A seated man holds a hyena, an animal not exactly known for its docility, as if he were holding a lamb. Both man and beast appear at peace, having reached a common point of introspection. And, while the animal’s face has an articulated vaguely human look, the man’s face is more roughly rendered, save for one eye that suggests he might have seen too much during his life.
Titled “Not Telling Them Apart Until the Very End 2,” the unlikely pair is the creation of Dana Harel, an Israel-born artist whose current work focuses on the seldom exposed interior lives of men who either fought in wars or otherwise experienced them first hand.
This image, at first glance appearing like a graphite drawing but actually a multi-media piece, is part of a Laguna Art Museum exhibition titled “Expose: Dana Harel.”
“In my drawings, animals show emotions that the men, due to their cultural conditioning, often can’t,” said Harel, 37. She went on to say that “Not Telling Them Apart…” had been inspired by her father, who served in the Israeli army and took much of what he had seen to his grave.
The artist focuses on a horse as a metaphor for the dubious glory of battle in “When I am Gone.” Here a both terrified and resigned looking horse propels the rider forward while he is looking backward. Touches of gold on his tunic suggest that this is someone of high and yet uncertain standing as his one foot is bare and the other a sketchy stump.
Harel said that the emphasis also lies on the horse as unwilling conscript. “I was trying to capture the extreme disconnect between man and beast in war,” she said.
As a former Israeli air force intelligence officer, Harel’s study of men enmeshed in conflicts is authenticated by her own, her family’s and her mentors’ experiences. “In the military, people’s emotions are complex combinations of strength and vulnerability, of triumphs and sorrows that they really don’t have time or inclination to delve into. Overt emotions are seen as part of self-doubt or fear of facing the unknown,” she said.
Still, the most arresting work in this powerful show deals with a deeper conflict still: “Wrestling God,” shows the head of a man partly engulfed by an enormous set of exquisitely drawn wings, while a vague outline of a horizontally placed body suggests a spiritual being. It is a wrestling match that neither side appears to be winning but the image is one that inspires private introspection.
At first, Harel’s work appears as graphite drawings but the process is more complex than taking a pencil to paper that measures as much as 72 x 92 inches. In a recent phone interview, Harel described how the central figure or face starts out as a roughly hewn clay figure that she photographs and enlarges. Then she transposes the image with its light and shadows onto sheets paper with an old Xerox mimeograph machine and finally vigorously rubs the ink and oil onto the final, large paper. In “Wrestling…” she used soil for added impact. Once placed, she fleshes out ideas by drawing in details in graphite.
Clearly, the power lies in her exemplary drafting skills, acquired as an architecture student in San Francisco where she has lived for 17 years. “I was never trained as an artist but loved the drawing and experimental aspects of the architectural training. But, working in an actual architectural office, I began to see a vocation as merely a job,” she recalled. “Motherhood gave me the time to reinvent myself and evolve into an artist,” she said. “It was a natural progression from architecture.”
She noted that she did not know how to draw the figure at first, but as ideas formed in her head, they found their way into sketchbooks. “I am not in love with the idea of drawing, of lines, but of telling stories. Once I formulated them, they were ready for the big paper.”
Museum curator Grace Kook-Anderson discovered Harel’s work on a gallery website and began a dialogue two years ago, about the time it takes for an Expose show to evolve from concept to reality.
“Expose is designed to feature work by young or mid-career artists who might be remarkable but have not yet had much contact with galleries or museums,” she explained. She envisioned three museum Expose shows per year, but has been pared to one due to a children’s summer camp art program that is also held on the museum’s lower level and the newly established Art and Nature symposiums in the fall, she said.
Laguna Beach residents and art collectors Diane and Igal Silber helped underwrite the show. “We saw images on the web and were impressed but when we saw the actual show, we were blown away,” said Diane Silber. “In addition to her being a great artist, the power lies in the subject matter and her exploration of it.”