by Tanya Augsburg
and the gray feather a thrush lost
A Dialogue between Liat Yossifor and Iva Gueorguieva
Liat Yossifor, the gray feather a thrush lost, (Detail), 68projects, Berlin. Photography by Gerhard Haug
Liat Yossifor, Detail, Installation view of "the gray feather a thrush lost", 68projects, Berlin. Photography by Gerhard Haug
and the gray feather a thrush lost
A Dialogue between Liat Yossifor and Iva Gueorguieva
Liat Yossifor, the gray feather a thrush lost (I, II, III), 82 by 218 inches, oil on linen, 2022, 68projects, Berlin. Photography by Gerhard Haug
Painting is a tough territory; it is mute and impenetrable. Despite the many occasions of painting's proclaimed death, it is persistent and viable. With the eruption of the Ukraine war, Los Angeles-based painter Liat Yossifor found a mirror for her internal turmoil in the imagery of the poem "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" by Adam Zagajewski. This resulted in paintings resembling obliterated lands, paintings that are sites for her fingers cutting and dragging thick layers of gray and black oil paint.
The triptych in this new series, the gray feather a thrush lost, measuring roughly 6 by 18 feet, is composed of three panels whose scale is determined by the reach of her body, so each panel is like a container for a body. The single large black monochrome in this new series turns the site into a chasm. These conceptually nuanced and intensely embodied new works were recently on view at 68Projects in Berlin, as part of her Villa Aurora and Thomas Mann fellowship.
Yossifor’s work is the canary in the coal mine, always responsive. In this dialogue we sat down to discuss painting as an act of memorialization, the relationship between painting and poetry, and how our works communicate similar themes in different forms.
-- Iva Gueorguieva
Iva Gueorguieva works mainly with concepts of abstraction, with painting and tapestries, but also in collaboration with dancers and musicians. The subjects of her works have always been to me a collage of her stories of separation from Bulgaria. Abstraction is the visual location for her gestures, but her life story makes up the specifics. This is also where our work collides. We have known each other for years, and we are constantly talking about politics, and the politics in painting. Sometimes we talk daily while working on a difficult project. In this sense we have been collaborating for years. – Liat Yossifor
Iva Gueorguieva: I would like to begin with what I first saw when I looked at your new work. I saw two arms reaching, tracing time. Looking back, this is reminiscent of the arms in Jasper Johns’s painting Diver from 1962-63, a painting about the suicide of the poet Hart Crane. How does a suspended moment between life and death become so generative for you?
Liat Yossifor: I recently visited the Neues Museum in Berlin, and there was a medieval brick with the imprint of a right hand that dates back to the 13th century. It wasn’t “art”—it was just a building brick; someone needed to leave this trace behind. Johns's Diver feels that way to me, too, because his handprints center the composition, and everything else happens for us as viewers because we follow his hands, and we fall into the painting space with him. We essentially re-create the Diver painting with each viewing, so we bring it back to life. Similarly, for me, the lines, the cuts, and the dragging of paint with my fingers in my new work are actions that exist in this suspended moment between life and death that you describe. I think it’s because these gestures have more meaning if they are meant to be memorialized; otherwise, it's just action for action's sake. In this way, it’s really great to think of the Diver, a painting that is also based on a story of a poet lost at sea.
A medieval brick with the imprint of the right hand, 13th century, Neues Museum, Berlin
IG: I love the idea that the act of looking at the Diver is an act of bringing it back to life. What is the “it”? I ask because I feel the same way when looking at your paintings. I feel like I am falling into the painting space.
LY: “It” for me is that reason for making the painting; the reason is always in flux, and it may be poetic or political. The intention, ideally, is brought back to life when viewing the work.
IG: Your paintings often feel like excavation sites. Yet your process doesn’t end with an act of revelation; it continuously subsumes that which becomes evident. The fragments turn up and get turned back in. In these recent paintings there is a new and surprising added act of erasure, as though you use your fingers like a plow to conceal the site itself. What is the relationship between the site and the mark? Something besides the action comes to life.
LY: I think that land is a subject in these works. Plowing, as you say, was the last layers of paint, done with my fingers. I was moving across the entire surface like a machine on wet land. I don’t think that any land is worth even a single human life, and I have distanced myself from what is home for that reason, and yet I privately yearn for a site (if not home), so that’s also in the work.
By the way, your question reminds me of how much the vocabulary of painting is meant to dilute painting, like the words “surface” and “process.” I think we should replace those with the words “site” and “meaning,” like you are doing here.
IG: I agree. The language around painting is troublesome. Can you unpack the meaning of memorialization, since it both points to the act of remembering and to the act of commemorating? Incidentally, Johns’s Diver is a commemoration of the last act by Hart Crane, who dove to his death from a ship in 1932. Furthermore, the title of your show comes from a poem "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" by Adam Zagajewski. The first sentence asks us to “try” to praise the mutilated world, but by the end it is more of a command to do so. I see a similar clarification in your recent paintings. The starting point has shifted. Can you describe these new conditions?
