The Blue Sargasso Sea / Jenifer Bar-Lev

“By watching and working the master makes
for himself an island which the flood 
cannot overwhelm.”

The Dhammapada

It is July, the hottest day of summer so far, 33 degrees centigrade. The wide-open windows let in a breeze which is not cool yet not hot, and fills the large room with summer air. Michal Goldman hangs some paintings on the wall, then makes another row beneath those, then places more paintings around the room till we are surrounded by blue: the strong cobalt blue of the image of the table and chair dominates the space. The room feels suddenly cooler. The sentence “The Blue Sargasso Sea” appears in my mind (even though the Sargasso Sea of Jean Rhys’ book is not blue, but wide). The real Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic is a sea without a shore, named after the Sargassum seaweed indigenous to it. In modern times, all the refuse brought by the currents is trapped there as well. The waters of the Sargasso Sea, notwithstanding the seaweed and the garbage, are reputed to be very blue and transparent.

What has gtathered in the gyre of the currents in Goldman’s studio is a collection of several useful man-made items: the chairs, tables, cups, plates, and painting equipment, along with a computer and screen – and also organic items, more akin to seaweed: several strange-looking cactuses and other plants, tea, and food. And she herself is several women: mother and helpmate, teacher and friend, curious student and searcher, and perhaps, like many women artists, she is also a bit like the woman writer whose life, as Emily Dickinson puts it, has been " shaven, / And fitted to a frame" (1), a confinement she can only accept by believing that "The soul has moments of escape – / When bursting all
the doors - / She dances like a bomb, abroad ...
Goldman’s paintings have always been quietly subversive in the arena of Israeli painting. They have been faithful to figuration when all was conceptual, intimate when all is political, modest as opposed to a tendency to bombast. A quiet rebellion, a bomb of stubbornness.

I remember once, many years ago, visiting Goldman at home when her two boys were very little. On her easel was a painting of the long view, through the door and down the corridor, to an unseen destination (p. 5). This is a gentle painting, no violence is in it, but it has a feeling of limits and at the same time a sense of limitlessness, due to the pattern of the floor tiles, a maze of paths which leads nowhere and everywhere, outward and inward. Or perhaps, by accident or by fate, a path is discovered which is an end in itself. Goldman looks outward to landscapes and people, to still-lives and flowers, but there is something inward in all her work, as if it balances on the frame between the inner and the outer worlds.

The studio interior is one of Goldman’s recurring subjects, as it is for many painters. Very often, the view from a studio window has been the focus of an entire series for her. In a new series on view in the exhibition, the computer screen is a replacement for the window, or a window onto a different reality. A real window presents a view of “out there.” In order to get there, you have to leave your studio, and peering out represents the longing or the desire to do so. Through the screen, a representation of the world is delivered to us. Goldman says that the computer screen on the table sometimes reminds her of a head on a body which communicates a world of ideas to her. She used to listen, while painting, to lectures on tapes. Since discovering YouTube, the collective consciousness has invaded her studio, flowing on the infinite currents of the internet. Alongside her constant delight in reproducing common objects, everyday scenes, and her immediate surroundings, certain ideas have become part of the paintings: abstract backgrounds, imaginary objects, and otherworldly colors invade the depiction of the real space of the studio. Goldman is a realistic painter whose definition of reality is expanding.

The pictorial existence of the objects she depicts in her paintings becomes their real existence. The cup of tea, the paintbrush, the table, the chair, the lamp, the window - the internet has made it possible to instantly view millions of those objects, flickering on and off. The objects themselves may end up in the Sargasso Sea, but they achieve eternal life on the canvas. real existence. The cup of tea, the paintbrush, the table, the chair, the lamp, the window – the internet has made it possible to instantly view millions of those objects, flickering on and off. The objects themselves may end up in the Sargasso Sea, but they achieve eternal life on the canvas.

Composition is at once a balancing act and a work of construction; passive concentration combined with active building. Some painters construct the still life like a stage set, placing the objects where they want them to be. Goldman usually paints them where and how she finds them. Some of her paintings seem a glorious mess of cactus leaves, painting tools, and cups of tea, among slices of fruit scattered below the computer screen, which sits like a Buddha on an altar with offerings spread below. As random as the scattered objects seem, the paintings are masterfully built, beautifully composed, surprisingly solid. 

Composition tells its stories in its own language; not in narrative form, but rather stories of space and air. The feeling in Goldman’s paintings is like the feeling in the studio when all the windows are open: being inside a light-filled space, where everything can flow freely, from the physical world to the virtual world to the world of spirit and back. The plane of the painting is a finely tuned space. Everything sits in the exact right place, so that the painting “holds the wall”.

Some of the paintings depict the studio clutter just as it is, but in others certain elements have been isolated against a colored background. When I asked about those, Goldman answered, “I think of them as islands.” So there is the option of leaving the main continent and sailing to an island. On one of those islands three Buddhist monks appear on three screens (p. 56). Here, in the blue of the sea and the sky and the background, the concentration can be centered, the mind can rest, the hands can be folded in the lap, and the eyes can be half-closed.

(1) Emily Dickinson, "It was not Death, for I stood up", available at:
accessed December 12, 2017.

(2) Emily Dickinson, "The Soul has Bandaged moments", available at: 
accessed December 12, 2017.