Liat Yossifor’s paintings quietly demand a leap of faith from the viewer. It seems only reasonable to agree to this given the commitment she has made to these concentrated “alla Prima” performances. Standing in front of her large, deceptively monochrome paintings then we have a choice…to look with only our eyes or to involve our body and consciousness in a willing approximation of the dance that Yossifor herself performed. She leads – we should follow.
I’m eager not to trap myself in a dance analogy, but one can’t help but feel the sweep and arc of her gesture, each pivot and turn. There is a forceful mapping of her physical progress across and into the paint that makes it apparent that there is more at stake in her painting than an opportunity for lyricism and seduction. And the more one follows her lead, like an Ariadnean thread into the body of the composition, the more risk and sense of unknown we face. As viewers we are not offered the easy contentment of graceful arabesques, rather Yossifor delivers a field marked and emphatically scribed by incision and groove. Lucio Fontana’s sliced canvases, more than his punctured works, can feel almost mannered in their elegance whereas Yossifor’s surfaces are marred, wilfully harmed in an act that delivers their vulnerability and humanity to surface.
The canvases that we saw on our initial visit were lined up on the long wall of her Hollywood studio with the bright Los Angeles light entering from a solitary window. The atmosphere inside the studio was informed by the vapours of oil paint but also by an unexpected foreignness. Just moments ago, we were being assailed by the squint-inducing hyperbole of Hollywood Boulevard, where colour strains to retain its intensity against the relentless bleaching effect of the California sun. On first appearance Liat seems to have drained colour from the works, not to mimic the diluting effects of the sun, but as a conscious and determined decision. Grey and black, black and grey – the paintings feel like a rejection of the kinds of celebratory effects of light that Californian artists of the 60s onwards made their raison d’etre – Mary Coarse, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, John McCracken through to James Turrell. My first thought was that these works seemed to be more in tune with the emotional temperature of the Lower East side…More Rothko than McLaughlin, more Krasner than Irwin but the more we sat with Liat and the light in the studio dropped, the shadows lengthened across the gullies and ravines of her surfaces I was brought back to landscape and performance. Perhaps this is where the expanse and inescapable breadth of the California condition asserts itself in her work. But rather than the ubiquitous horizons of Agnes Martin and John McLaughlin these paintings prefer a hovering topography. From above, the scars and gullies in the surface reveal deeper, hidden strata of colour – a secret geological biography where sediment and action hint at distant sites. Ironically the apparent absence of obvious colour in these expansive paintings only serves to remind us of its presence. For Yossifor’s grey is alive with the remnants of its constituent pigments.
Yossifor’s decisions about scale and the systemic way that the canvases she chooses measure her own physical extent did bring me again of Agnes Martin. The decision to paint the same Vitruvian scale time and again, the narrowing of the chromatic range suggest that Yossifor too seeks a solemn, reflective awareness through the joy of repetition.
In the end Yossifor’s paintings are potent reminders that the separation between body and mind is a fiction. Her paintings are performative and richly allegorical, not because of what they say but because of what they make us feel…turbulent, vulnerable, giddy and alive
Liat was the recipient of the 2020 Rauschenberg Residency, in Robert Rauschenberg’s former studio complex in Captiva Florida, that is awarded to artists of ‘exceptional talent and promise’.
– Andrew Jensen