Jasper Johns working on Diver, 1962 photo: Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
LY: I learned that Johns was focused on Crane for some time, a poet who died a sad death is as much the subject as Johns’s own body in the Diver, and this reference also reminds me of the surrealist hand in my favorite Fautrier print, Hand of the Artist (1962). It’s of a hand seemingly emerging from the ground up. Something is desperate about hands in art. It feels like the simplest form of a memorial, simply raising it becomes the shape of something that once was.
My choice to frame the work with "Try to Praise the Mutilated World" is about its renewed relevance due to the war in Ukraine (as well as Syria and Gaza). This show was not necessarily my practice in a continuum; I did not just make the next paintings. I responded to the war, much like Zagajewski’s demand for us to do so, as you pointed out.
Another aspect of this poem, my friend Seph Rodney pointed out to me, is how it deals with the idea of light. Zagajewski talks about “light that strays and vanishes and returns.” I was thinking about this line while looking at your work, because this is how light functions in painting. It’s always only the idea of light that is at play in painting, and as an idea, it is often about the remembrance of an image.
Directional light is a constant in your paintings, which are packed, so you use it as a highlight of what you want us to look at first. I have a clear image of a moving searchlight in a painting of yours I saw at the LACMA several years ago (A Stage Above Catacombs). I want to ask about the story behind this painting. Can you describe the background for making this work?
Iva Guerguieva, A Stage Above the Catacombs, 2009 acrylic and collage on canvas, 73 3/4 x 151 3/4 inches
IG: It’s the reality of war that “…vanishes and returns.” Beauty and loss are partners in a tango of the past with the present. The painting you mention was the last painting I made about my time of living and leaving New Orleans two months before Katrina. It was the second time in my life that I lost everything. The painting had three visual anchors right from the start, namely a very high horizon line that let the rest of the painting spill from it and beneath it, and the space in the foreground that resembles the bottom of a boat. The third space is the light bulb that is reminiscent of Guernica. There are multiple characters carrying fragments of themselves and others on a stretcher. One figure is ambiguously caught in the act of either climbing out or into the boat. It’s a brooding and fragmented world illuminated from different directions by competing light sources. Like the gestures in your paintings, the light both conceals and reveals, and it tests the viewer’s grasp, asking what is embodied, temporal, and spatial in the painting.
Our paintings are formally different, but we share a similar comportment. We seem to grip the same “gray feather” from Zagajewski’s poem. Is it a shared existential and political comportment?
LY: I think we share a political read of the world because we were not born American. We arrived here in the late 80’s, and it was a defining moment for both of us. This ultimately ends up in our work. Your work always felt foreign to the American lens, even when it relies on American or European abstraction, it’s not quite that comfortable. Sometimes I see compositional similarities in our work, even though our methods and forms are different.
IG: My parents came as refugees in 1990 with three kids and a few suitcases. My mother brought three cups for each of us kids, a desperate act of continuity and normalcy. Immigration is a casual word in our current political theatre that ignores its true brutality.
Years ago, you painted body-sized portraits that were referencing Israeli female soldiers. Focusing on a single person is very different from painting a scene or working in abstraction. I feel that you are still painting their faces. Is that too casual a thing to say?
Liat Yossifor, the gray feather a thrush lost, Vase/Face, 82 by 69 inches, oil on linen, 2022, Photography by Gerhard Haug, Courtesy of 68projects, Berlin
LY: It’s not casual to say there is a connection between those portraits and my work now. I think the portraits led me to abstraction, because they were already monochromatic and hard to see. It would have been easier to make them only a critique of the army, but I was not only looking at soldiering, I was also looking at gender. I was also talking myself in and out of my given national identity. Privately, I was painting from a place of a deep critique and also of self-preservation. It wasn’t clear to me – it was more like what identity is in real life, not a ready-made subject for art. I started making them in the early 2000s. I could not have done those portraits today, because I had to be in the middle of those identity negotiations to make those paintings.
Now, I find myself in Germany for a residency for six weeks, and once again I am tangled up with history and identity. Berlin is a city where you walk on a Stolperstein on your way to work. Stolpersteins are “stumbling stones” that commemorate the victims of the Nazi regime. They are laid into the pavement, the same size as cobblestones, and are placed in front of the former homes of individuals who were deported to their deaths.
All this ends up in the work, although this is not easy to extract from abstract forms, and now that I am working in abstraction, there has to be a close reading of the gestures, a kind of a breakdown of form to get to the content.
Liat Yossifor, Portraits (Nizan), 2005, 14 by 14 inches, oil on panel
IG: The dragging, cutting and slicing in your painting conceal any one direction or legible shape. Your gesture is unresolvable and self-perpetuating, a kind of pulse that feeds off its own reverberations. The space seems to collapse, coil, and heave. Earlier we discussed the mark and the site, but can you talk about your relationship to this particular gesture?
