Travel Alert: On Shai Yehezkelli’s Works
Anat Danon Sivan
To all appearances, the images seem to float in the painting without any connection to each other: the Tables of the Law and a shofar (ram’s horn blown for Jewish religious purposes), palm trees, a head and a leg, a pot (Heb. kad) and a hand—all hover over the colorful coating like ornaments, decorations on the canvas. The dense painting leaves virtually no room to spread out, except for a white stain on which a six-fingered hand is extended, a variation on the hamsa image which deviates from the original by one finger. What does the hand stand for? Is it intended to protect the merry painting against evil spirits, or does it function as a constraint, suspending the gaze at the disorderly space, calling for a different exegetic logic? The bottom of the painting is occupied by pastel blots resembling tiny human bodies whose heads are buried in the ground, an erection protruding from one of them, redirecting the gaze upward. Alongside these inanimate bodies, one may discern a frantic leg movement which is now construed as a sign of flight. Is the painting’s flushed face only a false façade for its gloominess, and all its floating signifiers in fact forebode their drowning? When the gaze is shifted away, the details disappear, the representations collapse onto the forms, and the painting sinks into the great pink that floods and closes in on it.

According to Yehezkelli, the images in his paintings are primarily shapes. The painterly act is spawned by the interrelations between color and form, and precedes representation and narrative. It is a painting of beginning and end. First, the painting emerges on the canvas, the surface becomes filled with colors, forms, stains, and lines. Only then is the act of cultural signification added. One may describe the trajectory of the image in the painting from rectangle to balata (square floor tile), from triangle to hat, from circle to eye, and from wiggly line to a tangled beard. The form is initially constructed in a straight or winding line, as a saturated or airy stain. Subsequently, it decides whether to metamorphose into a differentiated, iconographic image, or remain free and autonomous. It is a generalizing depiction which measures the distances between form and content in the painting, the struggle between a square, a triangle, or an incidental brush stroke, and the meaning trapped in them. Such a reading also gauges the distance between the painterly surface—large or small, circular or square, purchased or found, loose or stretched, straight or crooked—and the painterly act thrust on it. The edges of the painting remain loose, possibly as evidence of the painting’s skepticism and vulnerability, which are opposed to the momentum of the painterly act that rises to the surface, at times overpowering it. It is intense painting which revisits the surface over and over again in different manifestations, examining and refining its tools.

Some of the signifiers in the paintings transpire on the line between form and meaning. Thus, for instance, the S-shape starring in the works carries several meanings: a free form or an ornament, as well as the contour of an image—the aperture of a pot or a bird’s wing. It may be construed as a graphic sign in a foreign alphabet, the first letter of the artist’s name. In the context of the Jewish motifs in the painting, it may be regarded as a serpent, associated with temptation, wisdom, and a fear of death. Moreover, this shape also corresponds with the vertical figure 8 prevalent in Arie Aroch’s oeuvre as a boat motif or an ornament. In Yehezkelli’s case, the figure 8 has been reduced to an S, and metamorphosed into the artist’s signature, as in Self-Portrait with Signatures (2012), in which the S signs hover like ornaments. Borrowing from Aroch, one may dub this form, which signifies something else and carries another meaning other than its own, a “concrete form” (as opposed to an abstract form).

Another recurring form in Yehezkelli’s paintings is that of a foot in a boot or in sneakers, always at a slant, in a kicking or running movement, which likewise calls to mind the boot-like geometric shape in Aroch’s paintings. When asked by his son what that shape meant, Aroch called it This form was read as an .(צקפר) ” “Tzakpar incarnation of a boot image on a cobbler’s sign from Aroch’s childhood in Russia, and was perceived as an expression of the way in which identity and memory are bound together in the subconscious. Yehezkelli’s painting sustains a similar tension and split between form and context. Another called for comparison between Aroch and Yehezkelli is the affinity between local, Israeli painting and diasporic Jewish identity. In Aroch’s case, it is a direct link to his childhood memories, whereas in Yehezkelli’s case, this affinity arises primarily from the visual and textual representations, and may also be associated with his biography—his education in religious institutions as a child.

