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Alexander Yulish

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It’s usually hard to say exactly what it is you like about a painting. Does it have to do with the colors used, or the texture of the brush strokes? Do you appreciate the work for the artist’s precision of details, or for the magnitude and breadth of the arrangement of the piece? Is there a good feeling you get when you look at the painting? A bad one that you like anyway? These questions barely scratch the surface when it comes to aesthetic virtue and subjectivity. And yet they can be so difficult to answer. The trouble is we often don’t know we enjoy an artistic quality until it reaches out from the wall and slaps us.

Alexander Yulish’s paintings do just that.

Alexander Yulish was born in New York City in 1975. His father worked in PR and his mother was Barbara Pearlman, a famous artist and fashion illustrator. Yulish grew up near the Chelsea Hotel and spent his childhood surrounded by New York’s artistic elite. He learned to paint watching his mother in her studio as a young child, and went on to study fine art and English at Connecticut College. After graduating, Yulish moved to Los Angeles and worked a variety of jobs, including acting and setting up downtown music venues. Yulish continued painting on the side but only started, in his early thirties, to dedicate himself full time to his art. Since then, Yulish has had exhibitions in galleries around Los Angeles and New York City and has attracted the attention of art world heavy-hitters Eugenio López Alonso (founder of Museo Jumex) and JoAnne Colonna (Brillstein Entertainment partner), among others.

Yulish’s paintings are composed of shapes -- lines, circles, squares -- that hint at familiar subjects. In his earlier work the subjects hinted at were often large, human-like subjects. The Things You Said, for example, features a hand with painted red nails holding a coffee mug. The hand is attached to an arm, which is attached to a multi-colored torso made of various shapes and lines, which belongs to a person reclining on a couch. But the closer you examine the reclining person, and the rest of the painting, the harder it becomes to discern the body parts in any detail. Many of Yulish’s early paintings have this effect -- it’s largely a result of the shapes used in the composition of Yulish’s paintings, a line will form the outline of a torso and the leg of a chair in the background, or a pattern on the floor of the room, depending on how you look at the painting. In this way Yulish’s earlier work presents us with a paradox: in order to see what the subjects of the paintings are, we have to pay close attention to the details, but the closer we look, the less distinct the figures become.

This quality of Yulish’s paintings is probably a result of his studio practice. Yulish makes his art in staggered layers of acrylic paint. He starts with some shapes and lines, as though he were making any old abstract portrait. Then he adds a second layer of shapes, lines and figures, blending the new images with the old. Out of the chaos, figures and subjects begin to appear. Two intersecting lines could become a lamp, or a mirror, or a wall, depending on how Yulish feels and what he sees in his mind’s eye while he is painting. Yulish continues drawing until, emotionally and artistically, he’s ready to move to another part of the painting. As the image comes together, Yulish adjusts minor details in color and shape. Whether a torso will be blue and red or blue and yellow depends on the other parts of the painting. The finished work has to convey what Yulish was feeling

and thinking while he was painting. If some color or figure does not do that, it has to go. This lends a powerful honesty to Yulish’s paintings, they are as truthful as they are visceral.

But all of this is old news for the 43 year-old Yulish, who has been working diligently and excitedly on new work. Yulish’s latest paintings, which were shown at a small private exhibition in Watermill, mark a thematic and stylistic departure from the subject-centric works he made earlier in his career. Yulish still hints at animal and human subjects with the figures in his new paintings, but he does so less often and more carefully. The shapes which form the subjects are more ambiguous in Yulish’s new work -- a squiggly line forms what appears to be a human face, but could just as easily be a clock or some other part of an animal -- but the distinctions between the subjects are clearer and more precise. Because the subjects are more abstract, though, it can be harder to interpret the meanings of Yulish’s new work. The shapes do not form so much as suggest, leaving room for subjectivity and disagreement. Yulish’s artistic development is bringing him closer to Jackson Pollock and further from Picasso, two artists to whom Yulish has been compared.

One last thing about the new paintings, they seem to have a lot of flowers. At least, for me. The flowers in Yulish’s new paintings are the kinds of flowers that could be birds, or people, or arms. Because, in many of Yulish’s new paintings, he has abandoned a subject-background style of painting and image construction, he cannot rely on cryptic settings to convey his emotional and artistic state. Instead, Yulish has to communicate through the subjects themselves, through their details and their arrangement. In many of Yulish’s new paintings, he has obliterated the subject-background distinction by refusing to give prominence to any part or parts of the whole work. There are no guiding principles to help find the subject as there would be in, say, a room where the walls, the floor and the ceiling converge at a point in space. None of the honesty of Yulish’s earlier work is lost in his abandonment of the subject-background distinction because, presumably, he is still following his artistic (and emotional) instinct. The only difference, now, is that the viewer might not receive the message. Or, the viewer might receive the message but decide to project their own meaning, their own emotions and thoughts, onto the work. Either way, Yulish’s honesty remains throughout his new work, challenging our interpretive and artistic sensibilities as viewers in ways that Yulish has never done before. And, most importantly, reminding us that it feels good to be slapped by a new aesthetic quality every once in a while.