LY: The gesture being self-perpetuating is why I chose the poem, because it felt to me to be a poem about the world repeating its mistakes. Nothing is yet behind us, and painting is a prefect medium to say that. This pulsation you speak of is the natural way in which a body moves; I am not trying to expand beyond the picture space, but instead I try to keep the painting on this note of repeat.
Since our conversations tend to get to the personal and the autobiographical, I want to ask you about the relationship of art and storytelling. This need to connect a poem to a painting, to the personal and to someone’s else story (as we are doing here, too, with each other). It is tempting and natural to do, but sometimes I think maybe it should be placed in that private pile of thoughts in the studio, other times I think the point is to tell these stories. I know this Zagajewski poem was hugely important to my new body of work, but I also feel I may have tightened the air around the work too much because of it. You work with stories, poems, music, dancing, and yet, you are still primarily a painter. What do you think are the joys and flaws of these collaborations?
IG: Collaborations can be embarrassing and messy, and they can become literal. One can get caught in the collaboration itself. At the same time, it can be really liberating to move in and out of these spaces between people and stories.
Earlier you spoke about memorializing. I think memory making is this elusive collaging of reality. You move inside a thick layer of oil paint that you often scrape away and re-make the painting from scratch. It somehow has to be true in itself, and yet open to your physicality and musing. I cut and glue in many subsequent layers burying and tying together pieces. I need the stories, the bodies of others to anchor me to the real, to the embodied. When I stopped working on stretched paintings five years ago, I wanted only the skin of the painting. I wanted to stop seeing and to start feeling. I laid on the muslin and traced my own body. I wanted to see its outline and to witness the evidence of its boundary.
LY: I really understand what you mean by wanting to stop seeing, because as painters we are trained to see in an academic way; flow, palate, composition, scale. This messiness you describe, of needing others, is the un-stretching of your works. It’s like a symbolic gesture to let others literally touch it, and even step on it (such as your dancers are doing). I think if you stretch them again, the attitude remains, because once it’s internalized, it’s the same stretched or not, it already speaks to something more on the ground than on a wall. All your collaborations with poets and dancers, remind me of our conversations. Here we are in a more official dialogue, on paper, but our dialogue is part of making work, and it is on-going.
Iva Gueorguieva, Her Back in a White Room, 2019, acrylic and collage on muslin 120 x 84 inches inches
IG: I would like to ask you about poetry, especially since this is not the first time you have emphasized its role in your work. Your collaboration with Ed Schad during the pandemic was even more intertwined. A poet and a painter working together is an old story, consider Grace Hartigan and Frank O’Hara. Perhaps painting and poetry both resemble most closely the quality of illumination that Zagajewski talked about, “light that strays and vanishes and returns.”
LY: Several of Ed Schad’s poems read to me like an epic historical painting, but also like a humble still life, at the same time. They are filled with objects, arranged in a space that feels like a maquette, which is likely a response to my small works that are studies, so they also tend to pack space and events. I think that’s interesting, because to me, this scale in both poems and paintings speaks to this idea of small stages and theaters. It’s a “one man show,” and it’s playful, too, like a small rehearsal. His other poems inspire a palette for me, for example, I actually wrote color notes on some of his poems. I am reading poetry now regularly. I remember sending you a poem called America by Solmaz Sharif; it also relates to our conversations. I think it’s very natural to read poetry while painting, since the mind is already open, not seeking logic, and maybe that’s the connection: the inherent freedoms to say what we want to say in small formats.
Liat Yossifor (born 1974, Tel Aviv, Israel) has had solo exhibitions at the The Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, MO; The Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena, CA; The Pomona College Museum of Art, Claremont, CA; Galerie Anita Beckers, Frankfurt, Germany; Patron Gallery, Chicago, IL; and Fox Jensen Gallery, Sydney, Australia. Her work is included in public collections, including, Isabel and Agustin Coppel Collection (CIAC), Mexico City, Mexico; The Margulies Collection, Miami, FL; Minnesota Museum of American Art, St. Paul, MN; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); and The Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, CA. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Iva Gueorguieva (born 1974, Sofia, Bulgaria) has an upcoming solo show at Night Gallery in 2024. Creator of project "Interestion," a series of multi-disciplinary and multi-media installations and live performances in collaboration with dancers and musicians. Recent solo and group exhibitions include: Benton Museum of Art, Claremont, CA; UTA Artist Space, Los Angeles; LACMA, Los Angeles, CA; Bradwolff Projects, Amsterdam, NL; Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, Los Angeles, CA; ACME, Los Angeles, CA; Pomona Museum of Art, Claremont, CA. Select public museum collections include: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA; Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN; Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, CA; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, CA. She lives and works in Los Angeles. www.ivagueorguieva.com