Guy Yanai's painting Claire and Her Boyfriend shows two people embracing in a wooded, outdoor setting, lush greenery framing the couple who stand in a patch of sunlight. A vintage car is parked in the far-left corner, and behind the figures stands a white picnic table. The scene is unrushed and has a passive quality, which suggests that the viewer is privy to a moment that might typically feel intimate, but, for whatever reason, isn't. The scene is welcoming rather than voyeuristic, a static moment rather than an emotionally triggering one. Inspired by the artist’s time in Pont-Aven, the scene could be a still from a French foreign film in which nothing happens, yet everything is aesthetically pleasing.
Born in Haifa, Israel, in 1977, Yanai received degrees from Parsons School of Design in NYC and the Pont-Aven School of Art in France. Upon moving back to Israel after high school in Boston, he fell in love with a French woman and established a second home and studio in Aix en Provence. Shifting between the Euro-American and Israeli experience, the tonally reduced palette and vivid figuration blend the two identities; Yanai masterfully disguises Israeli qualities in his paintings to create international appeal.
“I now hold three passports,” Guy reflects. “For me, this has made my brain, mind, and body more elastic, more fluid, smarter, looser . . . The idea of being in one place terrifies me completely.” While vividness is a distinctively Israeli trait, the simplicity of his non-political subject matters — a single plant, a view from a window, an empty road — is anything but. His multiculturality merges into a single aesthetic, one in which Israeli influences meet European ones to create a style of painting entirely his own.
The European aspect of Guy's work can be attributed to his experience living abroad and the school of Pont-Aven. At the turn of the 20th century, French artists — most notably Paul Gaugin — flocked to the town of Pont-Aven in the south of Brittany to explore the land's beauty — giving birth to synthetism. In an attempt to blend nature with abstract form, this style of art evoked specific moods born from bold colors, rhythmic lines, and simplified two-dimensional forms.
Like the synthesist masters before him, Yanai’s build-up brushstrokes are applied diagonally and horizontally in block-like, almost OCD fashion. The oil paint provides a textured surface for an otherwise pictorially flat painting. The methodical reduction of nature into bold shapes is directly inspired by the primitive works of Gaugin, Emile Bernard, and Armand Seguin. Pink hues and calculated brushstrokes repeat themselves across his oeuvre in a mediative manner, and the strictly controlled strokes are purposeful, their repetitive quality invoking a place where the grind of everyday life doesn’t exist.
Door in Europe shows a view through French doors onto a balcony. While the grey room is notably without detail, the balcony view shows several chairs and a blue sky, making it the focus of the painting. The contrast of a neutral interior against a striking exterior creates a longing in the viewer to walk through the balcony door, sit on the deck, relax. Jean-Dominique Bauby Lighthouse (Berck Sur-Mer) depicts a single lighthouse perched on a green hill against a two-shade blue sky. Like Door in Europe, the work is notable for its signature pink stripe at the bottom of the canvas, the bold application of pure color, and a geometrical composition free from unnecessary details. The culture clash creates a world in which many nationalities are seen in a single canvas.
While artists from the synthesist movement captured the zeitgeist of their time, as seen in the depiction of rural life, peasants, and natural pictorial beauty, Yanai’s world is distinctly modern, in large part because of his global lifestyle. “Two hours ago, I dropped off my two children at a camp near Aix en Provence,” he says. “Then I drove to the studio in Marseille. On the drive back, I remembered my camps in the suburbs outside of Boston.”
Yanai’s life is in constant flux, which is reflected in his paintings: a single sailboat on the sea of Galilee seamlessly fits next to a view from Marseilles, a lone lighthouse in the south of France next to a snapshot of a Tel Aviv living room, a courtyard of plants next to a still of the Prada Foundation. These instants of an uncomplicated life provide the viewer with a feeling of serenity. The message in his paintings does not need unpacking; what you see is what you get, and there is comfort in that.
“When I was 18, I read Gogol,” Guy recounts. “His dream was to go to Jerusalem. After he finally made it and returned to Russia, he was asked how it was. He replied: I was as bored in Jerusalem as I am in a Russian train station.”
International sentiments are subtly present in Guy's work; his oeuvre captures moments observed, and internalized evocative feelings of a breezy mid-summer's day gale called Guy Yanai. “Locations might change,” he says, “but we remain ourselves, whatever that might mean.”
Guy Yanai’s most recent exhibitions include Nassima Landau Art Foundation in Tel Aviv, Miles McEnery Gallery in NYC, and Praz Delavallade in Los Angeles. His exciting upcoming exhibition will be held at the Collection Lambert Avignon, France.