Tel Aviv-based artist Guy Yanai creates bold and dynamic paintings of contemporary life. On gray fields of regulated and mechanized lines, he paints isolated plants with jagged leaves—tamed by a controlled painting technique (Figure 1). Yanai is well known for his many paintings of houseplants. By simplifying and removing context, Guy Yanai isolates the mundane in order to illustrate the beauty of disregarded—often overlooked—objects. The objects are ordinary, yet alluring. They do not command attention, rather they confidently hold their own. Stripes of bright colors create a raw experience. Shadows are solid forms in several shades. Yanai’s ability to transform otherwise unartful objects into compositions that promote emotion through form and shape is truly remarkable. His subjects are reduced to their bare essence, depicting consumer goods, or other day-to-day items. His style has a childlike simplicity that is both soothing and daring. Thorough appreciation of Yanai’s painting—like all other successful paintings—entails a close look at the artists’ past, present, and future aspirations. In 1977, Yanai was born into a Jewish family in Haifa, Israel. He received his BFA at Hampshire College in Amherst Michigan, in 2000, after having already accumulated fame in the art world in New York. He received his BFA, he moved to work in Tel Aviv.
Yanai enjoys working in Tel Aviv. He feels the art scene is electrifying and the people are full of life. The energy in Guy Yanai’s paintings take after the vibe in his studio. He works five days a week, over ten hours a day, in a large studio on the top floor of a three-story building in Tel Aviv. “The studio really affects my work. I’m always moving things around, the tables, the works, everything.” Yanai’s studio inspires him. Creating parameters are an important part of his technique and process. His space creates parameters. In a 2009 interview, Yanai discussed how his studio environment influenced works of art in his Objects/Homages exhibition. The Dictator (2008) was a composition painted directly in his studio while observing a chair (Figure 2) and using the natural sunlight that infiltrates through his studio. Yanai claims he was influenced by Paul Cézanne and Giorgio Morandi’s use of tonality, but the chalkiness, he insists, is about Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello, famed early Italian Renaissance painters. Yanai applies his paint freely and spontaneously. Yet, manages to maintain his regulated and mechanized signature style. The thick, impasto strokes of the brush betray the gesture of the artist’s hand. He sweeps neatly across the canvas from left to right—like that of a printer. The horizontal bars formed by his strokes, resemble digitized and pixelated screens. According to the artist, “If one stripe is not in the painting; the painting will fall apart.” This meticulous method enables the paintings to walk a very fine line between reality and abstraction. His paintings look pixelated—keeping up with the digital age—and he does not shy away from mentioning the influence of computers, Photoshop and Instagram when describing his works.
Yanai simplifies images to their leanest form and reduces his color palette to a minimum. His lines are bold, heavy bands of pure color. The colors are flat, contrasting, and intense. Yanai believes that parameters and limitations give him freedom. When putting together a series or an exhibition he first chooses how many pieces will be in the series and he purchases the appropriate amount of canvases. After, he asks himself how many colors he will use, then buys the colors. Photographs then assist him in his artistic process. He takes photographs on his iPhone of things around him, then prints them out in black and white, and also in color. He observes the photographs until an idea sparks. He transforms that idea into something of his own. Yanai chooses a title before he begins painting. The results depict characteristics of the photograph that originally sparked his idea, and in addition, the content identified by the title. According to the artist “at the end the painting should be both representative and non-representative.”
Oftentimes, Yanai is inspired by his young children, Romy and Ava. In 2015, he organized an entire exhibition around a question that his son asked him. Is there [a]such thing as a word without letters? Yanai was so motivated by the idea that he put together an exhibition around it. He does not consider himself a curator and prefers to be called the organizer of the exhibition. The Words Without Letters exhibition consisted of five artists: Avner Bengal, Ted Gahl, Ridley Howard, Gideon Rubin, and Guy Yanai. Yanai asked each of his friends to reflect, during their creative process, if there is a such thing as a word without letters.
In 2014, Yanai held a solo exhibition called First Battle Lived Accident at the Alon Segev Gallery in Tel Aviv. All the works derived in some way from his past exhibitions. The four words comprising the title are the first word of each of his previous solo shows. There were eleven paintings displayed in total. The largest composition was The Pink Studio (2014). The work references Matisse’s Pink Studio (1911), from about a hundred years earlier (Figure 3). Yanai’s painting shares compositional space with the Matisse. The areas between and around the objects are relatively the same. Yanai takes already flattened and reduced objects, and strips them away to their bear geometric forms, emphasizing the contrasts in color and shape. While, eliminating any hint of—however minute—organic elements. Yanai’s Pink Studio, shows an intense field of coloration. Matisse includes Japanese print patterns in his composition, and Yanai strips the floral elements into specs of line. The idealized classical sculpture in the right corner of Matisse’s painting is replaced by a blue geometric block with additional squares representing arms and legs. Yanai’s interest in paying homage to other artists’ is a common theme. While paying homage to himself through the title of this exhibition, he also pays homage to other artists in his paintings. Nearby in the exhibit, a small—but nevertheless impressive—one of Yanai’s infamous homages to David Hockney is present. Inspired by the Mediterranean climate of Tel Aviv, Yanai’s usage of bold blocks of color and sunny coastal scenes has led to comparisons with David Hockney, specifically his paintings of Californian homes and backyard pools (Figure 4). “I pay homage [to Hockney] in a very personal way though,” says Yanai. “I put my own memory and experience on top of some idealistic image of his by adding sometimes things that aren't what they seem. In that way maybe the color is a decoy for something else, to lure the viewer in at first.” Yanai indicates that although he is paying homage to Hockney, he is using the similarities in color as a smokescreen to lure the viewer in to take a closer look at the differences.
