Published in conjunction with the exhibition
"Yizhak Elyashiv Recent prints"
April 3-26, 2003
67 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02116
By Jo-Ann Conklin
The works of Yizhak Elyashiv, especially the Handful of Grains Maps that he began in 1994, affect me as powerfully beautiful.1 There is an element of surprise at work here, even though, like sunsets, I can anticipate the beauty. There is awe and a sense of time standing still: I am rooted where I stand, my breath comes up short. And there is a feeling of well being: I am calm, energized, elated. The sensation lingers; like an aura or afterglow, it continues long after the encounter has ended.
This experience of beauty is a significant factor in our appreciation of art. Works of art can be studied from many different points of view and are significant for reasons other than their beauty. Personally, I may find works interesting, smart, amusing, politically savvy, important (for any number of reasons). However, it is this physical response to beauty that I find rejuvenating, and that I seek most when entering a gallery, museum, or studio.
Use of the term "beauty" in contemporary art history, philosophy, and criticism has been degraded and discounted, to the point where an assertion of beauty may be interpreted as a slight, as an indication that the artist lacks serious intent or the critic sophistication. The study of beauty began with the mid-eighteenth-century writings of Baumgarten, the "father" of aesthetics. Building on his work, other philosophers of the period focused on identifying the unique and defining characteristics of beauty. According to Kant, beauty requires "disinterest"; true beauty is that which appeals "on the basis of perceptual form alone without reference to how it might be described or what purpose, if any, it might serve."2
Hegel believed that the beauty of art was greater, of a higher order, than that found in nature; that the only true beauty is that which is "born again of the mind" (i.e., mitigated by man). In time the term "aesthetic value" replaced "beauty," first with the understanding that art was by definition beautiful, and beauty was therefore implied, and later in an attempt to redefine a hierarchy in art. The emphasis on conceptual art and the importance of social and political context, which has gained favor since the 1960s, relegated beauty to the margins. However, there have always been philosophers and critics for whom beauty held relevance: in the early twentieth century, George Santayana, Henri Bergson, and Benedetto Croce, and, more recently, Dave Hickey and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolf. Many factors contribute to the beauty of Handful of Grains Maps: the scale (eight by twelve feet)3, the sensuous tone and color, the way the ink is absorbed by and clings to the paper, the intricacy of the compositions, the appeal of the modernist grid. These formal qualities draw us in and beckon an examination of Elyashiv's message, which is enigmatic and poetic, implied rather than stated, and his process, which is fascinating in it's complexity and rigor.
The title Handful of Grains refers to the method used to create the maps, a method that is governed by systematically applied actions. Each series of maps begins with a grid of 96 one-foot-square printing plates, onto which the artist tosses grains of wheat. The placement of the grains is transferred onto the plates as points, which are marked with coordinates to indicate they are part of the first set (derived from the first toss). Elyashiv repeats the procedure, making several tosses, or "gestures", as he calls them. The points in the first set are connected to each other by straight lines, as are those in subsequent sets. The result is an overlapping pattern of points and lines, which may be more or less complex depending on the number and manner of the gestures (gentle versus vigorous motions, sprinkling versus fan-like, "sowing" motions).
Each map begins with and is built upon a base derived from this method. The map exhibited here and dated 2002 is characterized by a particularly dense tangle of lines.4 This is the result of the above method, which in this instance involved eleven gestures, combined with an additional action: Elyashiv measured the distance between points, created loops of string equal to those lengths, attached one loop to each point, and transferred this information onto the plate.
Elyashiv employs this additive method, the building of image upon image, to produce several unique maps from each set of plates; each map traces a step in the progression. Sometimes the plates are physically altered, producing new "states"; other images employ mono-print techniques. One result of this additive process is the inability to reverse course. Another is the tendency (occasionally resisted) of the works to move from schematic and minimal to expressive and painterly. Elyashiv favors brown tones that are reminiscent of yellowed paper and parched earth, or ethereal blues that read as sky or sea. Each change in complexity, tone, and color brings new associations: oceanographic charts; images of night skies; or pure, lush, painterly abstractions.
Elyashiv's use of the additive method is a metaphor for "growth," a word that often surfaces when he discusses his work. Alternately, he expresses an interest in "building." Variations on a theme, the first word references organic life, the second architecture and the products of humans. The title Handful of Grains Map points to the first meaning-which is after all necessary for the second-and a reading of the work that is positive and life affirming. Grain, being seed, holds the potential for new life. The essential ingredient of bread, grain (wheat) is called the "staff of life." Elyashiv's "gesture" is the action by which life in initiated: insemination, or in cosmology, the big bang. The artist becomes the conduit through which life flows, sowing the seeds of life (and art) with each gesture.
Taking the metaphor further, Elyashiv's maps can be interpreted as representations of the genome, the genetic map of life (i.e., the grains represent life, the artist makes maps of life, the genome is the map of life). In past discussions, Elyashiv has expressed interest in ordering systems and particularly in a universal order. Within the universe of his maps, Elyashiv's use of the grid and systematically applied actions supply that order. What manner of belief system is at work here-religious, spiritual, natural, scientific, evolutionary-is unspecified and, thus, left open to interpretation.5
How does the investigation of the concepts within and implications of Elyashiv's maps effect my reading of the works as beautiful: does the layering of meaning onto beauty intensify the experience; are the maps more beautiful because they are more meaningful? Knowledge of content does not, for me, intensify the visceral response to beauty. In this I agree with Kant: my experience of beauty is "disinterested" in context or function. However, my understanding of the beauty of the maps is heightened by this knowledge. The idea within Elyashiv's work-the creation of beauty from order, the way in which "growth" is embedded in the composition, and his sensitivity to materials-carries beauty of its own.
Jo-Ann Conklin is the Director of the David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University.
1 I first viewed Elyashiv's work in 1996 and have since included Handful of Grains Maps in two group exhibitions at the David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University.
2 David Whewell, in David Cooper, ed., A Companion to Aesthetics (Oxford, England and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1995), 253.
3 The connection between scale and beauty may not be readily apparent. Alternately, some readers may associate this with Burke's definition of the sublime. I am struck, rather, by the manner in which large-scale works encompass and confront the viewer.
4 This is the first of five maps is this series. The second map exhibited here, dated 2000, is the eighth and final map from an earlier series. Elyashiv gives all the maps the same title; they are differentiated only by date. For somewhat easier reference, the dark blue map is from 2000, the steely gray-blue from 2002.
5 Other of Elyashiv's works demonstrate an interest of natural beauty (natural order). More intimate in scale, but equally beautiful, these are intaglios and monotypes of abstracted landscapes and motifs based on variations of leaves and flower petals.