Text from "In Praise of Avalanche" Exhibition catalog, Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, 2016
“I see the illusion of depth as the deception of the painting, and it is one of the things I avoid on purpose. To me, that illusion symbolizes what I find most disturbing in the practice of art—the attempt to create a religious depth, a sort of theology of secular worlds. I suppose that is also what lies at the heart of the lovehate relationship I have with art. Let’s call it the inability to provide what I see as a real lack in our world. To me it is obvious that I am not interested in contributing to that illusion. In that respect, the images I have dealt with in the past year testify to a world that had higher providence or a conviction in absolute wisdom. I am not trying to formulate, recreate or realize that place, but I rather want to point to the absence, among other things, the absence of that particular time in ourexperience in general and in art in particular.” (1)
I. Modus Operandi, Modus Vivendi:
Instinctive, Bulimic, Obsessive Instinctive, bulimic, obsessive, Shai Yehezkelli’s art seems to embody some of the most urgent issues of our time. Through technological advancement, humankind has become more and more animalistic, dominated by instinct rather than intellect. Due to the growing accessibility of information, images, places, and people, we live in a reality that denies us the possibility of finding things, and are bombarded by the everything, which comes to us, whether we want it or not. In our increasingly porous and interconnected reality, we are no longer capable of perceiving it from different angles. Instead, in this era of “bad acoustics”, we live in perennial “cacophony”, trying to grasp some sort of meaning in a scenario that is as exciting as it is chaotic.
What does this have to do with Yehezkelli’s artworks, which consist mostly of figurative paintings and drawings the most conservative practices in contemporary visual art, if not in the history of human creativity? Here comes in an important hidden
keyword: paradox. Yehezkelli’s position has always been riddled with paradoxes, with ambivalence. This is mirrored in many aspects of his working methods (modus operandi) and his life (modus vivendi): from the way he deals with his essentially paradoxical religious upbringing (2), to his love-hate affair with art, with his studio, with his work; from his incapability to come to terms with the emotions—enjoyment/struggle/frustration/ satisfaction—created in the studio alongside the works, to his impossibility to truly define his finished or unfinished paintings and drawings.
It’s through this paradoxical approach that we can investigate Yehezkelli’s figurative paintings and drawings as a reaction to the world surrounding us. However, while most of us accept this state of affairs, he doesn’t. Instead, he is seeking a way to channel the current instinct-driven and obsessive bulimia, to turn it, by means of his creative force, into works of art, using pieces of burlap, or metal, broken pots (3), and large sheets of paper.
II. Motifs: Faces, Pots, and Palm Trees
Once the driving force behind Yehezkelli’s works is understood, additional fundamental questions arise: what are the weapons with which the artist strikes back at this instinct-driven and obsessive bulimia? How does he fight fire with fire? What are his recurring subjects? What are the pillars of his effusive imagery? Three elements, which will be iconographically and iconologically analyzed here, seem to occupy a special place in his work.
First there is the face. Most of Yehezkelli’s paintings and drawings include a male human face, mostly depicted in profile. Continually reinterpreted, with different styles, appearances, features, it nevertheless always retains three clear aspects: self‑reflection and introspectiveness transform, to some extent, almost each of his paintings into a self‑portrait. Through this mirroring action, a loop is generated from the one who makes to the one who is made and back. The second aspect elevates the first one to a more universal level: although self-portraits, these profiles symbolize the human condition, as well as forge a link with the history of depiction (4). Be it as it may, Yehezkelli’s typical self-portrait does not resemble his own features but rather those of stereotypical
representations of Jews, from medieval manuscripts to Nazi anti‑Semitic propaganda (5).
Then there is the pot (Kad in Hebrew). Although the artist always stresses the formal value of such an object not to mention its long relation to the act of depiction (6) the main reason for his choice of pots is much more complex. Through their importance for archaeology, pots become highly symbolic of the “Yehezkelli-philosophy.” The artist uses them as a perfect embodiment of something completely mundane, trivial (7)that may be valorized as an object of study, a relic of a mysterious past, a tool for investigation. As a functional artifact, a receptacle of all kinds of liquids, the pot goes from one hand to another, from house to house, but in certain cases it may become a prized object of veneration and desire, a prisoner of a glass vitrine, celebrated in museums.
