Liat Yossifor gets up very early and paints by natural light, details that gain significance once you know she works on Hollywood Blvd -- prone to late night revelry and not known for really anything natural at all. On her doorstep, as you wait to be buzzed in and up to her studio, you can have your picture photo-shopped into a picture with Lady Gaga in the adjacent bodega. Hotdogs rotate on a spit. On your right and left are the stars of Dennis Day and Cathy Downs, two names distant enough to be a lesson in how quickly fame fades. Downs was once Clementine in "My Darling Clementine," which I only know as the film that gets interrupted during an episode of M.A.S.H. It was Colonel Potter’s favorite movie. The star directly in front of Yossifor’s building is blank.
On that spot in Hollywood, Yossifor has made strides as a painter, a journey which she likens to getting to know herself better. I visited her for the first time about 5 years ago, when her canvases were populated with emergent figures on solid surfaces. Imagine paintings in all black and all white, their petroleum wet shining in the sun, revealing a rain shower of quick brush strokes. The brush strokes accumulate into mountains and then the mountains slide to reveal that their grooves and valleys and hills are actually bodies. At the time, I admit I thought of the ancient sleeping gods that, in a previous understanding of creation, made up the world, the thought that if you looked at the sea a certain way, you could see Poseidon’s powerful face.
Yossifor has changed since then as a painter, currently her canvases fall away from such wispy and on my keyboard, purple descriptions. Visit her now and you confront fields of thick grey paint touched and carved from buckets of paint, blues and blacks and every spectral apparition mixing into grey. They are not delicate any longer -- the paintings come and go with each of Yossifor’s sessions. You won’t see the same painting twice until she has a show, for her paintings are being constantly scraped and repainted, created and destroyed. At least for me, her paintings carry grounds for extended looking, which is the art world’s way of saying that they are weird, that things you didn’t see before pop up and things that you thought you saw fade away. Yossifor can create, consume, and scrap in several hours yet when the paintings are done, only a fool would think they could consume them quickly.
Yossifor’s current show Thought Patterns is at Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe in New York, which has now reopened for another week after Hurricane Sandy and is up until November 10th. However, I caught up with Yossifor a couple of Sundays ago at a Starbucks in Culver City and we talked about her transitions and her growth. Strangely, Yossifor and I both had an idea of the point where her work started this transition, a light brown and black painting she displayed at Susanne Vielmetter’s old space east of La Cienega.
ES: I remember a couple in the mountains in the Vielmetter show. However, I especially remember that little brown painting.
LY: Yes, there was one painting in that show that was worth making the show. It was called "Tear Drop" with a brownish background, a very small painting. It is one of my favorite paintings still, but it is lost.
ES: It’s lost. How is that possible?
LY: A collector bought it but never picked it up. Then a writer wanted to write about it while looking at it, but when they mailed it back, it never arrived. I’ve looked everywhere, basically it is lost.
ES: Son of a Bitch.
LY: Son of a Bitch.
ES: So that little painting was the herald of things to come. What made that painting different from other paintings in the show? When I remember the painting, it was a distortion in a well-grooved world. For the other paintings in the show, it was a matter of this mass of brushstrokes becoming figures becoming mountains becoming painting again. However, that little painting was a bit of a Soutine-like disruption. It was a piece of meat. In a smooth world, it was decidedly different.
LY: When people came to my studio, I had all of these paintings set up, all these large paintings. They would look at those, and they would see that little painting in the corner and they would say, “What about that, can you move that over next to the other ones.” I would move it into a prominent position. That painting was the end of that work. I was no longer attached to that work and I think that little painting was, finally, just painting. I don’t think I was letting myself paint, and I feel this inability to just paint held me back. I put all this pressure on myself. I wanted to think about monuments and art historical references, but even talking about it is exhausting. But that painting was the end of it, and I think that following painting flowed from that painting. After that, it became more about how to make a painting.
ES: Or where the power of painting comes from, truly comes from.
LY: To be honest, I wanted painting to be about something else other than just painting. I was really looking at Beckman’s writings and really holding onto a subject matter. I wanted painting to do so many other things that maybe it was not equipped to do.
ES: Okay, let’s go back. Let’s get our reader to this point in your life. Let’s find out what it meant for you to let go of subject matter, why there was subject matter, what any of this means.
LY: I started as an abstract painter, as big as I could make complete with palette knives and buckets of paint from Utrecht. It was just natural to me. I was 19 at the San Francisco Art Institute and that’s what I was doing. It was a bit romantic.
