Monday, February 17, 2020

Long Distance Runner: New Works by Yehouda Chaki

Yehouda Chaki, 1503, oil on canvas, 14 x 12 inches.

“I wonder if I'm the only one in the running business with this system of forgetting that I'm running because I'm too busy thinking. You should think about nobody and go your own way, not on a course marked out for you by people holding water and bottles of iodine in case you fall, and to get you moving again. All I knew was that you had to run, run, run without knowing why you were running.” – Alan Sillitoe
Review of solo exhibition at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto, December  5–December 26, 2019.

Yehouda Chaki is a well-seasoned artist in the mature phase of his long career – in his prime, so to speak. During his many laps in the marathon race of modern painting, his skills have been honed the way a warrior’s are: in the intense heat of those fresh challenges faced with each new canvas. But he also knows well why he is running. And it’s not to win anything as simple as a race. He won that race a long time ago. He has become what we all might become if we dedicate our actions to a singular path: almost a balsamic reduction of himself, with each new painting also being an ultra-balsamic reduction of the history of painting per se, purified and reduced to its final essence. All he knows is that you have to paint, paint, paint.

In his case, however, he forgets that he’s painting because he’s too busy feeling, and in fact, it seems to me that it is feeling that he’s actually painting in his vibrant expressionistic images. He visually renders the sensation of what it means to have a face, a body, and to stand in a landscape and become such an integral part of it that you all but disappear. He’s also been actively engaged in these alchemical renderings while running his devoted race across the terrain of the art world over a lengthy trajectory. First arriving on our planet 81 years ago in Athens, Greece, he migrated to Tel Aviv and then to art studies in Paris, before settling into a busy studio life in Montreal.

Yehouda Chaki, 1915, Odon Wagner Gallery.

It strikes me that there is a quaternity operating in many of the aspects of his life and work, a four-cornered vector commencing with those four pivotal cities and subsequently branching out into the four key themes in art and the four principal formats in aesthetics. Like most artists, he has a creative menu available to him comprising the four themes of self, nature, society and spirituality, while also overlapping with art history’s four formal preoccupations: portrait, still life, landscape, and abstraction. What most sets him apart, perhaps, is the fact that he explores those four themes with equal vigor and experiments with those four formats almost simultaneously. This current exhibition is an ideal example of that core versatility.

Intimate little portraits such as 1915 and Fresh Air, for instance, are inherently aggressive expressionistic faces confronting the viewer from beneath a veil of painted textures. Similarly, the small but still huge portrait called Lips contains a bursting facial energy within a halo of light, while two strikingly candid self-portraits of the artist share an affinity for painters such as Chaim Soutine, Eugene Leroy and Frank Auerbach. Such historical resonances are good ones, by the way, not limitations at all, since they reveal a shared love for the sensuality of paint. Indeed, there’s almost a three-dimensionality to the way this sheer joy of paint is celebrated in Chaki’s able hands.

Yehouda Chaki, Blue Window.

The second format of the classical still life is also one where he shines: objects in space, frequently vases of flowers on a table, vibrate with a human nature with which our gaze infuses them. Pink Window and Blue Window, as a well as Windows on a Landscape, all remind us that a table suspended within an architectural environment is still nonetheless a geographical feature. And among the most charming of his still-life compositions (which often embrace a lively vibrancy far from stillness per se), Small Flowers seems to contain, within its dark interior, entire galaxies of remote space. Flowers in a Chaki still life often appear to be engaged in a primeval gesture of escaping from their glass or ceramic enclosures.

And in parallel manner, a figure denoted by him frequently feels like merely a human version of a vase, similarly imbued with life energy, as in the suitably vigorous running female figure in 1503 . But the stationery female figures in 1461 and 1468, captured in their net of aura-like nerves, still fell as if they might be capable of getting up suddenly and running away from the viewer. Thus his figures, whether static or dynamic, also reveal their essence as a still life study, with a body in a chair echoing those flowers in a pot, and situated in a room that is in itself also a built landscape.

Yehouda Chaki, Dark Mountain.

But it is when he finally does move us from the closeness of the face, to the middle distance of a still life or figure, out into the long distance of the landscape, that this painter truly comes into his own. Long Grass, Black Roots and Across the Lake are all prime examples of his command of the vista made intimate, the mutually shared environment made up close and personal. He also has a special affinity for mountains, large or small, as in Dark Mountain, with its accumulating mass of almost molten rock, and Three Mountains, with its sweeping elegance of form and content fused in a single impression of oneness. It is perhaps the most abstract and most enlivening of all his works.

As he recently told Sharon Azrieli, “My landscapes are not just landscapes. There are never any roads; there is no perspective. There are no telephone poles, no human elements. That is why they are so restful. Faces are not restful; faces are not kind; faces do all the bad things in the world. If I paint a face, I invent it, I don’t copy a face. We are still living in a beautiful time.” That hopeful attitude is most likely the ample reflection of a positive spirit unable to be extinguished even by something as traumatic as the nightmare of the Second World War and its childhood impact on family and friends.

Yehouda Chaki, Front Row Tree.

But one of his most startling images in this current crop of gems, arresting for its simplicity and, indeed, its absence of paint altogether, is the gracefully rendered drawing in ink, Front Row Tree, a medium-sized evocation of a single tree made to feel at once human, figure-like, facial and landscaped, all at once. This thinly executed drawing is not quite a sketch at all, though it does resemble something that Rembrandt may have done as a preparatory study. Rather it is a full-throated song, a kind of hymn to the deceptive simplicity of nature, which throbs before us in all its nakedness and apparent absence of colour. In many ways, it is the true shocker of the entire show.

There is an ongoing light and life in all his works, regardless of their theme, subject, or format, a light which obviously originates solely from inside him as it makes its spiraling way outward towards us. That light touches us and changes us permanently. He makes our retina happy; that’s the long and short of it. We are still living in a beautiful time.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.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 Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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