The figures in Roni Taharlev’s paintings are ambiguous, in two respects: the world that they inhabit is undefined, its historical and geographic coordinates are unclear, and in most instances their gender is unclear and subject to interpretation. These ambiguities are deliberate, and also interrelated. This is an attempt to create portraits that lie on the spectrum between femininity and the masculinity, that straddle the midway point between what are conventionally regarded as two poles. These are not portraits of actual characters with a nonconformist gender, but rather form part of a purely artistic inquiry – namely, an attempt to negate or counteract gender traits in a bid to achieve a “zero degree” of gender. What brings us closer to it is youth: the time before the portrait is imbued with a life story, before the subject’s expression is shaped by a social role and the body assumes the trappings of social status.
One can point out the combinations of feminine and masculine traits in each and every picture. The difficulty in pinning down the gender of the figures makes us aware of the gender-attribution process that usually occurs automatically and unconsciously, and of our discomfort at failing to do so. Indeed, gender is such a key social category, that gender ambiguity induces a sense of unease, like that of a niggling riddle that requires resolution.
In addition, the characters appear to be removed from the here and now, but the few accessories that they are given – a garment, a flower, a butterfly, or a fantasy bird – are not enough to place them in any other definite space. This question of location also extends to the works’ painterly composition. The portraits appear to belong to another era – but which one? Are we in the Renaissance, in the Baroque period, or the nineteenth century? Is it realism, fantasy, or allegory? The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that these figures inhabit not an actual historical context of any kind, but the realm of art.
This is especially evident in the Annunciation paintings, depicting the famous scene in the New Testament, in which the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and become the mother of Jesus. To this artistic topos that includes an encounter between two figures – a young woman and an angel – Taharlev offers an original reinterpretation. In her images, she explores various gender possibilities: in one instance, the angel is a man, in another it is a woman, and in yet another, a girl, and the Virgin Mary is depicted as somewhat androgynous. All that remains of the Annunciation theme is the vaguely charged nature of the situation, which despite the nudity is devoid of any eroticism.
There is no doubt that Taharlev is conducting an intensive and multi-faceted dialogue with the history of art, and the preoccupation with the question of gender in her works is not of a psychological or social nature, but rather an inquiry that has more to do with the pictorial qualities of the works and their intra-artistic resonances. After all, white ravens are such rare creatures, that they belong almost exclusively in the realm of art.