By juxtaposing excerpts of Jewish prayers and Jewish motifs with Christian altars and Islamic architecture, Yehezkelli adds yet another layer in the metamorphosis of local painting, attesting to himself as an eternal wanderer. Much like Aroch’s painting, Yehezkelli’s is not “Jewish,” but rather a painting that introduces its Judaism to influences from Western Christian painting and from fin de siècle modernist artistic trends.

Yehezkelli compares the metamorphoses undergone by the image in his paintings to the “Chinese Whispers” game. The image passes from mouth to ear, as it were, collapsing in the process. The rolling act, which contains a distortion of meaning, enables the image to metamorphose almost associatively. The linguistic distortion becomes a visual distortion, and every form calls another form to mind in a near‑infinite process that alludes to Surrealist automatism and its emphasis on the subconscious in art. Yehezkelli’s image is always both this and that, in defiance of the laws of logic: a stick is also a leg, shofar blowing is also sticking out the tongue or smoking a pipe, and the gates of heaven opening up in the painting are simultaneously also the earth dropping. The comparison between the distortion of the image and the distortion in the linguistic game, however, indicates not only a violation and flaw, but also the existence of an origin to the image. For instance, a medieval boot transforms into a boot shape reminiscent of a formal motif in Aroch’s painting, which is, in itself, a reincarnation of a Russian boot. The ultimate collapse of the boot image emerges in the form of New Balance running shoes, a hallmark of the artist or a symbol of contemporary global fashion.

The metamorphosis of the image occurs not only evolutionarily from one painting to the next, in varying time frames and intervals, but also simultaneously: a pot which is a head, an eye which is a rectum, a stick which is a leg. The unraveling of the image is obtained by juxtaposing or superimposing two overlapping images; one dictates the contours of the other. In both cases, the eye is forced to create a hierarchy of the gaze and determine what image is facing it: one always comes at the expense of the other. The gaze, which strives to capture the fluid image, must find a way to break free from the grip of the hierarchical split, losing itself in the process. Thus, the viewer’s consciousness remains forever incomplete, lacking, oscillating between the painter’s palette knife, which is possibly a murder weapon, between the immunizing and the killing syringe.

One of the most conspicuous metamorphoses in Yehezkelli’s works is that of the self-portrait. At times it appears in the figure of the Wandering Jew, with a beard and a pointed hat, tying itself to the diasporic Jewish identity, collective as well as biographical. Yehezkelli links the figure of the Old Jew with that of the bearded artist, the “New Jew” who is absorbed in painting or in observation; pensive and helpless or alternatively—malicious and impulsive. In other self-portraits, such as Night Watcher (2016), the artist appears bald-headed with a long nose, suggestive of a smiley face, whose external markers have all disappeared, except the long nose. His empty gaze stares at a rectangular shape that calls to mind a page in an empty scroll, with a pair of breasts spraying a white liquid at the bottom.

In the painting The Way Things Work (2012), Yehezkelli once again compares the apparatus of painting to the mechanism of concatenating acts which end in collapse. The title alludes to Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go (1987)—a video piece documenting a performance of everyday objects (wheel, rope, chair, candle, glass bottle, etc.) that fall one after the other in a domino effect of sorts, in a chain reaction concluding in a catastrophe. The triptych structure of the painting, whose origins lie in Christian altarpieces, underscores the artist’s “fateful” choice of the medium of painting, as opposed to Fischli/Weiss’s sculptural video installation. Yehezkelli tries to re-activate painting in relation to various sources of inspiration, and to point at its intrinsic mechanism.

