Essay by Petra Halkes

In the paintings of Tami Galili Ellis, figure and ground intermesh in a rich application of gold-leaf and oil paints of earthy colours and luscious tones of flesh, deep red and blue. The determined lines, forceful streaks and organic drips emphatically declare the substance of these paintings, and, by analogy, the substance of the figures and of life itself.

In Modern times - particularly in the current period of intense change and information overload - the incredible cultural complexity that technology facilitates has obscured a fundamental level of life forces that sustain us. In her series Elements, the artist reaches back to a time before Modernity to explore what the archetypal figure of the angel may still mean to us.

Growing up in Israel, Hebrew mythology has nourished Galili Ellis's imagination. But far from illustrations or interpretations of biblical iconography, her paintings are the outcome of a slow infusion of remembered travels, stories and images from elsewhere that have seeped into her memory pool of narratives. Through the transforming power of personal memory, Galili Ellis creates an imagined world that is truly her own yet opens up to further changes to be brought in by herself as well as by the viewer.

The title of the series suggests a connection between angels and archetypal elements which the ancients perceived in nature and narrated into stories of origin. According to the Hebrew book of Jubilees, a high-order rank of angels was created on the first day, "the angels of the elements of fire, wind, and darkness, of hail and hoar frost, thunder and lighting, of cold and heat, of winter and spring, summer and fall, of the abyss and the night, of night and morning." 1 In Galili Ellis's paintings the turbulent process of creation is felt in figures that appear to merge with the elements. The angel in Made of Fire (2009) is fused with golden flames, while others - Of Light (2009), Of Earth (2009) - seem scarcely separated from an amorphous background; tinctured with elemental qualities, they have yet to awaken into their own bodies. In the painting Day Two (2009), the push and pull of figure and background show the angel's struggle to free himself from the elements that make him of nature-a nature that will,inevitably, bring decay and death.

Angels are imagined creatures, perhaps born of a human desire for a timeless life that will never be affected by death. Are they not close to the eternal, the pure, the One who controls the elements? But infinity is nowhere to be seen in these paintings, nor do we see the heavens the angels reputedly reside in. The artist crops and frames the figures in tight spaces, leaving their environment indistinct, their flights between heaven and earth unseen. A product of wishful human thinking, the angels remain all-too-human.

Recognizing the impossibility of visualizing eternity, the artist returns us to earth, to confront us with other failed human creations. In two paintings: Golem: Emet, and Golem: Met (2010) she represents a mythological mud figure, a "golem," who resembles a human being. In early Jewish mythology, a holy man would create such a creature, and would animate him with language by writing the word Emet - "truth" in Hebrew - on his forehead. As if presiding over life and death, the holy man would erase the first letter of the word, to create Met, which means "dead." 2

Both the imperfect golems, made of clay, and the heavenly angels, born of desire, are reflections of ourselves. Galili Ellis's paints them as such; male and female she makes them, young: Chrysalis (2009), and mature: To my Right (2009), some white, some black. In The Wedding (2009) they even turn to each other for human-like love and affection.

Where the golem speaks of human fate, the angel speaks of human desire and persistent endeavours to reach eternal life. Oh, to have wings, light as air, pure as gold, to carry us away from the earthly elements into an eternal realm! But Galili Ellis's painted wings are like the fools' gold of the alchemist: wholly derived from wishful thinking. Just as gold was never created by humans, so the angels' wings do not hold the key to the eternal. They are tarnished, almost a burden: the angel in Watch Tower (2009) carries his like lumps on his back.

In general, representation of angels in modern and contemporary culture has degenerated to the level of popular home decoration or kitschy graphic fantasy worlds. To place Galili Ellis's paintings in an art-historical context and link them to other artists who found in the figure of the angel an emblem of the human condition, we have to look back to Marc Chagall, and to the sparse, expressive line drawings of angels that Paul Klee created in the last years of his life.3 In reference to Klee's angels, the philosopher Massimo Cacciari remarks on their "transience and fallenness,"and their participation "in the incompleteness of the whole creation."4 Klee's angels, like those of Galili Ellis, are unfinished, ambiguous. There remains a hope for change in these tentative figures. "Incompleteness," Cacciari writes, "means metamorphosis, change of roles, ironic dissolution of the certainty of figures, of their "ubi" (where)."5

Elements leaves a sense of humble uncertainty in the face of life's ineffable mystery: an emptiness where we would expect divinity. The divine remains another order, one utterly different from our own. Angels have sprung from our own earthbound minds, from our own language, and so they are unable to bridge the gap between heaven and earth, between infinity and finite nature. Gallili Ellis shows that human words and images only brush against the place of the unsayable, like the wings of angels that brush against the threshold of heaven. In Wing (Left), Wing (Right) (2010), the artist leaves an empty space between two wings. Even the Archangels-- known as Angels of the presence, for they stand closest to the Throne-- can show us only its proximity.6 One such angel, asleep and hovering in an empty space in the painting To my Left (2009), holds a wing up like a sensor, divining the presence. The Angel in To my Right (2009) turns his head in a searching probe. All that can be found between my right and my left is "I". I am here, in a place of mystery, partaking of life even if I can not comprehend it.

Petra Halkes (BFA, PhD) is a painter and unaffiliated scholar and curator. she has written many cataloque essays and writes regularly for Canadian magazines. Her book, Aspiring to landscape, on Painting and the Subject of Nature, was published by the universuty of Toronto Press in 2006. Recent curatorial projects include Mannish: Micheal harrington and Wyn Geleynse at the Ottawa Art Gallery (2009) and Barbara Gamble: Natural affinities (2008) at the Canadian Musum of Nature.

  1. www.JewishEncyclopedia.com - Angelology Accessed March 11, 2010
  2. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golem - Accessed March 12, 2010
  3. The Silence of the Angel. Directed by Michael Gaumnitz. A film documentary on the life and works of Paul Klee. DVD 2005.
  4. Massimo Cacciari, The Necessary Angel. (Albany N.Y.:State University of New York Press 1994) p. 23
  5. Ibid, p. 24
  6. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angels_of_Presence - Accessed March 12, 2010

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