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.