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Interview with Photographer George Holz

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Photography
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George Holz, Heather Graham at the Alexandria Hotel, Los Angeles, 1998

B: Thanks for making the time to talk with me today, George. You're known for your high-end advertising and fashion spreads, and your portraits of Hollywood stars, but you've also established a fine arts practice. Where do those intersect?

G: I always see them as going in tandem. Everything to me in my photography and my career

one often segues off the other. After graduating from college in the early 1980's out at the Art Center in Pasadena I started doing fashion, working in Europe, in Paris and then coming to New York. That continued until the 1990's, and then I was doing album covers, but I wasn't doing a lot of actresses and actors at that point. I guess it was the way the industry was going. People started using celebrities as supermodels then, for magazine covers, for fashion editorials. So I moved into that, with some early assignments with Brad Pitt, with Madonna, and then eventually one day I woke up, and most of what I was shooting was celebrities. Editorials based more on portraits than fashion, which was fine by me because I ultimately found that to be more interesting.

B: You also worked under Helmut Newton early on, didn't you?

G: Yes, and he obviously greatly inspired me. He realized he was shooting a tool catalog, and those were photos that could someday end up in a museum--and they have. He didn't draw a line down his practice, he approached everything as though it was his own work, as though some day it might have that fine art quality. That's something that always stuck with me. I always try to do my own photos. Even in recent shows, work I did for magazine and commercial clients does end up on gallery walls. It goes together. It gives you access. These assignments, whether they're editorial or advertising, they give you a unique access to subjects you wouldn't normally address.  

B: When you were starting out, did you see it that way? Were you just looking for a career, or did you always know you wanted a studio practice aspect in your work?

G: Originally when I went to school I wanted to be a photojournalist. I consider myself to be kind of one really. I love that aspect of photography. But when I went to school, I started learning more about lighting, and working in the studio, and then working with Helmut, I kind of unlearned everything I learned in school. I knew I liked fashion, I knew I liked working with celebrities, and I assisted him on those kinds of jobs. So I pursued that in Milan, and then Paris, and then New York. By the '90s, it all ran together. It was in the late 1980's I started doing my fine art nudes.

B: What made you start work on that series?

G: In the early 1980s there was a group of us in New York who lived downtown, all photographers, and we called ourselves the Cauldron. Most of us were friends from the Art Center and we got together because even though we were all commercial photographers--advertising, editorial, portraits, whatever--we realized we still wanted to pursue our art work. We started meeting every week, each doing personal work. It couldn't be something done on the job, or something old, it had to be new, specifically for this group. And we all started producing really interesting bodies of work from this. There was the great still life photographer James Wojcik, Charles Purvis, Mark Arbeit who assisted Helmut along with me. That's when I started shooting the nudes in earnest. In reality I had been shooting them since the late '70s, but I started to really produce a body of that work which started to move towards exhibitions. Now I've been doing them for forty years. I guess one of the beautiful things about this kind of thing, flying around the world to shoot in exotic locations, having these models with stylists and hair and makeup teams, was to take advantage of those circumstances, and if you had free time, to do some of your own work. Which is something Helmut did as well, he always would try to get the assignment, please the client, but then do something for himself on the side. Which is something I still do, since you know you're never going to be in these places again. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's harder with the celebrities--you have people around, entourages, everyone watching the clock. And with social media, people are more cautious, everything is instantaneous. There's no shoot, develop, look, put it away. Things are transmitted instantly now.

B: Tell me more about the relationship between your work in fashion and your nudes. With fashion photography, it seems like you're almost using the body as armature, versus the nudes being about the body itself in space.

