In her latest suite of 12 paintings, Rubble, Yael Brotman sets forth a fractured, pan-historical narrative that examines in a deeply personal way the seemingly inevitable human propensity for destruction and regeneration. Deploying a pictorial strategy built upon heavily reworked and re-constituted image fragments she interweaves mythological tales, historical facts and personal fantasy. In other words, she is a storyteller. Her Surrealist-influenced, free associative approach to image making is intended to engage the intuitive as well as the rational, mining the poetic imagination for new readings and new meanings - to suggest possibilities that may not have been considered. Her inspiration for this series is related to a trip the artist took to Berlin in 2006. This is a city with a rich history of cyclical transition that is currently undergoing radical transformations sparked by political and economic changes and by the fall of the wall that divided it more than a dozen years ago. There were two things that held major significance for her during that visit: the Pergamon frieze, depicting the transition from the old orders of reptilian demons to the new cosmology of the Olympians, and the Trummerfrau.

Young Goddess (Rubble), is a key painting from the series that succinctly embodies several of Brotman’s themes and motifs. The work is titled after the Trummerfrau – the so-called Rubble Women of Berlin that salvaged bricks from the post-World War II rubble heaps of the bomb-out city, cleaning, collecting and preparing them for use in the construction of new buildings. The oddly shaped, truncated female figure in over-size boots depicted in the painting is carrying what appears to be a bag with a head and body parts in it, striding deliberately towards or past what looks like a utility or industrial pipe of some sort. The figure itself appears to be constructed from mismatched fragments, a deft combination of paint and photo collage. High contrast shading and light grey-brown tones evoke similarity to an antiquated relief, an analogy further supported by the parts in the bag that look as though they may have come from some classical statuary or monument – cultural remnants, so to speak. Only a thin, pale line grounds the figure and the mysterious pipe in space, otherwise the image can be easily read as a section of an ancient frieze. Or, given the illogical anatomical scale of the figurative elements, the fictional space and the rendering of the hair and face, this could be a panel from a comic. Antiquity and modernity, the historical and the contemporary, painting and photography, familiar iconography and strange symbols. Embedded in this modest-scale, relatively spare composition Brotman has packed complex layers of potential meaning whose unusual juxtapositions and contradictory characteristics define the framework for her investigation. Goddess, cartoon or just a woman taking out the trash, the figure, within the context and source of the painting’s title, is a metaphor for that optimistic point of hope between the destruction of the old and the potential of the new. Inspired by the Berlin philosopher and writer Hannah Arendt’s examination of the human capacity for violence in her book, The Human Condition, Brotman concurs that self-directed action is an act of hope that she sees embodied by the Rubble Woman.

The writings and observations of Arendt hold particular interest for Brotman and she dedicates this series of paintings to mark the centenary of her birth. In fact, Hannah Arendt in her kitchen is a portrait of Arendt, who Brotman has depicted looking forlorn and ghostly with the head loosely brushed in and floating at the lower left side of the canvas. She appears to be boxed into a claustrophobic room with the ceiling above her painted a gaudy purple and the wall opposite a drab cream. In the middle, surrounded by tiny, leafy vines that might be decrepit wallpaper, a photographic image of four electrical circuits has been almost seamlessly integrated into the painted composition. Emanating up from the outlets, across the canvas and above Arendt’s head are two intertwined conduit pipes, looking a lot like a double helix, fixed into the ceiling? As with Young Goddess (Rubble), and even more so, precise meaning is elusive and the narrative elements, the interplay of images, are loaded with symbolic and metaphoric potential. As is well known, Arendt was deeply disturbed by the rise of fascism in her beloved city and this depiction, if not a classical, idealized portrait of the subject, feels more like an elegy of lament. Arendt and other intellectuals in Germany at the time felt trapped in the horrifying, Kafka-esque political and bureaucratic morass that was unfolding before them leaving them powerless as they were being silenced and subjected to aggressive vilification.

In any case, it is Brotman’s intention to resist definitive readings and, indeed, there is no doubt that these paintings are vexing. She rifles freely through the extensive history of painting and the past in general, borrowing or “sampling” styles, pictorial strategies and references, symbols and metaphors both familiar and obscure. The expressionistic brushwork of The Walls Have Eyes recalls Toronto’s Chromazone painters of the 1980s, the figure in Wait! evokes David Sallé and the composition is as bizarre as any by Neo Rauch. The muted tones in Young Goddess (Rubble) are not unlike those of the Belgian, Luc Tuymans and in In a Room Darkly the darkened room with window blinds, upturned chairs and a stack of books holds the psychologically charged air of mystery and expectation of early work by Eric Fischl.

Brotman readily acknowledges her painterly influences as she does her historical ones and cleverly manages to avoid the burden of their weight by filtering them through her own personal and fresh perspectives. Of course hers is somewhat of a subversive, even feminist approach to history, and to the history of painting, that undermines and questions - as it acknowledges and respects - rearranging, reconsidering and revising accepted, authoritative canon. For Yeal Brotman it is a mere matter of re-shuffling the deck and shifting the gaze. She refuses to believe that humanity is bound to a pre-prescribed, inescapable destiny beyond our control. There may be many sides to the (his)stories we’ve been told. If those stories and the vocabularies that define them also define who we are, then she suggests that a shift or a re-mixing or restating of those terms will hold the potential for liberation.

Essay by David Liss, Curator and Director, Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA)