Once Hanoch Piven started seeing faces in things, he couldn’t stop. Mundane objects from antique phones to bike racks and even sewer drains started looking like facial features. The Israeli caricaturist uses food and household items to create collages that mock icons from Madonna to the pope and depict international newsmakers.
Nineteen of Piven’s pieces are on display at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco through April 30.
Piven was in the Bay Area the first week in February as the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation Israel Center’s scholar-in-residence. The artist met with educators and students to talk about his life, and how to bring art and creativity into the classroom.
“I grew up in Uruguay,” Piven told a packed room of students and staff members Feb. 6 at Jewish Community High School in San Francisco. “I was drawing cows, soccer players and gauchos,” he said, projecting large photos of his early artwork on a screen.
After making aliyah with his family at age 11 and settling into a suburb of Tel Aviv, he noted, the images quickly turned to fighter planes, weapons and politicians.
The 50-year-old artist, who now splits his time between Jaffa and Barcelona, became widely popular in 1996 after creating a caricature of Sara Netanyahu from a large broom with yellow bristles. The image of the Israeli prime minister’s wife, which accentuates her nose and pokes fun at her being a neat freak, uses a police badge for an eye and a broken scrub brush for her mouth.
“When I talked to Mrs. Netanyahu, she told me she liked all of my works, except for one,” Piven said with a smile.
Piven’s depiction of President Obama appeared on the cover of Esquire UK last year and Fortune magazine published his illustration of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Though he’s been commissioned for illustrations of political figures from Boris Yeltsin to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Piven said, not all of his work is inherently political. He’s done illustrations of Albert Einstein and Jerry Garcia (Piven used marijuana joints for Garcia’s beard), and has worked on advertising campaigns for Israeli food giant Strauss.
Making art was not always Piven’s goal, and getting to where he is today was not a direct or easy path, he said. He was a good math student, and it was not until after he served in the army and studied engineering for a year in Jerusalem that he decided to go back and pursue his passion.
He was rejected by the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, and “I felt totally kicked out of Israel and humiliated at the time. I was really embarrassed.” That led Piven to New York’s School of Visual Arts. Realizing that the images he drew, while creative, were not on par with those of his fellow students, he looked for a different approach to his art.
Influenced by Eastern European artists and illustrators such as Saul Steinberg and Andre Francois, as well as Dadaists and artists who used symbolism, Piven explored other genres, which is how he stumbled on collage work. He said his experience in art school is a metaphor: “Life is a collage: it’s a wandering path. It’s not linear, but full of opportunities and coincidences if we let it.”
Creating caricatures from everyday objects became his focus. “A caricaturist is usually someone who looks from the side of society, someone who criticizes, pokes fun or exposes,” Piven noted. But his playfulness and use of humorous ingredients, he said, have allowed his work to gain a mainstream audience. His art has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, the London Times and other international publications.
Eventually moving back to Israel, Piven wrote a monthly column from 1996 to 2002 for Haaretz and Maariv. But after seven years in the newsroom, he was ready to try something new. He wrote several children’s books, including “Let’s Make Faces” and “The Perfect Purple Feather,” and is now a full-time artist.
Back at the Jewish Community High School, Piven worked with small groups of ninth- and 10th-graders using food to create self-portraits. Going around the room, each student explained, in Hebrew, why they chose certain foods for their artwork. One student pointed to the pasta she used for her hair, while a classmate searched for vegetable vocabulary in Hebrew to talk about his creation.
“If we are open to them,” Piven said to the students, “we can pick things up and compose something unique.”
Hanoch Piven’s collages and illustrations are on display at JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F., through April 30.