Were someone to ask me for an image that clearly represents nostalgia — the definition drawn from Greek of the feeling of ache or pain associated with homecoming — I might point them to the work of the artist Naomi Safran-Hon who makes paintings of (among other things) lost and abandoned homes.
Really, they are assemblages that incorporate photographic images, cement, and lace. The images document where she grew up: Haifa, a coastal town on the Mediterranean in Israel where Palestinian and Arab citizens of the town were forced to leave or escaped during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
Ms. Safran-Hon’s maternal grandparents came to Israel in the 1920s and paternal grandparents arrived just before the start of World War II. She grew up in a household of peace activists and refused to join the Israeli army when she came of age, declaring herself a conscientious objector. She says that at 19, “I wanted to leave; I didn’t like Israel, I didn’t like the politics there; I felt the oppression, the conflict.”
In 2004, Ms. Safran-Hon won a scholarship to study at Brandeis University. Six years later, she earned her M.F.A. at Yale. There, she had occasional studio visits with a collector, John Friedman, whom Ms. Safran-Hon describes as a “matchmaker.” He introduced her to the gallerist Irina Protopopescu, who put her work in an exhibition, “Absent Present,” at Slag Gallery in Chelsea in 2011, a year after she graduated.
Ms. Protopopescu told me that she gave Safran-Hon that initial show after seeing her work in Yale’s graduating class show and having a long conversation with the artist in person. What permeates Ms. Safran-Hon’s work, the gallerist explained, is “the fragility of human experience, the complicated nature of one’s home, and the vicissitudes of her personal and collective identity.” Ms. Protopopescu listed other essential criteria: “The work is conceptual, process based, visually captivating, engaging politics without being overt.” She added, “And what I always look [for] in artists — that the art is their oxygen.”
Ms. Safran-Hon, who now lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, begins her compositions with ink-jet-print renderings of her photographs of the interiors of abandoned residencies in her neighborhood, Wadi Salib, in Haifa. She then lathers on wet cement at selected points in the image so that when dry its textured surface juts out at the viewer, making the walls palpably stony, and pockmarking the rest of the scene through holes gouged in the canvas — an eruption momentarily frozen. The more cement she adds the more the image begins to come apart, and the artist typically pushes until the image is hanging on by its fingernails.
One painting, “Living Arrangement” (2017), shows a vacant house with articles of clothing, pillows, and other personal items in a devastated heap. Many of these objects sprout cement as if the entire room is slowly being ravaged by an outside force. Whoever lived there before looks like they had to make a run for it, and the superabundance of their abandoned items paradoxically evoke the loss of the home. But Ms. Safran-Hon’s paintings are not simply melancholic. They hold antithetical elements in unrelenting tension: the (seemingly masculine) cement and the (feminine) lace that acts as rebar, giving it a necessary scaffold; the representational image as a (historical) document and the interceding, expressive sculpture that makes the picture disintegrate like a fading memory.
The journalist Jocelyn Murphy, discussing Ms. Safran-Hon’s work in a group exhibition at Bentonville, Arkansas, in January, wrote that what the images don’t include is also a crucial aspect of the work’s importance. “It’s the absence of people in Safran-Hon’s work that reminds the viewer these structures, left to decay as a result of the violence in the area, once offered shelter, comfort, home.”
And looming over all this, in the background, is a history of ethnic factions tearing at each other. Ms. Safran-Hon conjures in her reconstructions of the wreckage of these conflicts something that can wreck you, and on first seeing her work in person I wanted to reach out and feel that sharp and tender place. I visited her studio this time last year, and asked her permission to touch the gnarled surface of one painting under construction.
An irony, she told me, is that “people describe my work as nostalgic, although I have no nostalgia” for growing up in Haifa. In a recent telephone call, we discussed her newer work and how she is dealing with the pandemic, which arrived just as her new exhibition was opening. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What are your paintings about?
My paintings are about the relationship we have with home and place and kind of bigger picture too. They’re about my relationship to where I grew up [in Haifa] and that specific history, but I’m interested in saying something much more.
