The program of this gallery has long been about the dismantling of distance. Nothing grand or political in this ambition – just a selfish need to live in a neighbourhood that offered more than merely local cuisine. This is not to decry the local, rather my thinking was that we might greedily consume both, and were that possible, there would be significant benefits in this.
Traveling has allowed us to judiciously extend invitations to artists to present their work in Australia and New Zealand and thereby dismantle some of the distance that irked me, particularly in the early years of the gallery. Fortuitously that very distance carried an inverse appeal to artists whose own world was framed by a different but equally restrictive regionalism. As a plan it unfolded organically rather than strategically, but now as I look back over those years I smile, because the endless visitations back and forth amounted to something.
Of course what we all delight in is shared enthusiasms with Liat Yossifor. It was the ardour of Liat’s ‘alla prima’ comrade, British painter Erin Lawlor that first brought me to Liat’s painting. Trusting as I am in Erin’s views on the mysteries of painting, we conspired to visit with Liat at her Hollywood studio. Returning some months after that first visit, having been happily haunted by her work would confirm just how thrilling Liat’s paintings are.
But rather than the ubiquitous horizons of Agnes Martin and John McLaughlin these paintings prefer a low-flying topography. Seen from above, the scars in the surface reveal deeper, hidden strata of colour – a secret geological biography where sediment and process hint at distant sites.
But more than place, these paintings exist as a compressed recounting of spirit and movement. Curiously they manage to conflate, whilst simultaneously critiquing, the masculine heroism of action painting with the turmoil and vivacity of a newer, more agile performance. One thinks of Carolee Schneemann and the radical way that she used her body as a mechanism of expanded gesture and the way that Yossifor’s excavations question the very notion of gesture and narrative. Yossifor unthreads the surface, in fact the body of the painting, tugging forcefully at the Ariadnean thread that lead her in. Though not as intrusive as Schneemann’s Interior Scroll I have the sense that Yossifor is extricating a buried internal history and leaving us with a performative (land)scape shaped by a deeply authentic performance – a ceremony that is gratefully free of the irony and cynicism which have been the currency of recent times.
From that first visit I knew Liat Yossifor’s paintings didn’t only belong in L.A. Of course they are made there amidst the particularities of the California condition, the light, the bleached colour, the unswept horizon – and it is even tempting, in a slightly odd literal manner to see Yossifor’s arcing gestures as series of turnpikes, viewed from above like desaturated urban metaphors for the City of Freeways. But of course they’re not – and whilst it has become apparent that over the decades many West Coast artists – Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, John McCracken through to James Turrell have succumbed to the geographical determinism that California promotes, Yossifor’s paintings resist these inducements in favour of a more Cimmerian conversation.
Sitting with Liat in her studio 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, certainly more Krasner than Irwin yet 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 action. Perhaps this is where the expanse and inescapable breadth of the California condition asserts itself in her work.
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. Now the relative neutrality of her familiar square form is joined by a grand portrait format that is well over 2 metres tall. One of these new sized paintings is prosaically titled Tall Red. It could not be any redder. As I look at it, I hear the strains of Jason Molina’s poignant lyric “your hair is coxcomb red and your eyes are viper black”. For this is painting that has a visceral intensity and an inflamed temperament.
The glorious melee of gesture and inscription that constitute the ground that Yossifor builds arises equally from removal as from addition. Pigment is not politely wiped away, rather Yossifor gouges and abrades the surface, carving at the paint in a powerful elliptical dance that simultaneously uncovers and conceals gesture. The expanse of ravines and gorges feel etched into the body of the paint, much like a glacial retreat engraves the landscape. John Steinbeck said, “…to be alive at all is to have scars” and when I look at Liat’s paintings, her metaphorical landscape points as much to anguish as to place.
This alloy of beauty and grief is also present in Liat’s small paintings on paper. Like Yossifor, Frank Auerbach disrupted the layers of the paint. There is such physicality in their shared approach
– no polite intention to describe form, rather it emerges from a determined mining of the layers of underpainting, folding and shaping it as if to exhume the composition. However viscous and agitated, their violence is calmed by their sheer love of the material. For both, these wilfully marred surfaces delivers their vulnerability and humanity to surface. They feel to me for all the world like a wild flurry of Coltrane – vigorous even fierce bebop held tight as a composition by virtuosity and the knowledge that each note is there for a reason.
Ideally, one should have more material than one can possible cope with.
– Frank Auerbach
Yossifor’s passionate excavations now dovetail with a colour that rouses their innate potency even further. The equanimity of the square and the self-possession of the black and grey pigments gives way in Tall Red to a grander portraiture that signals Liat’s desire to unbridle the regulation of the square and the discipline and regime of the black and grey paintings.
Yossifor has made two dramatic shifts. One is colour and the second is proportion. To this point her decisions about scale and the systemic way that the canvases she chooses measure her own physical extent do remind me of Agnes Martin.
Whether black, grey or red, all of Yossifor’s paintings deliver a deeply felt aggregate of physical and emotional perseverance. One can’t help but feel the sweep and arc of her gesture, each and every pivot and turn. As objects and records of performance they permit this curiously resilient act of painting to re-emerge as a fundamental agency of a deep unlanguaged communication. At a time when we are being encouraged to listen it is equally vital that we see. With so much painting capitulating to the seductions and rewards of entertainment, being reminded of paintings particular capacity to shoulder both the burdens and aspirations of ‘felt’ expression feels overdue. Liat Yossifor believes devotedly in paintings’ unflagging readiness for this responsibility and indeed in its Rasputin-like indomitability as expressed by Carolee Schneemann – “I’m a painter. I’m still a painter and I will die a painter.”
If Schneemann made the viewer hyper aware of the/ her body as an agent of extravagant and atavistic gesture, then Yossifor’s paintings also serve as potent reminders that the separation between body and mind, indeed with history, 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.
– Andrew Jensen
Israeli painter Liat Yossifor (b.1974) lives & works from Los Angeles, California. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1996, followed by her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California in Irvine in 2002. Since graduating, Yossifor has had artist residencies in America and Germany, most recently the 2020 Rauschenberg Residency, in Robert Rauschenberg’s former studio complex in Captiva Florida. Yossifor’s works are in collections across the Americas in institutions such as the Isabel and Agustin Coppel Collection in Mexico and the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul.
Entrevista / Interview. Liat Yossifor