A detail from Fishing, 2009, by Shai Azoulay(Shai Azoulay)

Someone is fishing for a white donkey in the middle of the desert. Or maybe we are watching a white donkey drowning. If the fisherman comes back soon he might still be able to catch it. Or save it. But there is no fisherman in sight, no footsteps, nothing but the yellow sand and the bright, merciless, blue sky.

When painter Shai Azoulay was a little kid in Arad, a city in the Israeli desert, a sailor uncle came to visit and brought him a fishing rod. Surrounded by nothing but dunes of sand, Azoulay had to wait until he found a good use for the odd present. The White Donkey, an icon for anticipation of redemption, seems to be here a detached symbol of the waiting, the expectation, without the thing itself. Waiting for a change, waiting for salvation, waiting for the Messiah, waiting for Godot. This earthy animal, still sometimes used in Israel as a means of transportation, is waiting for someone to save it. For someone to save us.

Looking at the painting one cannot avoid thinking about the similarity between the Hebrew word for “donkey,” chamor, and the word for “matter,” chomer. Somewhere between the material and the spiritual, between the day-to-day longing and the holy expectation, is our donkey, somewhat caught, somewhat drowning. Or maybe he is just taking a quick wash, cleaning himself from the yellow desert dust and getting all white, clean, and pure, preparing for someone, anyone, to come and ride his back all the way to Jerusalem.

Fishing, 2009, is part of Superpartners: Shai Azoulay and Reuven Israel, on view at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art through Dec. 21, 2011.