Third and last, there is the palm tree. Less present in his art than the first two motifs, the palm, which also means a hand, actively links the face/head/body with the pot/jar/cup and is a prominent symbol in Shai Yehezkelli’s rebus-like (8) works. Two main reasons make it an important part of his vocabulary: first,
similarly to the face in figure painting and the pot in still life painting, the palm is a major image in landscape painting. Thus the artist becomes responsible for a very unique kind of double action, which rather than fighting with an intensity that is twofold stronger (->) actually erases or balances itself due to its oppositional direction (<-->); in other words, on the one hand (or palm), the artist is flooding our eyes with a plethora of images, mirroring the current reality rooted in imagebulimia, and on the other hand, a closer look shows that each painting actually contains the essence of reality, here represented by</-->
the three main genres in painting, and even transcends the notion of art itself (9). Last but not least, the palm tree has often been used as a sign for sociological tropes such as orientalism (10) ,exoticism and colonialism, but it is also included—alongside the olive tree and the cactus (11)—in visual material generated by the Zionist ideology, from fine art to propaganda (12).
III. Family Tree: Marc Chagall, Philip Guston, and Josh Smith
Having analyzed Yehezkelli’s works in light of his response to the current state of reality, which is dominated by instinct, image‑bulimia, and obsessiveness, and of the hermeneutics (13) of three recurring subjects in his work here interpreted as a kind of a “trinity” (figure/still life/landscape) reflecting art history’s three major painting genres—it is time to contextualize his work within a broader discourse. While we could easily connect Yehezkelli’s work to that of other Israeli painters of his generation, not to mention its clear historical references and connections to his local predecessors, it seems that an examination of his non‑Israeli “family tree” might prove beneficial. Looking at his work, three artists immediately come to mind: Marc Chagall, Philip Guston, and Josh Smith.
Like Chagall, Yehezkelli uses “Jewish imagery” (14) to create oneiric scenes in which a floating figure, Chagall or Yehezkelli, stands in the center and comes to represent a larger group of people, be it the Jewish people, Jewish men, or males or even mankind in general. Furthermore, in both their works it is unclear whether we’re dealing here with reality, with a dream or a nightmare, whether the protagonist enjoys himself or struggles, which brings us back to the love-hate complex and the already familiar keyword: paradox.
The link to Guston is sensorial (15): Yehezkelli seems to share formal and compositional solutions, and at times even the same palette, with the great American painter, whose outsider figure could definitely be conceived in parallel terms to Yehezkelli’s existentialism and inner conflicts. Besides, what really links the two is the way they treat the material, creating specific situations in which a graphic touch is immediately counter‑balanced by a sculptural rendering of the painted or drawn subject. Moreover, due to the pronounced tactility of their works, both the surface — be it canvas, paper or clay—and the material applied onto it seem to emerge as “a thing” that should not only be lookedat, but also simply touched.
The similarity with Josh Smith is attitudinal: their approaches to art‑making have many generational and other commonalities such as the way
both fight fire with fire. First, there is the notion of signature, which in Smith’s work—American, pragmatic, effective— comes through the banality of his name “Josh Smith”, whereas in Yehezkelli’s— Israeli, brutal, impatient—gets materialized as self-portraits in which the “self”, the identity, leads to a universal take—Israeli Jewish man/Jewish man/man. Then there is the related use of motifs: the fish, the palm tree (16), and the leaf of Smith; the pot, the face and the palm tree of Yehezkelli (17). And finally, there is the hyper-active and hyper‑productive mood: both artists are seemingly preoccupied with the desire to use painting—the gesture, the action—as a channel for their excessive energies, rather than as a means to create a masterpiece; their attitude towards art-making can more easily be compared to the one-timeness of ejaculation (18)—continuous, deathly vital (19)—as opposed to the process‑based
state of pregnancy (conceiving, carrying, delivering), leading to a direct and somehow problematic reading of their works through the filter of gender (20).