ES: Where did you go from the work you were making when you were 19?
LY: I went to representation. I had a real need to frame my work. I started doing portraits of women I knew that were in the Israeli Army. This sounds ridiculous in retrospect. The portraits themselves were white on white or black on black. I wanted to completely collapse the figure and ground relationship. There was the knife work as before when I was 19, but now I wanted to explore a subject. I didn’t think there was much to be done with a political subject like that and painting, so it was this was an experiment. I remember going through a lot to bring those two together.
ES: Was that a product of graduate school that everything had to have a political push?
LY: I went to UC Irvine so you would think that, but in actuality, the second Intifada broke out while I was in graduate school. The Palestinian uprising consumed half my brain. I left Israel during the first Intifada, but I didn’t know how it happened. For me to become obsessed with the second Intifada wasn’t any sort of activism. Actually, to be at UC Irvine at that time was the best place for me to be and to make that kind of work. It just lined up in a strange way.
ES: Lari Pittman says that you can never paint in a political way but that paintings can be political. I really like that.
LY: It wasn’t exactly that though. You know the cliché of a painter in front of canvas as if they are facing the unknown. That’s how I felt at the time trying to bring the political and painting together. There was a lot of second-guessing. I had to photograph these women. I just had to. Then, “What the hell do I do with these photographs.” They ended up as the paintings in Anna Helwing Gallery. It’s funny to me now that the work looks preplanned because when I was making it, it was an open field. I didn’t decide that I was going to take these women and make portraits of them. I just needed to go talk to these women. The impulse felt genuine and organic. It was also identity.
ES: A discourse that was dominant at that moment. In some ways, it still is.
LY: In that moment and in that school at the time, yes. I think that political art doesn’t always have to be so transparent. Brenna Youngblood, for instance. I’ve been thinking a lot about her work. Politics is part of the work because it is who she is. I feel political in a similar way. I get up in the morning and I am an immigrant, a woman, an Israeli, I just don’t have to think about it so hard.
ES: What was your next show?
LY: I did a show at Pomona College Museum of Art. I felt at the time that it was a complete outsider project -- you wouldn’t even know that I went to school in L.A. making that work. I was looking at Goya’s "The Disasters of War," not the more graphic ones but the more abstract ones. I would go to LACMA to look at them, I remember their titles were really silly like, “Lord, Help Us,” and things like that. Even though I was looking at them, I was thinking again mostly about figure ground and romantic landscapes. I was drawn to the Goyas and I just went after it. I remember having a studio visit with another L.A. artist and they said, “you know what is great about this, that people will actually be mistaken and think that you are serious about it.”
ES: They thought it was a put on.
LY: Yes. We look at the same work, look at the same magazines, and he could never even consider that this could be sincere. That’s why I felt like so much of an outsider.
ES: The whole idea of sincerity as a put on, that it is just a posture, is not as popular as it used to be.
LY: When I made that work, I didn’t think about it as ever getting shown. I had all of these ideas of myself. I think I over-romanticized a position where I took myself into the studio. It is funny that I sound like I am talking about a person a long time ago, but it wasn’t actually that long ago. A lot has happened in 5 years. I was stubborn in a certain way. I wasn’t actually an outsider, because I thought I was an outsider.
ES: A true outsider wouldn’t think they were. They are just living the dream. They are not conscious of being an outsider. They are an insider but in a world that doesn’t match up with the world that will eventually judge them. Therefore, when the worlds don’t match, they seem charming in some way. Ultimately, however, they are just the guy making wood sculptures in the middle of Texas.
LY: Okay. I can take that. When you are an older artist, you are not exposed to fashion so much, but all I know is when I was in graduate school, people kept saying to me this outsider thing and I began to take it on as an identity. And then it got boring.
ES: What got boring?
LY: To keep that up, I would have to continuously ignore the artworld. You can’t live in the artworld and keep up conversations. It just organically didn’t work for me.
ES: The next step after Pomona was Suanne Vielmetter, which brings us to the brown painting. Shortly after, you went to Germany. Can you talk about that?
LY: I went to Germany for a residency and actually made my work there for a show in Frankfurt. You have to come up with a proposal, and that is another thing about painting is that you can never propose it, so I won’t even bore you with the proposal because I never followed through. Before I got my canvases, I had two weeks to just go around. I really got into what was around me in post-war Germany.
