By Diane Thodos
Artcritical.com (Published October 2003)
The wooodcuts of Israeli artist Asaph Ben Menahem exudes traumatic and existential meaning through terrifying and violent scenes which are often difficult to look at. Ben Menahem is a true monumentalist: his woodcuts mostly measure five feet square, while retaining the raw intensity of the German Expressionist woodblock tradition through the artist’s personal and universal vision of human crisis.
Though Ben Menahem has lived and taught in the Netherlands for many years, the dark intensity of his view of life was formed by the destructive legacy of the Holocaust and by the continuing bloodshed in his native Israel. The artist explains: “If you read the history of this “Holy” land you would get sick. Hardly any rivers flow there, but there are rivers of blood streaming all over the place. This is the bloodiest place on earth I think.” Much of Ben Menahem’s work metaphorically refers to stories from the Bible. “For me all these things are just excuses; I’m not out to illustrate the story, I’m out to confront the violence that is involved … and get some outlet for my rage.”
Sound and fury are deeply imbedded in Ben Menahem’s works, with the victims often being in the position of the artist who gazes upon the scene. One large woodblock print titled Last View represents the view though the eyes of a dead person looking up from the bottom of a grave. A circle of forbidding looking people are staring down at him as death looks upon the living and sees their inhumanity and cruelty. In Boat at Low Tide a seashore landscape is dominated by the ominous hull of a boat and a stalky monstrous figure which seem filled with menace and ill intent. King Saul Falling on His Sword depicts the act of suicide with the antlered figure of the king tumbling in space and skewered through with his weapon. “I am in the position of suffering from what I’m doing” the artist explains “this is an outlet for me which is directed against myself, I feel like I wound myself.” His large print Four Souls Ascending is practically nihilistic in its view of humanity, depicting four fearsome, ragged shades of human souls rising up into a night sky, seeming to join the dust of stars in an endless void of black.
The artist’s working process to create a single large woodblock print is intense, sometimes resulting in making 200 or 300 drawings on a focused theme. The large prints are then made in direct and unchangeable strokes of ink on board. The appeal of the woodblock medium for the artist resides in the struggle with the material, the “cutting and the brutalizing it.” Ben Menahem has interest in many sources of art besides Expressionism, from prehistoric cave art and Greek vase paintings to Michelangelo and Van Gogh. While his work shows an intense engagement with the German Expressionist tradition, the artist also makes clear that he has always felt that he was on the “receiving end of the violence in German Expressionist works,” the victim of the brutality which these prints often exude.
The Koehnline Gallery of Oakton Community College in the Chicago area has done an excellent job arranging this rare Midwest viewing of 27 works which is museum worthy in every aspect, from the selection of works to the stark and and reverent presentation. In today’s theory-laden and overly intellectualized art world the expressive power of Asaph Ben Menahem’s prints reawakens a profound feeling of intense emotional purpose. His desperate and tragic images have the scorching inner necessity only a true expressionist can create.