February 1, 2012
Art and fashion find their nexus in a Los Angeles creative couple
Cubes of color intersected by bands, which the viewer can manipulate into arrangements within a grid framing the work; watercolors of narrow striations, punctuated by colors and shapes, transform abstraction from cool cerebral to emotional landscapes. Clothing made in Los Angeles but destined for the world, an ongoing narrative about fabric and color draped over the human form. Such is the work and art of Moshé Elimelech and Shelli Segal, who live with their twin daughters in an ultra-contemporary home in Burbank. Elimelech’s work is currently on view in exhibitions at LA Artcore downtown and L2Kontemporary Gallery in Chinatown. Segal is a renown fashion designer.
Elimelech was born in Rabat, Morocco. His Orthodox Jewish parents fled the country and settled in Israel when he was only 2. From an early age, Elimelech took to art, sketching landscapes before turning to oil paints. “It seemed in school that I was always the best in art,” said Elimelech.
Although admission to the Avni Institute of Art and Design was meant for those over 16, Elimelech lied about his age to get in. At the time, he was still observant, and art school opened his eyes in more ways than one. He recalls his very first class was life drawing, and he’s not sure who stared more: he at the nude model or she at his kippah.
Elimelech trained as a designer during his stint in the Israeli army, where he served for two and a half years as art director for the army publication house Maarachot, designing its magazine as well as covers for its books. Following his army service, he worked as the assistant art director for a fashion magazine for about nine months before saving up for a trip abroad.
His first “target,” as he put it, was London. He couldn’t speak a word of English. His money ran out in three months, after which he took a series of odd jobs, including working “in a supermarket, with cockneys in a factory, and in an Israeli restaurant.” When his English improved, he started taking his portfolio around and getting freelance design assignments. Then one day, the phone rang.
It was Israeli artist Yaacov Agam, and he wanted to know if Elimelech could come to Paris immediately to work in his studio. It turned out that one of Agam’s assistants, who was a friend of Elimelech’s, was leaving and recommended him. Within a few weeks, he was living in Paris and working in Agam’s studio. Agam is very particular about his color choices for his work, and in Elimelech he discovered a kindred spirit of sorts; someone whose use and choice of color he came to trust. Still, being a great artist’s assistant is its own travail, and once Elimelech had saved enough, he bought a one-way ticket to New York.
In New York, he moved in with an Israeli friend in Brooklyn and took the subway into Manhattan with his portfolio, looking for freelance design work. On New Year’s Eve of 1976, he and a friend went to New York’s Ocean Club. As the band was playing, he and his friend saw an attractive woman standing nearby. They flipped a coin to determine who would try talking to her. And that was how Elimelech met his wife, Shelli Segal. “You could say Moshé either won or lost the coin toss, depending on your point of view,” Segal joked.
Segal, who was born in Texas, grew up in New York and attended the High School of Music & Art. Although she enjoyed the school, she quickly discovered she wasn’t well suited to being on stage. “I wasn’t one of those people,” she said.
Segal recalled being “an awkward teenager” with one best friend, Charles Busch, who would go on to fame as the playwright/performer of “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” “He was my only friend,” she said.
Segal enrolled at Purchase College, State University of New York, but had to drop out — an assignment using a circular saw resulted in Segal cutting into her fingers (one of which had to be removed).
Instead, Segal enrolled in the Mayer School of Fashion Design, a nine-month New York trade school program in which she learned to make patterns and sew. “After that, I was lucky enough to meet Ruth Manchester, who was a hot designer, and she gave me a job. I was 19, and I’ve been working ever since,” Segal said, adding, “I always knew I wanted to be a designer, not an artist.”
After meeting, they lived in New York — Elimelech a graphic designer, Segal a fashion designer. However, Segal’s brother, actor Robby Benson, was living in Los Angeles, and Segal’s parents, writer Jerry Segal and singer Ann Benson, followed. Suddenly, they felt alone in New York and, in 1981, they decided to move to Los Angeles. “All my New York friends thought I was a nut case,” Elimelech said.
Elimelech opened a graphic design studio and continued to work on his art on the side. He was selected as a contributing artist for the 1984 Olympic Games, designing a memorable poster that, in its use of color and striations, prefigures elements of his current work. After working for several L.A.-based designers, Segal in 1992 became head designer of Laundry, a popular fashion line. “Laundry by Shelli Segal” became a great success and was acquired by Liz Claiborne in 1999.
By 2000, Elimelech decided to close his graphic design studio downtown to devote himself more to his family and his art, at his home studio.
His work is challenging — there is a coolness to the hard-edged graphics and brushed metal frames holding the cubes that resists interpretation. The possible mathematical combinations the work yields by virtue of the multisided cubes and the grid that holds them speak of a certain intellectual rigor, but are, at the same time, whimsical and playful. By contrast, the watercolors, perhaps because they betray more man-made evidence in the lines, grids and the way the colors seep in, are more emotive, suggesting skyscapes and the special light in Los Angeles. Like a beautiful circuit board, the series of lines and line breaks in the watercolors, interrupted by color and taking various forms, sometimes reveal patterns in the work that reorganize what we are looking at, as if to decode a secret message whose truth is more sensory than intellectual.
If all this seems like a contradiction, it perfectly suits Elimelech and Segal, a New York couple who are very much settled in Burbank; whose work could be done anywhere but speaks of Los Angeles; and who have excelled in creative pursuits while leading a very non-Hollywood life. Yet one could argue that they are both, by virtue of what they design, in the “show” business. Imagine that.
Moshé Elimelech’s acrylic paintings and his watercolors at on view at L2kontemporary Art Gallery, 990 N. Hill St., Los Angeles, in the Chinatown District, through Feb. 11.
Laundry by Shelli Segal