LY: The still lifes. I fell in love with the still lifes. What happened to painting after World War I was one of the most exciting times in painting. For one, people were shocked there could even be a world war and they could lose -- so many ideas about nationality and self. You have Kirchner painting dancers and bathers and elegant women then all of a sudden make self-portrait as a solider, Beckman makes "The Night." Things turn sinister.
ES: How did that impact the work you did for that show?
LY: I was already in that state after the Vielmetter show. It worked with who I was and who I was thinking about. The history museum was in the same area. Every day, I walked through the History Museum of my studio. On display were the private diaries of Nazi soldiers. I didn’t go there to explore that history. I had friends that said they’ve been through enough, don’t go there and make that type of show, but I couldn’t control it. I was there and the images started to come up for me had something do with black and white documentary, a sort of History Channel. The work was meeting of those things.
ES: Is this why you went grey in your new work? The History Channel thing.
LY: It would be nice to say that, but no. The grey is so much more for me. The grey is a result of color being consumed, of constant editing. The grey is like the unforunate result of a thousand paintings that got destroyed in the process of making this one painting. I don’t even love the grey. The grey is the result.
ES: And this was a product of the Germany show?
LY: No, the Germany show was still in the vein of the Susanne Vielmetter show. Lots of blacks, blue backgrounds, I think it happened to me because the light in Frankfurt was so different. It wasn’t like in California – in Germany, the light didn’t do much for the work. I was working in artificial light so I felt like I needed color and contrast. I couldn’t make nuanced work and see it. I had five large rooms to myself and it was just a strange situation. The work was a direct result of my daily experiences. It was the light in my studio, it was walking through the history museum, it was seeing huge posters for the history museum show that was there the whole time I was there. I was a sponge.
ES: From that show, you started doing what you are doing now after much struggle. You had a while where you worked through many different things, describe the transition.
LY: I had six months to make my last show at Angles. As a beginning, I started making the black paintings in a continuation of Germany, but I had exhausted that argument. They seemed superficial. They were the look of my paintings but there was none of me in them. But three months before the show, I scrapped everything in my studio. I scrap a lot anyway, but this was different. I changed my painting technique on the spot. The show was still wet and dripping at it was all done very quickly. I remember thinking that it is either going to work or kill any possibility of me wanting to become a painter.
ES: All in.
LY: The drama was very real to me. I create that drama in the studio. It is cliché and romantic but I think I need it.
ES: You had to cut your ear off.
ES: As you know, I’ve always liked your little paintings, but you’ve described your process to me in the past as wanting to achieve the big ones.
LY: For example, the show at Angles Gallery I must have made 40 small paintings in order to get the 16 that you saw. Then I did not make a ton of large works. I agreed with you about the success of the small ones because I just didn’t move my hand enough to make the large ones. For this new show, I made 40 large paintings to end up with the 9 and I remember there was this breaking point where it started to make sense. I remember going to an art talk where someone said that one out of five make it out of the studio, and I thought of them as lucky, it’s more like one of the 40.
ES: Well, it gives you something to do. It is a way of living the day out.
LY: It really is, sometimes I think it keeps me in the studio longer hours and if I destroyed what I did, I have to get up in the morning and do it again. But I think this show, you can’t escape the fact that some were scraped because the edges are very revealing. The black line and the moving of the fat, grey paint that I feel when looking at all the big paintings together that making and destroying became sort of the theme. It seems to me that the process has become the theme.
ES: What we’ve been talking about seems to be a transition between being conscious and just living. When someone asks you that, they are trying to know what it is, but in life, in our lives, we certainly rarely know what it is while we are living it. It is something that arrives.
LY: Some people figure out really early on that they discover that painting is a sort of abandonment. I’m not sure I would have something to work on if I reached that point. I feel like I am searching for that total abandonment. I am curious about the process of working towards it. Mark Dutcher was telling me that some of Guston’s paintings that are a transition between the abstraction and the figures, some of those paintings are some of his best paintings. He is just one example. There is something about working through your own limitations in public that can be interesting, that you keep those stages in some way. Sometimes it falls flat, but there’s a working towards. You are not buying it, I can tell.
ES: It makes sense, but it is not necessarily something I understand. Art is a strange business. I don’t do it. I get that transitional things can be interesting. Herman Melville, for instance – his craziest, most lost and gnarly novel is Moby Dick. That’s exactly why we like it. Or that is the American taste in art. We like the unruly massive thing. We like Augie March, Infinite Jest, Leaves of Grass, these big sprawling messes are what we love.
LY: I like messes. I don’t know what a good painting is and that’s a good thing.