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The Melody of Memory


Executive Editor of NY Arts Magazine Suzie Walshe on Elisha Ben Yitzhak

Elisha Ben Yitzhak is a multifaceted artist who works in a variety of media, from oils to acrylic, drawing to watercolor. He is a virtuoso artist who has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally in venues as diverse as Zimbabwe and Switzerland, including London’s celebrated Tate Gallery. In September, he will be featured in a group exhibition entitled The United States Artists Biennial at the prestigious Broadway Gallery NYC, in New York’s preeminent Shoo district.

Reminiscent of styles as diverse as the quasi-abstracted figurative paintings of Alex Katz, the metaphysical proto-Surrealist paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, as well as the paintings of Henri Matisse’s School of Paris period, Ben Yitzhak’s paintings are simultaneously lyrical and mysterious, jubilant yet pensive. Employing these paradoxes, he skillfully applies a multihued palette of soft violets, ochre, and browns to engender a sense of memory and longing for faraway people and places.

Take, for instance, a handsome painting entitled Jerusalem, portraying a series of abstracted domed buildings executed in tangerines and sunny yellows. A vast expanse of buildings is depicted flatly across the surface, draped by an expanse of periwinkle blue-sky. Evocative of a lost place and a lost time, the image is festive—rendered with love, care and attention—and yet evokes a sense of loss and of yearning for memory of the past. Ben Yitzhak emigrated from Israel many years ago. One can imagine from this lovingly rendered painting, the special place in his heart that Jerusalem still holds.

Another very compelling testament to memories of the past is entitled In Jaffa. Here we see a couple—again rendered flatly and somewhat abstractly—seated facing each other at a table located on a wooden boardwalk overlooking the sea. They hold hands, but gaze away toward the distant ocean that is indicated through a series of curvaceous, undulating waves depicted in bright hues of aquamarines, violets, and blues. The figures lean in closely toward each other, evoking a kindred warmth, and a sense of romance and companionship. While the image suggests the contentment of true love in some ways, like a faded photograph of lovers from a bygone era, its distanced perspective and economy of gesture also suggest that the happiness depicted is one of times now past.

Outright melancholy—even grief—is sensitively depicted in another touching image entitled In Pain. Relying on his signature abstracted and simplified approach to figuration, Ben Yitzhak here presents a lone reclining female figure, nude and in bed, large sorrowful tears falling from her weepy eyes. The forms are uncomplicated and direct, underscoring the frank and candid emotional power of Ben Yitzhak’s style. Executed again in bright blues and warm yellows, it is painful undercurrent is countered with a warmth and brightness that nonetheless indicates his fierce joie-de-vivre that emanates from within, and attests to a determined spirit that has prevailed over many travails, hardships, sorrows and adversity.

Pushing even further into abstraction is another striking image entitled Emotions. As the first image Ben Yitzhak created after a 21-year hiatus from painting, the image obviously held a very deep emotional symbolism for him. It depicts a violin-like shape that morphs into the form of a woman’s body and face. All this is set against a backdrop of geometric and architectural elements in blues, oranges and yellows. The surrealist painting is striking and moving, evoking a rhythm akin to the poetic and profound melodies of festive folk music. It is saturated with emotional expression and manifests deep feeling, clearly displaying all the sensations that came back to Yitzhak after having not painted for years. Like a reunion with a long-lost lover, his passion is made self-evident in this glorious image.

The lyrical and romantic theme of music also comes alive in The Band, a quirky and striking picture depicting a trio of musicians performing for an unseen audience. The figures are rendered in a simple way; the organic shapes that make up their bodies are flattened and structured in an uncomplicated and straightforward manner. Each one plays a recognizable instrument: a bass, a violin and a flute. While the band could be playing classical music, the idiosyncratic rhythms and colors (mauves, oranges and light blues) suggest cool jazz. The figures’ gestures are cadenced and angular, indicating the rhythm of the music. Viewers could almost hear the music as their eyes dance across the picture’s surface.

In Inspiration, we see all of Ben Yitzhak’s telltale artistic traits come together in one unified Gesamtkunstwerk. An angular triangle-shaped mountain of yellow juts out from a ground of flat gray. A domed church hovers in the distance, while a lone, solitary figure is haloed by a flat disk of fiery red, and bordered by flat geometric element of swelling blue waves floating nearby. Here, Ben Yitzhak takes his characteristic abstraction and flatness to the next stage, including both figure and architecture in the picture plane, which echo each other in concert to evoke a sense of solitude and isolation. Even so, his bold colors, shapes, and line work contrast this sense of melancholy. “My paintings are about the essence and rhythm of life,” Ben Yitzhak writes. It is no surprise then, that it is through his color and rhythm that music and melody, poetry and expression are at the core of his artistic vision.

In his eminent text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, cultural critic Walter Benjamin, decries the loss of the “aura” of the traditional work of art to the mass culture of Theodor Adorno’s “Culture Industry”—i.e. cinema and mass media. Ben Yitzhak’s striking images re-invoke the lost aura of so much of the artwork of today’s post-pop/post-modern art. He infuses his representations with heart and spirit, qualities lost in so much of the conceptual art practices we find today in the Chelsea galleries. Born from his formative experiences working the land in an Israeli kibbutz, and in response to the trauma brought about by the valiant efforts of the Israeli War of Independence, Ben Yitzhak’s work is a testament to the healing power of the creative spirit. According to Ben Yitzhak, art is “a major part of my life and my whole being.” In fact, he takes that passion and makes it manifest on the canvas surface for us all to share and feel in our hearts.


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