The right side of the triptych features a Jewish figure, a cross between a bird and a man, wearing a pointed hat, observing a painterly event hovering over his head. Yehezkelli adopts the image of the Jew as eagle from the 13th-century Birds’ Head Haggadah, thereby marking the onset of the image’s wandering into the Jewish text. The left side of the painting shows a burning altar copied from a medieval Christian painting. In this work, Yehezkelli repeatedly emphasizes the ambivalence of reciprocity and conflict between Judaism and Christianity, much like their manifestation in the Birds’ Head Haggadah. Meyer Schapiro described the relations between Christian culture and Jewish culture in that period as bi-directional, despite the distinction between the two societies. Christianity created images inspired by the Old Testament, whereas the Jews presented antiquity as a contemporary phenomenon using Gothic architectural representations of Jerusalem and Eden, or through the figures’ attire.4 According to a later interpretation, the Haggadah was illuminated by Christian illustrators and contains anti-Semitic manifestations, presenting the Jew in a ridiculed or monstrous manner. The emergence of the beastly Jewish head in Yehezkelli’s work remains vague with regard to the various origins and interpretations, undergoing yet another metamorphosis in the figure of the ridiculed, neurotic artist who looks upward at several color stains demarcated by a yellow-orange frame. The painterly occurrence above the figure portrays an unresolved relationship between the painter and the painting: on the one hand, the painting is revealed to him and shelters him; on the other hand, it threatens to fall on his head. The altar fire next to the Jew’s bent, exposed neck emphasizes the dimension of victimization in this relationship. The trickle of water emerging from of the pot overhead is poured onto the artist’s head like spring water or a cold shower, collecting into a puddle at the bottom of the painting. Like the other metamorphic images in Yehezkelli’s oeuvre, the water trickle also transforms into drops of paint or an ejaculation. All these options come together into an erotic-rationalistic union, echoing Duchamp’s Fountain (1917), which is both a spring and a fountain, either nature or culture. The uncircumcised penis in the triptych’s central panel depicted alongside Islamic architectural elements and a cross, describes painting’s mechanism in relation to external influences, to the political local landscape, and to the painting’s libido.

The titles of Yehezkelli’s works tie additional knots within his painting, infusing it with additional meanings pertaining to the self, the political, and the work itself. Titles that carry a personal appeal, such as Shai, it is God Speaking to You, Again (2016) or Tell Me a Little about the Place You Come From (2016)  humorously shift the points of view of artist and viewer alike. The painting is comprehended as an imaginary response to a higher authority external to the painting or to the artist: God, a psychologist, an art critic, or the viewer—each in his turn asks of the artist to speak for his painting. In other paintings, the titles reorganize the hermeneutic reading of the work: e.g. The Way Things Work and Pshat and Drash (2014; Heb. straightforward explanation and homiletic explanation of the text).

In Tell Me a Little about the Place You Come From, Yehezkelli demonstrates painting’s cyclicality once again. Within a lively Middle Eastern vista, amidst pots and knives, modern and Islamic structures protrude, illustrations of palm trees (after E.M. Lilien), a shadow with a fez (from Arie Lubin to Raffi Lavie), and a typical Jewish hat hiding under a stone (from the Birds' Head Haggadah to Aroch). A common inscription in Yehezkelli’s works is encrypted on the right margin: “nn hh,” initials denoting the words “nekavim nekavim halulim halulim” (openings and hollows) from the Asher Yatzar prayer said after bowel movements.

A grotesque illustration of that prayer may be seen in a pair of testicles and a large human figure leaning with its buttocks defiantly turned to the viewer, with an eye-shaped anus at its center. What does Yehezkelli insinuate when he metamorphoses the eye into the anus? Does he imply castration or blindness in yet another Surrealistic metamorphosis? Perhaps the painting returns our gaze from below or from within? One may also think of the eyes and anuses as a metaphor for the metabolism of the image in the painting: intake, digestion, excretion. The painting is embodied as a figure that sports bifurcated bowels with orifices and exits, bespeaking the fear of death. The title of the painting, indicating a momentary attempt to learn something about the conflicted Oriental space which spawned the painting, now turns out to be a linguistic distortion of the verse “know whence you come, and whither you are going” (Avot 3:1)—a type of travel
alert for those setting out to explore the realms of painting.

An outstanding work in Shai Yehezkelli’s studio is Kad and Hamsa Painting (2015). It is a large-scale acrylic and oil on burlap replete with details, compressed over a fluorescent pink wrap which lends it a cheery, variegated appearance. Its title ties it with representations of popular-folklorist, traditional origins and with a Mediterranean exotica combined with influences of pop art, which never fully assimilated into Israeli art.

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Travel Alert: On Shai Yehezkelli’s Works
Anat Danon Sivan