Jwan Yosef, A Gathering of Eagles
Through January 12, 2019
By Jenny Begun
Artist Jwan Yosef is cool, calm and collected. With serious countenance, he jokes often. Through his work, Yosef has been trying to answer his own questions–identity, politics, religion, sexuality and sense of belonging are the topics he addresses. The concept of duality presents itself frequently in Yosef’s work and the origin of it stems from his personal history, filled with many opposites that produced so much unity. Only a person who questions his feelings about and understanding of his environment and his place in it, can eventually arrive at certainty about feeling uncertain and find confidence in spite of the inner ambivalence.
A walk through the exhibition rooms at Praz-Delavallade in Los Angeles reveals a number of paintings, sculptures and objects that ambiguously fall in either of the two categories. If this is your first time seeing the work of Jwan Yosef, questions, one after another, will certainly pop up in your head. You may or may not think of the answers, but you most likely will not stay emotionally indifferent.
You may feel attracted to the handsome male portraits or disturbed by seeing the canvases torn off from their stretcher bars and yanked down in a seeming fit of anger. You may want to come closer and slide your fingers over the glossy shiny surfaces visible between the folds of pulled down linen or you may hesitate and stand back. After all, touching art is not allowed in a gallery. You may want to walk underneath the slanted masking tapes that cross your path; their rigidity washing over you making you suddenly tense.
As you are being seduced and drawn in by the materials, the overall feel of the gallery envelops you in its tranquility while your mind is still fired up: why portraits of these men–artist’s father Ahmad, Syrian dictator Hafez Al-Assad, Hollywood actor Rock Hudson; why ‘eagles’ in the exhibition title; why blank canvases and why are they wrecked?
Jwan Yosef was born in Syria to a Kurdish-Muslim father and an Armenian-Christian mother. Not only this dangerously conflicting union, but also the political regime in the country, the dictatorship and the cult of personality centered on then-president Hafez Al-Assad, prompted the young family to move to Sweden when Yosef was two years old. And so his father’s decisions changed the course of Yosef’s life. “I never really lived in Syria. Growing up in Sweden, I was considered Syrian; and when I went back to Syria, there I was considered Swedish.”
Yosef’s mixed religious background can account for the fact that the artist is spiritually aware, informed, and respectful of differences. Respect and acceptance come to mind with the image of Rock Hudson, a prominent American actor who passed away from AIDS-related complications. The disclosure that he had AIDS also became a public confirmation of his long debated homosexual identity. This dual admission was fatal to the actor’s public image but brought much attention to the epidemic and, more importantly, put a crack in the harsh stigma associated with the disease.
Yosef’s work also has a political undertone, but it doesn’t criticize or glorify or make a political statement. “I chose to use the images of Hafez Al-Assad, ex-dictator of Syria, because every time we went back to visit family, I was struck by this dictator-kind of aesthetics. Posters and images of this face were plastered everywhere. And coming from Sweden, we never saw that.”
Whether it is Al-Assad’s propaganda, or his father’s family portraits, or the Hollywood-perfect images of a successful actor at the height of his career, these men are here to just pinpoint pivotal moments on the artist’s personal timeline and to identify important influences in his search for identity and a sense of belonging. In Yosef’s own words, “This is really what this work becomes: I’m trying to understand my background, from an outsider point of view. So I’m not describing my heritage within my own heritage. I’m looking at it as memories, as segments.”
There is no connection between the exhibition title, A Gathering of Eagles, and its overarching theme. This fall Yosef has four consecutive exhibitions on view, three in the United States, including his first solo show with Praz-Delavallade, and one in Sweden. All four present works from the same series. “I wanted to simplify and unite the elements in the series and the shows by picking out titles from Rock Hudson’s movies,” says Yosef. This playful gesture also softens the mood of the show. Heavily loaded with personal references, it almost comes across as a confession.
Yosef uses a narrow palette of light shades of gray and blue, yellow, and brown, and a lot of white. He notes that it creates “a feeling of being in a cloud rather than being in a room full of political paintings.” According to the artist, he has a very minimal streak in everything he does. “I always think less is more. And because I work with a heavy subject in a way, I prefer the visual to be less.”
Such visual minimalism also leaves a lot of space for viewers’s interpretation. By presenting the images of people who were instrumental in his attempts to understand his background, the artist opens up to us his innermost thoughts and emotional turmoil. By giving us several blank canvases, he invites us to take a moment for self-reflection and project our own memories answering the same questions that he laid out in front of us. These paintings are all covered in white oils and share the same name, “Object”. “Everything is about the duality of things, the decisions of what we decide to reject and what we decide to accept. One could read it as objéct, an empowering verb; one could read it as óbject, putting oneself above it in a judgmental way,” explains Brianna Bakke, the Associate Director of the gallery.
On the other hand, could the blank canvases be interpreted as a self-portraits? Yosef’s search for identity may still be ongoing as many other life events–being a father, a husband, or being in the public eye–will continuously change the way he sees himself.
Borderline between being painting and sculptures, there is also a strong performative aspect to Yosef’s art. Many of the canvases are pulled down exposing the metal skeleton of the stretchers and the bare white wall behind each painting. Once more, this ambiguous gesture is open to interpretation: unseemly violent treatment of the canvases is disturbing and seductive simultaneously. The work, never explicitly sexual, is nevertheless titillating and flirtatious with its glossy wetness and unrobing allure.
The artist’s choice of material is never at random. In his Tensegrity series, Yosef uses masking tape. Is it another clue for us? He is an open book, a blank canvas, but what is he masking? Ephemeral material of these sculptures echo the recurring theme of duality: is it binding or fragile? Both ends shaped like crosses, silver and yellow tapes are stretched at an angle from walls to the floor in a moment of suspended tension.
To fully encapsulate these feelings, one must see these works of art.
Praz-Delavallade Los Angeles
6150 Wilshire Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90048