Head-to-Tail: the Art of Shai Yehezkelli
Nicola Trezzi

Head (line)

“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.”

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, 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, 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. 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.
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 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 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 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. Last but not least, the palm tree has often been used as a sign for sociological tropes such as orientalism,exoticism and colonialism, but it is also included—alongside the olive tree and the cactus—in visual material generated by the Zionist ideology, from fine art to propaganda.

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 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” 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: 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, and the leaf of Smith; the pot, the face and the palm tree of Yehezkelli. 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—continuous, deathly vital—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.
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” behind Shai Yehezkelli’s paradoxical practice.

Coda {tail}

“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.”

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