda bottle, from which three cigarette butts protrude, is dubbed ‘Chicks’. Other names are straightforward. An awkward-looking wooden branch turns out to be a reconstructed broomstick sliced into small discs and glued back together again. The piece is named simply “stick”. A couple of melted-down cookie-like blobs, the larger one made of black plastic, the smaller one of steel, are also named for what they are, or rather were – ‘Bucket and Handle’. Yet another piece called ‘Popsicle’ is merely a popsicle stick stuck in the wall, some 50cm above the floor, and the grim remains of the melted treat on the studio floor. BEN-AMI recalls how hard he deliberated what kind of popsicle to get, how the vanilla or chocolate, strawberry or banana might appear against the speckled pattern of the studio floor tiles. He also describes sitting through watching it drip and form the puddle on the floor. (The piece was created in 2002, and is still there).
Absurd and startlingly nihilistic, Ben-Ami’s work constantly defies our received notions regarding what Art is and what it should be, questioning the place of aesthetic judgement and craftsmanship, as well as our conventional ideas regarding the meaning and role of artistic ‘talent’, ‘creative spark’ and ‘temperament’. One can easily speak of Ben-Ami as negating the very justification for making art, and yet the impact of his work is paradoxically affirmative.
The noted art historian Ernst Gombrich has postulated the importance of suggested (rather than explicit and detailed) pictorial renditions in providing an experiential space for viewers to enter and complete the representational image in their mind’s eye. Similarly perhaps, it is the incongruous gap between the bare ‘nothingness’ of Ben-Ami’s artefacts – their reductive simplicity, seemingly matter-of-fact fabrication and total disregard for ‘values of good design’ – and the richness of their provocative and poetic evocation that charges his work with its mysterious potency.