Born in Israel, raised in New York, artist Guy Yanai resists labels

On his recent trip to New York, Israeli artist Guy Yanai felt that the city was the most aggressive in the 20 years he had been visiting, since he studied art here at Parsons School of Design. I had forgotten how big the cars are, how fast they drive, how loud their music was.

“Going back to Tel Aviv was like visiting a Swiss town,” he said. “There is no respite in New York. I had forgotten “.

Yanai was in New York to open “The Things of Life,” his second solo show at the Miles McEnery Gallery on W. 22nd St. in Chelsea. The 20 paintings in the show are bright, colorful and deceptively simple snapshots: a couple hugging in front of their car, sailboats on the water, a man writing a letter in front of a cafe.

The paintings “speak of moments of anguish and tragedy, but also of unbridled intimacy, evoking a nostalgia for what was perhaps lost during the lonely months of confinement,” writes Terrence Trouillot in an essay accompanying the exhibition.

The exhibition is inspired by the film with which he shares his name, “Les Choses de la Vie” (1970) by Claude Sautet, which follows a man on the last day of his life. He debates whether to end things with his lover or leave his wife, and visit his son and father before (spoiler alert) getting into a car accident and dying.

Maybe that’s why Yanai has big, fast cars in mind.

“I really resonated with this man,” Yanai said. “It is the last day of his life and we see him visit his lover, wife, father, son and workplace. Everything is pushing him in different directions, all the demands on his life. ”

Many of the paintings in the exhibition are recreations of frames from the film. They capture the intensity and beauty of the simple acts that create a life that can disappear so quickly.

“I love the title, ‘The things of life,'” Yanai said. “The older I get, the more difficult day-to-day life becomes. I don’t know how people paint the big problems in their work. I can’t even go beyond breakfast. “

Yanai, 44, recently opened a studio in Marseille, France, where his wife is from. For the first time, most of his work for an exhibition was painted in France rather than in his home studio in Tel Aviv.

“The show seemed very French to me, in the end. It bothers me a bit, ”he said.

Flag of Israel (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Yanai is reluctant to associate with a particular region. Neither France, nor Sicily, where he goes on vacation every August, nor Israel, where he lives and works mainly. He doesn’t want to be labeled an Israeli artist, not even a Jew, even though he describes himself as an “extremely proud Israeli and an extremely proud Jew.” Being called an “Israeli” artist or a “French” artist, he explained, “is like putting a certain spice in a meal and then it becomes the only thing you taste.”

Born in Haifa, Yanai moved with his family to the suburbs of Boston when he was seven years old. He attended Parsons School of Design, The New York Studio School, Pont-Aven School of Art, and Hampshire College, where he completed a BFA in 2000. Yanai has had two dozen solo exhibitions, and his work has appeared in many group shows around of the world.

“The Things of Life” marks the first time that Yanai exhibits paintings that put human figures front and center; his previous shows feature plants and landscapes.

But while he was in the first COVID lockdown, he felt a massive change in what he was doing with his art.

“For the first two weeks, I thought the art was over. I sat on the bed and did not paint. I felt like, ‘That’s it, there’s no more art,’ ”he explained. But it was those thoughts that allowed him the most freedom to paint whatever he wanted, even if it felt irrelevant or imperfect. At first, Yanai painted screenshots of Zoom calls and online conferences. “I didn’t even realize what I was doing until later,” he said. “And I don’t know if I could do it again.”

Fighting the pandemic, for Yanai, meant embracing his idea of ​​artistic freedom. “I got into art for a specific reason, to do whatever I wanted. The freedom to create whatever you want, to challenge yourself and go to different places. ”The films he saw during the confinement reminded him of that and allowed him to explore more figurative, narrative and emotional portraits.

Yanai, who has upcoming exhibitions in Berlin and Tokyo, hopes her next project will be just as liberating. “I want to paint whatever I want, whatever I have an emotional response to. I’m looking at things that give me a deep emotional response or reaction, and that’s what I’m painting. ”

“The Things of Life” runs at Miles McEnery Gallery until November 27.

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