Exhibition Review

This is Not About Transgender Art

This is Not About Transgender Art: Reviewing Roey Heifetz’s ‘Victoria’ Exhibit

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March 8th, 2017. 

Roey Heifetz, an Israeli born artist who currently lives and works in Berlin, is in the midst of a transgender process. Heifetz’s show Victoria, now on view at the Ticho House, is largely connected to this transition. Yet, when I went to visit the show for the first time, I found myself deliberately trying to dispel the art from this aspect of the artist’s life.

Even more, when I decided to review the exhibition for this piece, I swore that I wasn’t going to address Heifetz’s gender identity. This isn’t because I don’t value the transgender movement, or the artist herself as an advocate for the LGBT community—I do very much. But my experience with Heifetz’s drawings was profound, and I felt that the transgender label was blinding my perception, leaving the works unjustified and my own interpretations out of reach.

Do we define Hefeitz’s work as a manifestation of her transition, and is this exhibition really about a transgender artist? A quote from art historian Linda Nochlin comes to mind, “Art is neither a sob story, nor a confidential whisper.”

For me Roey Heifetz’s art is a testament to the artist’s skill and technique, and beyond this, an invitation into a grander experience of the world as a whole and her ideas about the struggle of human existence.

It is nearly impossible to grasp the journey Heifetz’s portraits embark on through photographs. The 13 large-scale portraits that make up Victoria are drawn intuitively, without an initial sketch or model. The artist meticulously drafts using mechanical pencil and graphite, where tiny, thin lines come together to form detailed clusters of facial features and body parts—a hybrid of human beings.

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Unsystematic blotches of pure pigment or varnish are thrown onto the surface of the 3 meter high drawings—covering the figures and creating a moving contrast in Heifetz’s work—this is a large step away from the obvious control the artist seeks when working on the figures themselves. Hung from ceiling to the floor without a frame or protection, a closer look at the thick paper Heifetz works on will reveal tiny tears and scratches. These flaws articulate the artist’s deliberate abuse of her material, reflecting the attachment she feels to her drawings.

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Heifetz is largely influenced by German artists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz whose expressive works were ruthless in order to get their message across, and Heifetz draws from the same intensity. These excessive pieces elicit immense emotions; sensitivity and fear. Whatever their message might be, they yearn for us to understand them, to be with them, and to take them home.

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Honest and aware of the transgender labels, Heifetz chose to embrace them for this exhibition and they obviously bear an influential message—but her work itself opposes such labels. The lonely figures are often androgynous and fleshless, savagely and painfully liberating themselves from the need to identify with anything from the outside world. Heifetz refers to them as collages of many stories with many layers.

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In my opinion, what these figures portray does not represent transgender or a transition. Laden with mixed emotions, Heifetz’s anxious figures have struggled to go beyond such categories—and they are victorious. Their strong presence does not only leave the viewer with remnants of Heifetz’s own gender transition, but they deliver us to question our own struggle with our sense of self and being, beyond an identification with gender, social class, beauty, age or profession. Embodying the exhibition’s namesake Victoria, which may also refer to Heifetz’s female name, the works are perhaps longing—as we are longing—for a personal victory.

“In the end, I am a person, I’m not a transgender figure. I want to believe that people can challenge themselves to see above all of those identities. But it is something that happens when you are standing in front of the painting. The moment you stand in front of the painting, you are experiencing it. It is not about transgender, women, old women… it is about an essence that you cannot define by words. This is exactly what I felt in the studio when I was working on the figures. What you are experiencing is the way that you experience your world.”

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When you do decide to look at Hefeitz’s art, you will associate it with who she is; you will assume things about your own experience with her art based on her identity; but try to understand it from your own experience. Roey Heifetz’s work is not great because it is about a transgender artist, it is great because it is brutally honest, and you can trust it to guide you—whether you like it or not.

Victoria is now on view at the Ticho House in Jerusalem until March 27th.

All photo credit: Elie Posner courtesy of The Israel Museum


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