The use of appropriation has played an important role in the history of the arts, and continues today. Yanai uses pre-existing images and transforms them enough that they have a new meaning. David Hockney’s The Bigger Splash (1967), and Yanai’s Restrained Splash Nothing (2015), have strong geometric lines and angles. The paintings are flat and utilize color to give contrast, rather than using natural light. The space in the compositions are generally the same. Hockney selectively choses to paint his splash, grass, and palm trees a bit more volumetric. But Yanai maintains strips of repetitive impasto strokes throughout. His splash is linear and controlled, stressing color and shape. Hockney’s painting puts the viewer close enough to the splash, encouraging engagement. The texture of Hockney’s splash looks three dimensional, heightening its intimacy and inviting in the viewer. The splatter of white paint emphasizes movement and energy. Yanai takes the viewer a few steps back, giving the viewer a broader perspective, while still staying true to scale. As a result, Yanai’s composition is evasive. The splash becomes less welcoming, because the viewer plays a more passive role. Yanai excludes the chair in his homage, further implicating isolation. His intention is not to romanticize the everyday subject, but to evoke precariousness and distance. Restrained Splash Nothing is intended to provoke a vague memory.
Yanai titles his works before he paints them, and they are the foundation of his inspiration. Titles are very important and can change a viewer’s perception. He uses them to point to alternative interpretations. The words: restrained, splash, and nothing, were the building blocks of the painting. Yanai’s Ancienne Rive exhibition, held in New York City at the Yohe Gallery in 2015 was one of Yanai’s most talked about solo exhibitions. The exhibit dealt entirely with borders. Ancienne Rive, means “ancient river,” and recalls historical and geographical events that may have left people displaced. This could be because Yanai spent time in numerous countries without feeling a particular connection to one specific geographic location. Being an artist allows Yanai to express himself in regards to the Israeli and Palestinian conflicts. In his exhibition he used vertical and horizontal lines, which illustrate clear borders. Yanai is obsessed with borders—a manifestation of his respect for parameters—and the way in which paint either touches or doesn’t touch the edge of a canvas.
A painting displayed at the Ancienne Rive exhibition, titled End of Europe (Geographically) (2015), features a potted plant he saw while vacationing in Syracuse, and exemplifies Yanai’s interest in physical and geographical boundaries (Figure 5). “Being in Israel, I live in a country that doesn’t have real borders,” he says. Centered above the plant is an image within the image of a boat gliding on a blue sea, with intentional untouched white canvas on either side of it. In many of Yanai’s paintings, the paint doesn’t reach all the way to the edge of the canvas. “Even the way color touches color. These are all borders.” Yanai’s subtle political references are present in the majority of his works. Yanai combined his admiration for the Renaissance, and passion for contemporary politics surrounding Israeli borders, by painting Queen Sheba (After Francesca) (2011) (Figure 6). The story goes that Sheba was the Queen of southwestern Arabia and a seeker of truth and wisdom. She visits the wise king of Israel, Solomon, in order to test his knowledge with questions and riddles. Yanai chooses this historical narrative as his subject to give evidence to the existence of relations between Israelis and Arabs. He likes to call his transcription of Francesca’s work a “re-mix.” He lets the work define itself through the title. Piero della Francesca’s Queen Sheba (1452-66), typical of renaissance painting uses perspective, and the figures and landscape are rendered realistic. Yanai’s painting has no sense of perspective, and the foreground and background are indistinguishable. Geometric shapes fill the composition without depth. The women’s garments are purely flat triangles of singular colors. True to his style, Yanai reduces the figures down to a bare geometric form. The trees in Francesca’s painting provide a divide between foreground and background. Yanai strips the trees of any identifiable features, and turns them into green triangles that float above and disassociate from the forms below it. Again, Yanai attempts to move the viewer a few steps back, and further away from the narrative, by placing a black barrier in the bottom foreground. The image does not invite the viewer in, but rather alludes to a memory, similar to Restrained Splash Nothing.
In April of 2013, at the Velan Center, Yanai had a solo exhibition in Italy, titled Battle, Therapy, Living Room. He took Paolo Uccello’s painting The Battle of San Romano (1438-40), and transformed it into a political piece that resonates with contemporary conflicts in Israel. The Battle of San Romano was a battle between Florence and Siena in 1432, over territory. While Uccello’s painting was a significant, and influential work in developing perspective, Yanai abstracts the composition. The colors of the composition are applied flatly. He rids the work of any linear perspective, and like Duchamp’s infamous Nude Descending the Staircase (1912), he paints the scene by combining different points in time. Yanai shows three points during the battle, from three different perspectives. A power struggle ensues across the canvas. He has said that the work addresses his secular beliefs. Like the battle between the Florentines and Siena, an atheist struggles in contemporary religious society.
By simplifying and reducing, Yanai accentuates objects and gives them new meaning by providing permanence to transient objects. His technique is that of precision in abstraction. He is an artist living and experiencing Israeli struggles, while being a father who takes great pride in his children’s creativity. His homages to other artists introduce unique and interesting interpretations. He bridges the gap between Contemporary and Renaissance art. Yanai recreates those works to resonate with today. “I love now; I love our age. I think it’s the best time to be making art. Every individual is empowered, there is room for everything.”