G: Well, in school, everything was about still lives at first. Very classic bootcamp style training. Everything was about the ball, the cube, and the cylinder; and how to light that. And really, the body is a combination of all of those. When you're shooting fashion, it's like a still life, you have to respond to how the light makes the body and the face look, but also the garment, how it shows, how it hangs. The model is obviously helping a lot, they move well, they know how to find the light, and they kind of take care of you in that way. Then comes your direction, getting them to emote, working in all lighting conditions--you can't always have studio light, or the magic light at the end of the day, sometimes you're shooting in the middle of the afternoon--to handle all the technicles. But I also like to direct a lot, I'm very aware of body language. I like to shoot everything as though I'm shooting a portrait. Nude or clothed, there's so much said by the way a model stands or sits. Just the body itself when shooting a nude, it becomes timeless. Hairstyle or makeup is the only thing that can potentially date it. If you're in the middle of the woods or the desert, with a body, that's pretty timeless. You can look back and say there were more rubenesque models at one period, and heroin chic was more popular in that period, but the first thing, the thing that informs my work, is that it's a portrait. The first thing I see is the face, then the body, then the clothes. That's my training, you want it to look good, but you want it to look interesting. And it goes first from the face. So in that regard, working with the nude informs working with fashion, it's like learning figure drawing, or like a doctor working on a cadaver, it's foundational knowledge. In turn that allows you to do well photographing not just someone who's a trained model, it teaches how to photograph someone who is maybe a little uncomfortable, or stiff, and how to use that. That's what makes photography so interesting, it's something different every time you shoot.

B: It seems that fluidity is key to photography in more than just practice. It's hard to think of a medium that's changed more in terms of process and format than photography has in the last generation.


G: Absolutely. When I started out it was completely analogue. People started to talk about digital, but no one really took it seriously at first. Then clients wanted to embrace the early digital technology, and it was difficult in the beginning, because everyone wanted to cover everything both ways. The workflow became very confusing. Then it switched fully to digital, and analogue shoots became a specialty. When I hear about young photographers discovering film, it's funny. When they label things as "shot on film" as a special designation, it's like, that's all there was. But I was an early adopter, I wasn't one of those photographers tha said, "I only shoot film, period." I saw the writing on the wall. People who did hand retouching, people who didn't embrace photoshop, airbrushers, they became dinosaurs, and I didn't want to be like that. I still shoot a lot of film, especially in my personal work, because I like the pace and the quality of it, but I'm equally proficient with digital.

B: What has the impact been on your commercial work?

G: When you're on a shoot, and there are all these people standing around, and you hear comments, or you hear complete silence as you shoot, it's like being in the kitchen and everyone is tasting the food as you cook it. It's not done yet, what they're experiencing isn't a finished product. In the old days, you took a polaroid, looked at it, stuck it in your pocket, and then you'd shoot. Then it would be processed, and it'd be like a birthday present every time, getting that yellow and red box back from Kodak full of contact sheets. Before social media, before everyone shot and posted selfies and everything else, you really had to work and form and sustain relationships to find the right models. You'd have trust, you'd share contact prints by mail or fedex. It wasn't like it is now, people shooting with their iphones over your shoulder while you shoot, things appearing online before you even see your own shots, before the work is finished. There was more intimacy, and more trust before. I miss that part of it.

B: There have been changes beyond just the workflow in recent years.

G: Of course, we've had things like the MeToo movement--necessary things--that make it such a different time now. And global events, 9/11, the pandemic, things like that change everything, in every industry. And social media was a revolution in photography. People are bombarded by visual culture, by movement. There's so much talent there too, and now everyone's a photographer in a way. But for me it's still about craft. I'm open to what's happening now, but it's slippery.

B: I know you also teach and have always worked with young photographers. What is it like to work with students who come in having these preconceived notions and personal relationships to photography by virtue of carrying around a camera in their pocket everyday?
Have standards in practice changed as well? Whereas in the past, you might have been taught that a classic fashion model has a certain look and a certain build, and you would focus on learning how to work with that, when now it's more common to see a diverse range of models? Is it different than when you were in school learning purely about the craft of photography?

George Holz, Joaquin Phoenix, New York, 1996


G: That's a great question. I've been teaching a long time, and in the last five years, I've been teaching my own workshops. In the beginning, it was analog, it was all about technical craft, for the most part. Some workshops are on the portrait, some on fashion and beauty, some on the business of photography. Often it's on the nude figure. The demographic changes from course to course. Early on, students were more concerned with learning technique and lighting, and we would just touch on things on the business end. As far as models go, I've always loved to photograph all different body shapes, I was never interested in just one kind of model. Of course, fashion models back in the 80s and 90s used to be taller and skinnier and then people like Kate Moss came in who was shorter, and things slowly began to change. Now it's very, very diverse in terms of body type and in terms of ethnicity, which is great! And in my workshops now, I often have a younger demographic. And students would ask me, "can I just bring my iphone to class?" and I always say, if that's all you haven that's fine. I'll teach everything from how to shoot with an 8x10 view camera to an iphone. They're all tools. It's really about your eye, how you understand light. But I wrestled with that at first, thinking, maybe they should at least shoot on a DSLR, but then I thought, why limit it like that? You can take really great photos with an iphone, it's an important tool now. You can go out and play tennis with the best tennis player in the world, and make them play with the cheapest racket, and they're still going to beat you. When you're talented, you're talented, and good tools can make you even better, but you'll make good work with whatever you have to work with.