Despite the discrete paths taken in describing Yehezkelli’s relation to Chagall, Guston, and Smith—subject, senses and attitude respectively—one should remember that this pragmatic decision was born of the format-imposed limitations of a written catalogue essay, and that these three artists
are actually connected to Yehezkelli’s work through multiple entries. Differently put, this is just the tip of the iceberg, and all these words are only keys (-words) to unlock and reveal the “mystic truth” (21) behind Shai Yehezkelli’s paradoxical practice.
“What kind of world is reflected through the artist’s life? Faced with loss he immerses himself in masturbation [...]. The masturbation scene, instead of being a site for self-gratification, becomes the admission of settling for a substitute. Yehezkelli lists the various varieties of existential mundanities and works diligently to describe and document his fantasies. Creating, documenting and fantasizing intimate moments in full view of all, he reminds himself of what the drawing won’t allow the viewer to forget. It’s a world where irony and pathos are employed in an endeavor to elicit emotion; a world where compassion is not superior to self-pity and fact is not preferable to rumor [...]. It is a decentralized world, consisting of all varieties of disengagement and detachment: penis from a mouth, fingers from a palm, turds from a bottom, hairs from a head, head from a body, sensibility from sense, desire from its satisfaction.” (22)
(1) “Shai Yehezkelli in conversation with Eden Bannet,” Salame 10 – 2010 Graduate Show, Master of Fine Art (MFA) (Jerusalem: Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, 2010): 176.
(2) When asked about it, the artist recalled that at first his secular parents told him that they had sent him to religious school because they believed it was academically better; then they mentioned a logistical reason, the specific religious school was nearest to their home; and lastly his mother justified their decision saying that his closest preschool friends were religious kids and they didn’t want to separate him from them. Obviously none of these reasons have anything to do with religion.
(3) The pots on which the artist paints are actually rejects of the Benyamini Contemporary Ceramics Center, located near the artist’s studio in the south of Tel Aviv. With this action Yehezkelli “celebrates abortion,” or resuscitates “born-dead” creations; another paradoxical aspect of his practice.
(4) According to Giorgio Vasari, Parmigianino created his masterpiece Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524) as an example to showcase his talent to potential customers and subsequently donated it to Pope Clement VII in order to obtain his patronage. See also Pliny the Elder, who in 77-79 AD wrote in his Natural History (book XXXV, chap. 43): “On painting […]. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief […].”
(5) On the “Jewishness” of Yehezkelli’s portraiture, see Anat Danon Sivan’s essay in this catalogue. During a visit to the artist's studio, I noticed a few Judaica books. One of them had photo-reproductions of medieval manuscripts featuring images of Jews with traditional “Jewish hats,” which also recur in many of his faces/self-portraits. Known in Latin as pilleus cornutus (horned skullcap) or the German judenhut (Jewish cap), this cone-like and pointed white or yellow headwear was first worn by choice both in Europe and in the Middle East. However, after 1215 some places in Europe adopted it as a rule, forcing all adult male Jews to wear it outside the ghetto, as a distinguishing sign. A related detail connected to the artificial notion of “otherness” appearing both in medieval manuscripts and in Yehezkelli's works is the big nose. This feature has always been associated with Jews, becoming the easiest way to define and ridicule them in satirical illustrations, especially during Hitler’s time. It is worthwhile noting that while anti-Semitism in particular and xenophobia in general always try to use “objective” traits to define differences, they often need additional markers – the Jewish hat, the yellow star, the pink triangle – to identify “the other.”
(6) Pots and related objects, such as cups and jars, have a double link to the act of depiction. On one hand there is the act of painting on a pot, a genre of which the utmost iconic example is ancient Greek pottery
(7) Duchampian readymade implies the use of mundane objects; this implication is somehow connected to Yehezkelli’s use of the pot, although in his case the chosen object is not only mundane, but also a “reject”
(8) Originally a “rebus” (a puzzle in which words are represented by combinations of pictures and individual letters) was a medieval heraldic expression denoting surnames. Although Yehezkelli’s early works, just like rebuses, often included letters, this side of his practice is outside the scope of this essay
(9) Here the concepts “figure,” “still life, ” and “landscape” may lead to existential speculations, symbolizing the relationship between the individual and the self (figure), the individual and the other (still life), the individual and god (landscape).
