Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Perceptual Strategies: New Works from Yehouda Chaki

Orange Mountain meets Blue Mountain, by Yehouda Chaki. (Oil on Canvas, 80 x 136 in.)

“We are the bees of the invisible world. We perpetually gather the honey of the visible world in order to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible one.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
Originally studying art in Tel Aviv, Israel and then in Paris, France, before settling in Montreal, Canada, Yehouda Chaki has absorbed the light and energy of many locales around the world in his lengthy career as an observer of nature and its sensual machinery. If you’re fortunate enough to be encountering his intense landscapes and still lifes for the first time, you’re in for a tasteful treat. Indeed, even better, this time (at his forthcoming exhibit at Toronto's Odon Wagner Gallery, opening on December 1) there are also edgy portrait studies to engage the intrepid visitor: portraits that are saturated with the souls of their subjects and not merely facial representations, portraits that often even feel like microscopic mountains. The fact that he so expertly shifts his sensitive gaze from the formats of portrait (close up to) then to still life (nearby to) and then also to landscape (far away from) is for me one of the key hallmarks of his magisterial work.

Each viewing perspective is part of an overall perceptual strategy that charms the eye and warms the heart. He seems to have been especially touched by the unique vibrations of Greece, a geo-spiritual zone to which he often returns in his work via the deep and lusty tones he employs so deftly. Three of his most intimate works reference the Greek environment: two are each simply titled Greece and one Thessalonika, referring to the largest city in Greece and capital of Macedonia. This physical space is rich in the history of our Western civilization in general and Byzantine monuments in particular, and these three small evocations pack an intense wallop that far outruns their deceptive diminutive size. They themselves are, in fact, small monuments to a grandeur so splendid that it doesn’t require grandiosity to make their optical messages felt.

Greece, by Yehouda Chaki. (Oil on Wood, 10 x 8 in.)

A riot of colour. That phrase came immediately to my lips when I began to pictorially converse with such exuberantly constructed images as these new paintings emerging from the skillful brush of Chaki. They throw a wild party for your retina, and that to me is the best way to describe their emotive impact. The rest of your body, your mind, and even your spirit: they are also all invited to the raucous party taking place on the surface of your dancing eyes. Once again, this painter is capable of mastering a shift in scale just as easily as a shift in perspective: the human and larger-than-human scales of his bigger landscapes permit him an even more operatic stage upon which to unleash the emotional calculus of his images. His largest landscapes are almost ten feet, his smallest ten inches.

Orange Mountain Meets Blue Mountain, Blue River, Colours of Spring, White River and Dancing Trees, for instance, each embrace the viewer in a larger-than-life drama of form and tone, line and shape, horizon and sky. In these lively romps through an expressionistic natural domain, just as in Dark Blue River and Evening on the Toba River, our attention to watery detail is submerged in a spectacularly melting display of fireworks designed to engulf, to envelop, and to entertain the senses. Similar in scope, Climbing the Green Mountain, with its far distant peak and invisible climbers, and the trio of From Sydney’s Window paintings, with their single isolated tree presented from different vantage points almost rendering them as everytree, also engage us at a visceral level. They feel like symbolic, metaphorical or poetic arboreal abstractions, nearly the existential trees one might encounter on a Beckett stage set, and they operate at the level of the pre-frontal cortex, the same place great music touches us. Music for the eyes.

 Dark Blue River, by Yehouda Chaki. (Oil on Canvas, 40 x 60 in.)

If you’re fortunate enough, like me, to be returning to his enraptured and almost psychedelic vistas after an earlier vacation into such muscular panoramas, then you’re in for a different and even more rewarding sort of treat. It can be reassuring to observe a mature artist over time, to visit and revisit their image library and find in them a dependable and consummate craftsmanship that doesn’t jump around nervously from one painting trend to another. One of the pleasures of returning to write again about an artist one admires is that of detecting a deep continuity in their commitment to a personal visual language. You can depend on his ability to surprise you again and again. Perhaps that is because his images, especially his larger landscapes, hold true to a poetic insight that Proust once made: the true voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

Tree with a Yellow Sky is especially Beckett- or Artaud-like in this stage-set respect, with its jagged singularity and its seeming reference to the universal world-tree motif known as Yggrdrasil, the immense mythical tree that binds the nine worlds together in the mythologies of multiple cultures. This stage-set motif, however, can also shift to the smaller zone of a still-life format with equal ease, Flowers on the Blue and Window being excellent examples of this artist’s flexible adaptability. That shape-shifting skill in subject is evident as well as in the sequence of works that also shift their format medium from canvas to wood: the two October Days pieces, both of them sharing an overlapping identity, and Blue Sky, with its strikingly forceful simplicity, appear before us in a kind of fire alarm for the eyes. No emergency, however, just raw emergence.

Woman with a Yellow Dress. by Yehouda Chaki. (Oil on Wood, 10 x 10 in.)

Along with the small self-portraits, each of which is a study presumably for a future larger work but is quite capable of holding its own at a ten-inch scale, two other pieces rendered on wood also strike me as being stupendous in their pictorial stature while appearing humble in their size. Woman with a Yellow Dress and Les Alpes are both knockouts. How Les Alpes manages to convey the soaring sky-like immensity of a range of mountains winding its way through several European nations is simply a secret that perhaps belongs to Chaki alone. For me it doesn’t represent or depict or portray rock; it is rock. The same could be said of Woman: it doesn’t attempt to achieve the impossible, portraying the feminine but somehow conveys the essence of being female, in form and formlessness at the same time.

True visual professionals, those who follow a vocation rather than a mere profession, remain committed to the point of fixation on a certain perceptual strategy: theirs is a recognizable realm to which we travel willingly in order to submit to a certifiable and reliable aesthetic experience. Not for them the sudden shifts in stylistic trends or media narratives which feed the restless experimentation of younger artists with less personal history. A seasoned painter such as Chaki is restless in a different way, the way flowers, trees, rivers and mountains are restless, the way a perpetually changing sky is restless.

Leonard Cohen once suggested that every artist – be it a painter, composer, writer or filmmaker – has one song he writes over and over again; one picture he paints again and again. The beautiful thing about this endeavour is that you don’t realize you’re doing the same thing but, in fact, “it keeps returning to you wearing the original blue gown . . . ” In the same mysterious way, Yehouda Chaki keeps returning to us wearing the same vibrant visions and yet each time they are vitally fresh and new: each time they share his invisible honey with the visible world.

An exhibition of Chaki paintings is opening on December 1, at the Odon Wagner Gallery in Toronto.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

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