Text for “Slippery Slope”, Beit Uri and Rami Nehoshtan Museum, 2021
Two series of paintings from the past year are at the core of Shai Yehezkelli’s exhibition. `Star of Redemption,’ a grouping of four works, each with a flawed star at its center, and ‘Slippery Slope,’ a trio of paintings that feature a figure in motion. The two series face one another, with two more works from the same period positioned between them. Except for one, all the paintings share a similar format – square, and rather large. They are all based on the core principle that guides Yehezkeli’s art – the struggle between form and meaning, between laying a stain on the canvas and turning it into a distinct representation.
In the series ‘Star of Redemption’ the traces of struggle are evident in the awkward attempts to draw a star, a complete and balanced shape that clearly challenges freehand drawing. Indeed, each of Yehezkelli’s stars is flawed in its own way: these stars are frayed, broken, lacking a center, their sides twisted, clashing, wrestling, “out of control” stars. The struggle is in the actual shape that refuses to merge into perfection, and in the relationships that develop amongst the various elements in the painting – between image and frame, line and stain, stain and surface. In one painting, the star looks like a rip in the fabric, and the letters of the word ‘cochav’ (Hebrew for star) have all been scattered into three corners of the frame. In another one, a square frame (itself a patchwork) has invaded the star, and another figure with the face of a Wandering Jew and palm-frond hands – two of Yehezkeli’s most recognizable motifs – emerges and fights them both. In another work, it is “all against all:” surface pushes against surface, threatening to swallow up the nearby line, warm colors wrestle with cool ones, and every shape claims canvas space in total disharmony. A hand (has it been saved?) with thread knotted around one finger, perhaps reminds us that we are mortal (memento mori) and life should be lived to the fullest (carpe diem). All the images make the point that painting is a Sisyphean act, doomed to fail.
In the series `Slippery Slope` the ground is slipping, literally and figuratively. A figure or a leg is in motion in each work – stepping or sliding, always detached from the ground, disconnected. In some paintings, the legs do not even match – each appears to have been taken from a different figure, even if they share a body. This split reveals that the image has been made in stages, at different times – that is, as an ongoing action. Another fundamental principle of Yehezkeli’s, which recurs in all the works in the exhibition, is to build the painting in layers. The works appear at first glance to be made offhandedly, almost always including “failed” images erased by another stain, which then becomes the ground for a new image. The final image is achieved from this piling on of layers, in what Yehezkelli calls “reverse archeology.” Sometimes, the composition changes when an image is substituted, and the whole painting might even turn upside-down and take on a new direction. All this also points to the act of painting as a product of eternal struggle and frustration, an existential state of unease.
The “safety net” comes as a grid – checkered or hatched – that appears in the three paintings in this series and in most of the paintings in the exhibition, alongside many areas in the painting where the canvas remains exposed*. Yehezkelli creates the grid at a relatively late stage in the painting. He uses it both as an organizing principle, an infrastructure that sets and fixates the images on the canvas and as a reminder to neutralize the action of creating an illusion: a painting is just a painting, canvas covered with a set of images devoid of real depth. The last two paintings in the exhibition are installed between the two series, running a formal and contextual dialogue. In `Siamese Self-Portrait with Talisman`,” three figures hover in a kind of demonic circular fire dance blocked by a barrier of lines and stains in cool shades. Above them is a perfect circle – an allusion to a landscape. The black stain (the Siamese) becomes a figure through a ploy that forces the viewer – and the painter – to choose a point of view, a hold. The figure in “Narkis” echoes those in the portrait of the Siamese and closes another circle. They all have attributes of alienness and abnormality.
Therefore, all the works in the exhibition converge on the big theme at the core of Yehezkelli’s work, in all its permutations – the question of painting. In this sense, ‘Slippery Slope’ is another tier in the accumulation of his work over the years. However, this time the exhibition presents, perhaps, a more direct attempt to connect mind and matter. The installation of the nine works suggests an essentially conservative division: two complete series facing one another – one on each wall – and a pair of separate works in the middle. Conceptual lines are drawn between the three groupings, metaphorically outlining a triangle, perhaps a reference to the basic shapes that make a star. The name of the series ‘Star of Redemption’ is borrowed from the important treatise by Jewish-German philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. The three central elements at the core of the essay: God-universe-man, and the relationship that develops between them through creation-revelation-redemption might echo the three major genres of painting: landscape-still life-portrait , which are Yehezkelli’s image vocabulary. However, just as Rosenzweig’s harmonic ideal is probably impossible, even as a suggestion, so is Yehezkelli’s triangle destined to collapse.
* The exposed fabric resonates the Jewish law (Halacha) that dictates leaving an unpainted square cubit in the last stage of building a house, as a reminder that the Temple is yet unbuilt and as a sign of mourning over its fall. This context is pertinent to the Jewish sources Yehezkelli draws on in his work.
Translation: Safra Nimrod