(10) “[…] Orientalism is not a mere political subject matter or field that is reflected passively by culture, scholarship, or institutions; nor is it a large and diffuse collection of texts about the Orient; nor is it representative and expressive of some nefarious 'Western' imperialism plot to hold down the 'Oriental' word. It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts […].” Edward Said, Orientalism [New York: Pantheon, 1978]: 12; 27.
(11) The Tzabar catus (צבר; English: sabra) or prickly pear (botanical name: Opuntia cactus) has been since the 1930s a slang word for a Jew born in Palestine and later in Israel. This appropriation of an essentially Palestinian symbol alludes to the nature of Israeli Jews who are supposedly tough and prickly outside, but delicate and sweet inside like the cactus’s fruit.
(12) Both visual art and visual communication, created by European Jews who immigrated to Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century, were informed by orientalism and exoticism. The palm tree, an ancient iconic Jewish symbol, served as a perfect visualization of Zionist ideology in paintings, prints, posters, and coins. It appears in works by Russian-born Nahum Gutman and Romanian-born Reuven Rubin, and especially in the oeuvres of Ukrainian-born Ephraim Moses Lilien, an illustrator and printmaker, friend of Herzl and of Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s founder Boris Schatz.
(13) Here the use of this word echoes its primary meaning, which defines a branch of theology that deals with Biblical exegesis.
(14) The term “Jewish Imagery” is somewhat oxymoronic given Judaism’s avowed aniconism, namely: avoidance of or prohibition on creating and worshipping images.
(15) “PG [Philip Guston]: […] you work from what you’re seeing, but you don’t draw everything you see. You evoke a highly selective process. You fight for that contour, of course, and so on. A drawing very involved with the feed of hair, the actual texture, the tactile quality of hair as well as skin” (Clark Coolidge [ed.], Philip Guston: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Conversations (Oakland CA: University of California Press, 2011): 254.
(16) Here the choice of the palm tree derives from a completely different, incomparable place. But there is no such thing as coincidence, definitely not in art.
(17) We could compare Smith’s stages and Yehezkelli’s pots, since both represent their desire to experiment with full three-dimensionality, outside of the realm of painting, drawing or any medium that is connected to them. Notwithstanding this fact, recently Smith also started to work with ceramic, although in a completely different way from Yehezkelli.
(18) The most iconic experiment in this regard is Warhol’s famous “oxidations paintings” or “piss paintings,” which formalist, art historical and institutional interpretation see them within the legacy of Jackson Pollock’s “drippings” without considering a more daring reading which sees the penis (Warhol outsourced this action to friends and collaborators) as the ultimate brush, the ultimate tool for the artist’s signature. The connection between Warhol’s “piss paintings” and the work of Smith and Yehezkelli comes through the second reading (although as we know both Smith and Yehezkelli are definitely not into outsourcing.)
(19) “La petite mort” (little death) is synonymous with orgasm, which usually accompanies the act of ejaculation.
(20) Although gender-based interpretation of art can often facilitate a deeper understanding of an artist, it is important to keep its parameters very flexible; Warhol’s gender identity was very complex and while both Smith and Yehezkelli are quite clear about their gender and how it influences their work, there are examples, such as female artists Isa Genzken, Rachel Harrison, Katharina Grosse or Jessica Stockholder, whose gender and the gender of their work are in sheer opposition.
(21) If we were to apply Bruce Nauman’s statement “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths” to Shai Yehezkelli, his truth would probably be a Kabbalistic one.
(22) Doron Rabina, “The Shape of Scale” in Shai Yehezkelli: Cocks & Tits & Hurt Feelings (Tel Aviv: self-published with the support of The Israel Lottery Council for Culture & Arts, 2014): III.