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Identifying Differences

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Ethnic Conflict Becomes Artistic Commentary for Austrian-Israeli Urban Planner

Sometimes an artist comes along whose use of the abstract shows tangent power. Such can be said of Wolf Werdigier, whose mysterious paintings take on intense significance when put into context.

The artist is not widely known in the United States and may not have exhibited in the Washington, D.C., area at all if it were not for the Austrian Embassy. But the small exhibit of his paintings currently on display at the embassy’s cultural forum packs a commanding punch, born of an urban planner whose interest in ethnic conflicts led him to artistic commentary.

The German-born, Austrian-Israeli artist, whose father was a Jewish concentration camp survivor, began interviewing Israelis and Palestinians in 2001 before transferring their most intimate fears and dreams onto oil and canvas. The ensuing paintings became an ongoing “Hidden Images” project in which the artist’s mysterious renditions explored the cyclical grief of the Middle East conflict and what it has done to its ordinary residents.

For his most recent project, the artist embarked on a demographic study beginning in 2005 in New York, where he conducted interviews with more than 40 people of diverse ethnicities that make up the American melting pot. “Identities in Black and White” at the Austrian Cultural Forum pulls from his questions about race and identity in the United States.

Many of his paintings are based largely on “social dreaming matrix” workshops, a psychoanalytic approach in which people share their dreams to discuss common themes and larger meanings. The attention he pays to his subjects’ most intimate feelings gives the paintings a touch of personal familiarity that also adds a humanistic experience to the small display.

Werdigier’s paintings are filled with large, sweeping brushstrokes and abstract figures. On their own, there is not a lot that separates his pieces from the hundreds of thousands of other modern paintings that surface among the area’s dozens of museums throughout the year. But put into context, the pieces can be commanding if not moving.

Many of the paintings he created from his time in the Middle East, for instance, served as imagery for the widespread grief experienced by Israelis after recurrent suicide bombings as well as the interference with daily life that ordinary Palestinians endure. In fact, throughout his career, the artist has pulled from personal interaction with disparate groups: Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and non-Jews in Vienna, African Americans and whites in the United States.

An urban planner by training, Werdigier’s paintings evolved from a side hobby into a second career in the 1980s. His works have been displayed in Austria, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, New York City, Philadelphia and Cleveland, and he has been employed by government architectural firms, planning offices and universities.

Identities in Black in White through March 29 Austrian Cultural Forum 3524 International Court, NW For more information, please call (202) 895-6714 or visit www.acfdc.org.

About the Author

Heather Mueller is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999