Not So Still Life: The Persistent Gaze of Yehouda Chaki

Tenya Mastoras
Jun 2, 2016 8:42PM
"We live in a brilliant rainbow of beautiful chaos..." - Paul Cezanne

By Donald Brackett

When looking at the works of Yehouda Chaki it's quite natural to think of the French painter Paul Cezanne, especially his pieces that uniquely bridged impressionism to cubism, and this observation is meant in the best possible way. But rather than the rainbow of chaos alluded to by Cezanne, in Chaki we have a calm ceremony of colour which is poetically organized, consistently balanced and explored with a persistent gaze. He is a mature and long-distance painter, carrying the energies and colours of Athens, Tel Aviv and Montreal along with him on his personal journey across the messy map of art history.

His accumulation of painterly experience is most evident in his mesmerizing use of muted colour merged with primal forms. “Makrinitsa”, a village in Thessaly Greece, is a good example of this muted tone used to great effect. Nature is rendered here through a nurtured gaze, one that doesn’t require overly bright colours as a distraction.


At first glance loosely ordered, his works are actually rigorously designed to internalize the outward sensations arriving at the painter's eye and to systematically communicate them to the viewer's eyes. He does this by employing a riot of colour but not a disordered riot, rather a kind of stately procession through his perception of light, which he shares with us using a consummate skill honed over many years as a practitioner of painted poems.

His paintings appear to be full of thoughtful pauses, "October Light" being a fine evocation of seasonal change, where one can almost feel the wind rattling leaves which barely appear attached to trees on a sparkling riverbank. He maximizes a moment here, transmitting it to us in a way more real than any photograph, because we can not just see but feel the light itself seeking into that hard autumnal ground.

Perhaps most appealing is his use of a serial technique, returning to a theme, a motif, a subject, a format, a title, repeatedly and methodically until the viewer shares a palpable sense of time passing. This is largely so because in the end the secret subject of all painting is Time itself. So it is with subjects such as Light, Mountain, Passage, Flowers and his ongoing absorption with the model Nona. Such is the case especially with the window series, a splendid still life sequence where any subtly implied window is strictly an open zone of vitality, within which a pot of flowers resides restlessly.

He invites us to witness a not so still life, and instead they are alive with an almost animal magnetism, a presence which I suppose we must identify as thje botanical soul. And they remind us again that a landscape is also a kind of still life, as is a portrait in a very real sense. But whichever motif he chooses to render, he often seems to combine all four (portrait, still life, landscape and abstract) in a single painting. A landscape is just a bigger tabletop after all, and a portrait is merely another kind of human flower pot, and all art is already an abstraction from nature.

In fact, to call them pictures is slightly inaccurate, since they are more like technicolour movies which he has frozen before our eyes. Somehow Chaki has been able to carry the light of Athens and Tel Aviv with him to his current residence of Montreal, where a new and special Canadian light has been added to his arsenal. I don't know how he does this, perhaps he carries this light in his eyes, transfers it to his canvases, from which glistening surfaces it is transferred to us. Maybe it's better not to know how in the end, and instead just be thankful that for several decades he has also taught drawing and painting at the Saidye Bronfman Centre of Montreal (and is still an artistic advisor there), where at least future generations of artists have been able to benefit from his alchemy.

Especially in today's heavily digitalized world of synthetic images, his kind of ancient foundational basis for the creation of analog artifacts is even more important, not just to our minds and eyes, but to our hearts as well. In an interval, an interstitial moment between perception, expression and reception, we can identify the importance not just of the juxtaposition of quiet, muted colours next to vocal, bright ones, but something even more mysterious: the microscopic-spaces between the brushstrokes. This is where the secret of a great painting resides, maybe even where it hides from us, inviting us to search for it silently, in order to unearth the macroscopic level of the represented image.

Sometimes the smallest painting can contain the largest insights using his macroscope: "Cypress Tel Aviv" is only 9 x 7 inches, and both "Looking Up" and "Looking Right" are 12 x 14 inches, yet they all have the stance and stature of images ten times their size. Similarly, the deceptively intimate scale of "Yellow Flower", "Blue Mountains" and "Fall Mountains" is equally arresting. Meanwhile the shocking blue trees in a larger canvas such as "West" become mesmerizingly huge when rendered next to the curiously abstract hillside cascading off in the distance.

Here, the organic shapes progressing to the right have a geometric and logical quality that suggests all natural forms are based on only a few basic ratios, which indeed they are. Their formation could in fact be a tunnel, or stacked buildings, or Precambrian rocks, which is exactly the source of their ambiguous charm. Our eyes can linger on them without any pressure to adjust our gaze into a forced conclusion and so the landscape, it seems, is dreaming us. Or the portrait is gazing at us. Or the still life is talking to us.

Whatever their theme or format, one thing remains common to each painting: they all magically convey the palpable breath of light.

Tenya Mastoras