Chelouche Gallery Tel Aviv, 15.05.08 – 28.06.08
Yossi Mark: Warm expression, Cold gaze
Dr. David Graves
In the closing chapter of his book, The Shock of the New, on the background of his critical analysis of the course of contemporary art, pointing to the signs of reduction, diminution and gradual draining of the spirit, as well as to its often insipid preoccupation with semantics at the expense of the deeper artistic sentiments, Robert Hughes concludes that: “What makes the realist painting interesting is not complete illusion (as if such a thing were possible) but intensity; and there is no intensity without rules, limits, and artifice.” These are the exact prerequisites of the quiet and loaded intensity that is present in Yossi Mark’s enigmatic paintings that are shrouded in magic.
Mark is a realist who is sober about realism itself. Aware to the fact that reality is viewed through many theories, is loaded with conventions, colored by often conflicting historical narratives and open to constant interpretation. For him, as well as for many of his peers, there is no clear-cut relation between art and reality. For this is a complex and dynamic relation, that operates on a scale from “what is” and “that which I see”.
In spite of Monet’s and his predecessors’ Velasquez, Vermeer, Constable, and Courbet’s attempts to be as faithful to reality as possible and to paint only “what is seen”, “to be only an eye”, it is evident that a true realist is bound to an endless dialog, and as such Mark too operates between “what is” and “what seems to be essential to sum up the scene, to synthesize the painting, to realize its content.” Mark examines reality closely – diligently observes, uncompromisingly, his subject; however, he does not copy reality, certainly does not imitate it.
Thus starts the dialectical dialog that underlies his art – the dialog between what he sees and what he knows…”That which the world needs to become a painting… that the painting needs to become itself,” as was so well formulated by Merlot-Ponty in his ‘Eye and Mind’.
The features of this dialog are present in Mark works: a slightly distorted corner of a room that dictates a wholly different compositional tempo – that “opens” the painting. A symmetrical headboard cut diagonally at the margins of the painting, a hardly noticed choice that is critical to the balance of the whole. Traces of the original sketch, which were transferred to the canvas by careful measurement, serve as evidence to the discrepancies existing between the original intention and the observed outcome – well measured irregularities.
However, when everything is meticulously executed, each discrepancy, be it the minutest, gains validity. A minute displacement of a line, an exquisite shift of an angle, stirs something on the canvas; creates a new impetus, a unique type of energy. This is a general rule of Mark’s artistic language – all values are relative. Within a total silence, a whisper echoes like a roar, if everything is measured, then each anomaly is a jolt. The same principle applies to color; as a scholar of the early Florentine renaissance and of the Baroque periods, Mark is very well-versed in the interrelations of light-volume-space and in the mysteries of the chiaroscuro. Therefore it is clear to him that a rich, effective and multi-layered loading is achieved when light and shadow are presented relative to one another.
Within a banal, seemingly neutral expanse, by using complementary and simultaneous contrasts of colors, Mark weaves a surprisingly rich and colorful fabric. There he lovingly and endlessly kneads the yellow and the blue in low values, on the verge of twilight, into a magnificent lively field, that resonates between the warm and the cold, between shadow and light. In his fields of colors, reminiscent of Rothko, he contrasts chromatic values in a colorful dance that spreads all over the canvas, giving birth playfully to the whole spectrum. Greens and pinks, cold and warm, they all shimmer in a broken field of color. This is the exact magical moment during which the dull gray turns, in front of the spectator, to a universe of colors that no computer, albeit its millions of pixels, can compete with. The affinity of this aspect of Mark’s paintings to those of the “New York School” painters, mainly Rothko and Newman, deserves to be closely studied, inasmuch as true greatness lies in the minutest details.
The secret lies not only in the mastery of the interrelations of colors, but also in the surprisingly fresh mutual dependence that is evident in the Underpainting. The deconstruction of the language down to the skeleton presents the viewer with the punctuation marks and the seams – the cradle of the mutuality of line and daub (as it appears in the two “Etudes” and in both “Abuna” – portraits of an old man), and offers a fascinating examination of the way in which a minute visual nuance – the presence or lack thereof of a transparent layer (such as in both “faces”) – may alter the impact of a painting. With Mark, an adherent of the underpainting, this stage, which is traditionally the first, is often the last as well. A pencil outlining the objective borders of the subject, and two shades of brown that take care of the subjective aspects of the atmosphere, tell the whole story. Thus appears again the special charm of his strokes, the essence that speaks for the whole, and the minimum which is simultaneously the maximum.
The tendency to construe the concept “minimum” as indicating “as little as possible” is inaccurate inasmuch as it is always possible to deduct more. The accurate interpretation should be “not less than that…” this is the exact minimalism of Mark’s paintings. The measured definition of the subject by a pencil, the near colorlessness, the Spartan composition that rejects all decorative elements, and the void in which time stands still….. The simultaneous existence of “as little as possible”, and “not anymore”. These are the challenging, intriguing and even irresistible elements of Mark’s realism.
The paradox of the minimum which is the maximum as well is one of the many qualities which are apparent in Mark’s oeuvres. The colorlessness is miraculously colorful. The meticulous drawing by pencil is excruciatingly sharp, but teeming at the same time with love and boundless patience toward the subject and its craft whose product is gentle and cozy. A slightly deflected corner of a room softens the rigorousness of the composition, and puts the scene in motion. The silent counterpoint accumulating between the rigid decisiveness of the geometrical regime and the subtle softness of the anatomical volume and the morphological elements, as well as the dynamic impetus of the gaze as it accelerates into the pictorial space of the larger paintings; these, assisted by the perspective, create a panoramic experience that lives under the same roof with the monolithic static nature of the human images reminiscent of ancient Egyptian sculpture. The mystics are enamoured of the paradoxical, because paradoxes define the “absolute” by synthesizing the opposites. The assimilation of this quality into art signifies an exceptional artistic competence.
In an artistic corpus in which that which is measured shifts, the gray becomes a spectrum of colors, the banal is sublime and the monumental turns into routine, Mark’s subjects appear as new landscapes, familiar and strange at the same time. The silky and the hard are interchangeable with hair and rock, a portrait of an old man with a mountainside engraved by time. Auburn hair flows down from a bed as a torrent of fragile crystals. A nude woman sits in her bedroom, in which the only warm objects are the floor at her feet and the shadow that she casts on the bed, and still, she shines. In another painting, the bed itself, in an unexpected close up, a surprising foreshortening – like a landscape beyond a mountain range…. And a pair of slippers.
In contrast with the seeming ostentatious, extrovert, alienated opulence which pervades the contemporary art world, Mark’s canvases offer a restrained, reserved being, that strives to achieve simplicity, introversion; reconstructing faith in the act of painting. The subtle balance between their abstract plasticity and the concrete, coherent impression of their surfaces, as well as that which exists between the revealing, focused exposition of the images and the emphatic attention dedicated to body language and gaze – balances achieved through a direct, concise, long term, deep observation; these radiate a warm expression, produce a cold gaze, bring forward the secrete magic of the real.
Dr. David Graves is a senior lecturer in philosophy of art.