B: How have the conversations in workshops changed with these developments?

G: There's a lot more discussion now, about what's fine art? What's pornography? Questions of society, and perception, and new moral standards. I think it's really good that it comes out in critique, that we talk about respect now, and you didn't see that ten or twenty years ago so much.

B: It seems like those are broad social changes felt across every industry, not just photographer.

G: Absolutely. I've worked a great deal in Europe and things are different there than in the states. And the criticism of work can be very different, based on social norms, based on the culture where the work is being shown.

B: Speaking of cultural reception, especially in the context of popular culture, I wanted to ask you about your book, Holz Hollywood: Thirty Years of Portraits. What led you to make this book? Why this subset of photographs?

G: Originally it was going to be Twenty-five Years of Portraits but then it took five years to make. I was shooting all the time still, so it became Thirty. There was a lot of discussion as to if I should make my first monograph a book of nudes, or celebrity portraits. I thought of doing a combination, but I decided this needed to be on its own. Enough time has passed, that looking back, you can take a look at things and say, "yes, that's an iconic portrait." People change, their careers shange, you need time to determine what has staying power. It's hard going through 500 different analog sessions, and making selections, and deciding what goes into a book. But the nudes will have their own book, coming out in probably 2022.

B: Will that cover a similar period in your career?

G: Yes, around forty years.

B: Companion volumes.

G: Yes, and potentially a second, updated edition of Holz Hollywood, might come out too. You know from curating shows or working on books what that involves, and it's always evolving.

George Holz, Kadijah in the shower at the Chelsea Hotel, New York, 2002


B: A book with that kind of scope taking five years is no surprise, really.

G: Some people think that's a long time. My designer did, but it does take time. I don't think of them as retrospectives, though, I'm still doing so much work. I could go ahead with another book that covers that same period, really. I'm always having to go back into my archives. Your eye changes with time. You look at an image and say, "Why didn't I put this in the book? How could I pass over this?" but you didn't see it the same way five years ago. Sometimes the best things end up on the cutting room floor.

B: What else is on deck for you?

G: The book of nudes is slated for 2022, but the pandemic has delayed it some. I have a few exhibitions in their early stages in Europe, but again, with the galleries closed, it's not a certain thing. We're in quarantine-light now, so right now things are opening back up, but I still can't travel outside the states. So it's all a big question mark for now. Shows that have been booked years in advance, shows were extended or delayed, there's a lot of uncertainty. Even with production. People working on skeleton crews, thinking, how do we reopen and reopen safely. People went bankrupt, people closed, people were laid off. We're picking up the pieces, seeing where we're at. Hopefully the editorial and commercial assignments can safely resume.

B: I imagine there's no way for a team to be hands-off while doing a fashion shoot.

G: I'm fortunate I live on a farm in upstate New York with my family. We have a lot of area, and my office and studio are on site. I was able to still do a workshop in August, though we had to cancel June. It was difficult, we often have a lot of people from out of state. People had to quarantine when they arrived in the state. We lost our international students. We were able to do it all outside, all socially distant, following all covid protocols. Designers sent us their clothes, and we were able to do the rest all in-house. Local models, on site production. My son, a filmmaker, was able to help us work things out. We may not know when this thing will be over. People won't be packing into galleries in Tribeca on hot summer nights for along time.

B: It seems like everyone is at a point where they're past the point of just trying to get by, and they're committed to developing sustainable long term alternative models, since we really don't have any idea how long this will last.

G: I've developed some interesting ways to do remote shoots. A friend of mine in Antwerp was expecting a baby, and wanted me to shoot her out in the forest while she was still pregnant, and I was able to do that with the help of an on-site assistant. He was the cameraman. It was a cool experience. Not the same as being there, but pretty close. Like working with a DP as a director. People are shooting with drones, finding new ways. Photography, especially what I do, with portraits, whether actors or personal work, there's a safe way to do it. You can shoot 8-to-10 feet away from someone. And being able to be working outside in spring and summer is great. But people who live places like you and I live--we've been working outside, we've been at outside cafes, I'm sure you've been enjoying the lake there in Chicago, but once we're all inside again in the winter, it'll be a big change.

B: There's still a lot to navigate ahead of us. But it seems to be pushing us towards asking questions like, how do you do a remote shoot? It's providing an opportunity to advance new methods of working that otherwise may not have been explored.

G: A year ago I wouldn't have fathomed doing a remote shoot. But photography has always been about adaptability. It's the nature of the business. You always have to be ready to adapt.

George Holz, Tenley with peaches, Woodland Valley, 2010

Follow George Holz on Instagram and through his website.

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