Sheffy Bleier
Sheffy Bleier: Still Life, Ruthi Ofek

It does not matter about the object, but that the eye, of its own free will, can perceive everything in one way or the other, painterly or not painterly.
Heinrich Wölfflin[1]

Sheffy Bleier's photographs, on show at the Open Museum of Photography and in this catalogue, depict volumetric bodies hanging in space, hovering. These images may be seen as referring to a key genre in the history of art – still life painting; here, the camera lens takes the place of the brush.

The Merriam-Webster definition of "still life" is: "a picture consisting predominantly of inanimate objects." Bleier's works are unique in that rather than portray objects that are visible to all, they expose concealed objects – "inanimate objects" that are in fact the internal organs of beasts. She removes them from their natural place, creates a new environment for them and then photographs them. The result is a surprising work of art – not just because of the now visible form of the object, but because of the novel way it is documented.

As Carolyn Christov-Bakargive points out, "an 'object' is…an inanimate 'thing' the limits of which can be perceived by a single individual or observing subject. All 'objects' are therefore 'things,' but not all 'things' are 'objects."[2] Only once the viewer's gaze falls upon them and isolates them from their surroundings do they become "objects." Thus, before Bleier arranged the internal organs of beasts and photographed them as "still life" they had a different meaning, a functional one. The act of exposing them turns them from animate bodies into inanimate, "still" objects, but at the same time, by exposing these objects to her gaze – and then to the viewer's – and arranging them while defining their boundaries she turns them into objects of art. Thus Bleier expands the scope of our vision.

According to Pepita Haezrachi, for instance, an aesthetic experience takes place when, upon first encountering an art work, it elicits the viewer's spontaneous appreciation. This response is not part of aesthetic judgment, but rather defines the very existence of an aesthetic experience (which finds different expression in each viewer). According to Haezrachi, the distinguishing mark of an act of aesthetic perception is a unique combination of mental and sensual activities.[3] The first look at Bleier's works provokes a sense of astonishment in the viewer – and then the aesthetic experience takes shape in him, arising out of the contrast between the beauty he recognizes in these images and his mental and emotional response to these internal organs. Past artists such as Rembrandt or Chaim Soutine have also elicited such an aesthetic experience with images of carcasses of beef or sides of meat. But  Bleier does not record visible reality as these artists did. Rather, she constructs a new reality, exposing to the viewer's eye that which is normally concealed, taking it out of its context and freezing it with her camera lens.

It is also interesting to note the similarity between Bleier's photographs and Spanish still life paintings from the 17th century -  paintings of different objects made in a different time, in a different place, and yet bearing a thought-provoking resemblance to her works. Thus, for instance, the Spanish painter Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560-1627) painted still life images of vegetables, fruit and fowl hanging from threads against a dark background. Much like Bleier, he removes these objects from their natural surroundings and creates a new environment for them – unlike many other of his contemporary western artists (such as Cézanne or Renoir), who would arrange the objects they depicted in their natural environment. In addition, again like Bleier, he intensifies the image by placing it against a black background, meticulously lighted so as to enhance a feeling of three-dimensionality and provoke a mystic atmosphere. Bleier was surprisingly unfamiliar with Cotán's works, despite the similar model of beauty they present. Even the threads from which the objects hang in Cotan's works appear in Bleier's photographs as hooks and threads from which the internal organs are suspended.

Boris Groys maintains that the search for an essence, for the hidden truth behind the appearance of objects, is the distinguishing mark of high art, setting it apart from what is not art. That is, according to him, the value of art.[4] Sheffy Bleier's still life photographs indeed reveal a hidden reality through an informed use of the camera. Naama Haikin, the exhibition curator, analyzes Bleier's photography in the context of the history of photography. She describes her works as manifesting a critical gaze, by presenting photography as a self-aware practice of observation.

Looking at Bleier's photographs elicits a sense of wonder and discovery. The mysterious fascination of Surrealism, elicited by artificial images with a realistic appearance, is also evoked by her works. By displacing the realistic elements (from the beast's body or the slaughterhouse) and presenting them on a new stage, in new contexts, she endows them with meaning and exposes beauty in them. "It is not easy to get rid of…preconceived ideas," writes E.H. Gombrich, "but the artists who succeed best in doing so often produce the most exciting works. It is they who teach us to see in nature new beauties of whose existence we have never dreamt."[5]

[1]   Heinrich Wölfflin, Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art (New York: Dover, 1950), p. 23.

[2]   Carolyn Christov-Bakargive, "Heading for Places, Looking at Objects: Art in the Eighties," in Life-Size: A Sense of the Real in Recent Art, exh. cat. (Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1990), p. 37.

[3]   Pepita Haezrachi, The Contemplative Activity: Studies in Aesthetics (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1965) [Hebrew].

[4]   Boris Groys, Logic Der Sammlung [The Logic of Collecting] (Munich, Vienna: Carl Hanser Verlag,1997).

[5]   E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (London: Phaidon, 1966), p. 26.