In terms of the painting, there’s a sense of an illusion. I’m interested in the myth. The creation of a world within a canvas. I take photographs from this neighborhood in Haifa and bring it back to my studio in Brooklyn and I destroy the photograph in the process of making my paintings. I mix this idea of what is the truth with cement and lace, so if I’m using the real material in the painting, then what is the truth? Where is the fiction?
Where I come from, there’s so much myth building. In building a nation, you have to create a sense of mythology. How do we manipulate the story in order to create an ideology? And I think the paintings try to question the viewer, what do you see as real?
Has that notion of home shifted now that you’re confined to a place?
It makes me realize how complicated home is. My sibling works in the United Nations and he told me that there was a kind of survey in the U.N.: What is the most dangerous place for women? It’s the home. This was before the pandemic.
Yes, which I think incorporates everything: abuse from a family member, from a lover, and you know that we’re all home [now]. The cases of violence against women have just risen. I think about the kind of the progress that women have [made] and how politics invades our home in this pandemic.
They tell us shelter in place, right? Like, by staying home, we’re saving lives. But what if your home is horrible? What if your situation at home is so unbelievably terrible and going to college saved you, and then the dorm closed, and then you had to come back to this horrible situation that you were so happy to escape?
It sounds like the idea you had of home before was complicated, but now it’s even more complex; how else has the pandemic affected the way you work?
One of my biggest frustrations is making work and then wanting the viewer to see it, getting it out of the studio. Some people make work to be seen on the screen. That’s fabulous, but my work is meant to see in person. It’s meant to hold space with you, to have a relationship.
On a virtual visit to your show, I noticed that pieces such as “Night Plumber” (2019) don’t quite convey the materiality of the PVC pipes you used in the assembly. They were flattened out. Others, like “Charlotte Pipe” (2020) and “Pattern of My Surrender (two)” (2019), do impart the sense of a weighted object, a part of the domestic infrastructure that is typically hidden but now exposed to light. I imagine that part of what you were aiming for is to say “Here’s what we don’t typically see as part of the home but is integral to its functioning.” Is that right?
When you see “Night Plumber” on your screen, half of the magic of the illusion is gone. The right panel is a photograph of PVC pipes in Israel, and the panel on the left is the [actual] PVC pipes in cement. So there is an illusion: What is painting and what is photograph and what is real and what is fake? And the plumbing is fake! The plumbing isn’t functional. We think photography is a document; we believe photographs. We think painting is fictional. But then it plays a trick on what you know.
The show is called “All my Lovers.” What were you thinking about intimate relationships?
It’s all about how we take our relationships for granted, how we take our feeling of home for granted, you know, the love of your mother, and the plumbing; we don’t see it [but] it’s functioning. When the plumbing goes bad, we really need a plumber [laughs]. Right? The paintings play on these ideas, so seeing them online really does break my heart because it does flatten them out.
The strongest work in the show is “Mirror Ceiling: A Room with a Mattress and a Chair” (2017–2020), a diptych with washy hazes of wallpaper and flooring patterns on the left, and on the right, images of an abandoned pallet and chair, all of it suffused by cement bursting through from the substrate. It suggests that constructing the home is really an act of excavation, digging until you have reached the foundations and then you have to decide, can I actually live here?
It’s a great interpretation. I like the word “excavation” because I think about it like an archaeological dig. We talk about populations moving because of war and conflict; we talk about gentrification, about urban renewal, all of these have a history.
You include photographs of Wadi Salib, your neighborhood in Haifa, and a building that was inhabited by Palestinians until 1948. What were you intending?
After the [Arab-Israeli War] war the new government of Israel put new immigrants into what they called “abandoned property.” They weren’t abandoned, but people couldn’t come back home. The new homeowner, the state of Israel, neglected the buildings for 60 years. That’s what you see in the painting, “When Our Walls Were Green it Was all Different” (2019). Oh, I wish I could walk you through it! [It had] trash on the ground and what’s interesting about this place that I photograph is that now it has squatters and has trash from contemporary people coming into the space, making a home for those who don’t have homes. [The work] has this history of looking for home and not just the specific story of Haifa and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Homes get destroyed for many different reasons and we all have a relationship to the home we grew up in, the home that we left behind, the home we want to make. How do we not make the same mistakes our parents made?