Leonid Lerner “Michael Yakhilevich. Paintings”

Article for the book “Michael Yakhilevich. Paintings”,
Дух i лiтера, Kiev – Jerusalem, 2015


Michael Yakhilevich is an artist riddled with doubt, exploring the boundaries of style. This “frontier” position allows him to change the manner of his painting continuously with respect to the constant harmony of taste and form. For this reason the evolution of Yakhilevich is logical, although it does have some turns and dead ends. It fits in the “positivism” canon where there are inheritance, alterability, and, what is essential for an artist’s path, – sequence of style-forming influences. The history of these influences is significant in the art of Michael Yakhilevich.

Through his grandfather, Meir Akselrod, Yakhilevich became familiar with pure reflections of modernism. It is absolutely natural for him to love, sense and comprehend Falk, Labas and Tyshler. There is school and tradition behind these artists; it’s a pleasure to learn from them; there’s a great desire to imitate them. Not only did Akselrod rouse the artist in his grandson, but he also refused to let him dissolve into classical modernism, teaching him to respect himself and to honour boundaries of individual art.

Modernism, the first and strongest influence, is defining for Yakhilevich; it is the basis of his artistic system. Akselrod’s impulse and Michael’s inborn abilities led to him being labelled a  wunderkind, way back in sixties. As a boy he found recognition and fame, driving him forward, getting rave reviews in the process.

Homeschooling finished when his grandfather passed away. Yakhilevich could have just dissolved into the soviet art-system; but he was lucky again: Alik Melamid (then graduate of Stroganovka and soon to be creator of Soc-Art), happened to be Yakhilevich’s tutor in the school of painting he was attending at the time. Back then Melamid and his friend Vitaliy Komar were experimenting with a new style, which was set to become one of the variations of soviet postmodernism in a few years. Yakhilevich says that Melamid taught him to think about “the conceptual core of his work and the psychology of creation”. One can say this was the second powerful influence.

The question was which direction would he go after graduating from the school of painting? With his grandfather, Tyshler, Falk, impressionists, and conceptualism allusions… Or just painting landscapes in Tarusa? Yakhilevich was at a crossroads; but he got lucky with the teacher again. In Evgeniy Dodonov’s studio he learned two very important principles: restraint of composition, and strictness of details selection.

If he was a bit older, Yakhilevich could be one of the leading characters among either the sixties or the seventies generation; but he couldn’t, and probably didn’t want to, get to the point of conceptual artistic collisions. Something inside held him back and so he temporarily avoided the fame which was to come.

Direct quoting of “forgotten” and “forbidden” modernists had been accepted with great enthusiasm among the sixtiers as some kind of breakthrough; however for Yakhilevich it would have been just another interpretation.  Success in certain circles, the exciting atmosphere of the underground on the one hand, repetition of something he had done in the past – on the other. One can become the successor of the style; but there is no desire to become an imitator.

Yakhilevich was somewhere between postmodernism, soc.art, Melamid…

But he started working in provincial theatre. He experimented with the same boundaries of art, with volume and with motion, composing things which couldn’t be composed. Theatre was another great influence: Yakhilevich explored the space and learned the language of installation.

In theatre Yakhilevich could give up being an artist or, on the contrary, – succeed, find his central focus, his own way, and experiment enjoying his freedom and relevancy. By a twist of fate Yakhilevich became the art director of Nikitski Gates Theatre. He got his status, he had wonderful opportunities to become famous, but suddenly he discovered Judaism. However, despite this, Yakhilevich didn’t give up art; his “intelligentsia” nature doesn’t let him to be radical in any sense, to deny one thing for another.

He joined the community “Makhanaim”, learned Torah, and kept inventing new art, according to his state of mind.

At first Yakhilevich constructed this new art within familiar frames, interfusing modernistic forms and soc.art. Not exactly socart, some kind of it’s projection, where peresmeshnik conceptualism meets  stark social-critical landscapes in the manner of Mikhail Roginsky, for example.

Yakhilevich still painted landscapes, however they were “genre” pieces.

The result of this synthesis was not appreciated by a new audience (in 1991 Yakhilevich repatriated, but found himself in the same “intelligentsia” circle), nor by the artist himself. It is very hard for Yakhilevich to separate life, ideas, and art. He felt the environment deeply he became associate of the Holiday, but street joy, spicery and carnival tradition very often lead artists to kitschiness. That period in Yakhilevich’s art life was doomed.

Israel is the latest influence on Yakhilevich. His art is very Israeli. Some of his works are hard to comprehend if you are not Israeli. You should see the wall and recognize it’s necessity or quite the opposite – it’s unnaturalness; you should hear the howling sound of sirens (at least training) and understand that there are “personal” and “public” bombshelters, that the desert is alive and the sea is always different. There are many colours and passions in the Middle East, it’s very easy to get into a muddle of metaphors and lose yourself, fall into monstrous eclecticism, trying to transmit eastern dissonance into the painting. It is a glutted, overheated world: the sea and the desert, fears and hopes, faith and disappointment. Local, Israeli art demands simplicity and clarity of forms, plots and plasticity.

Yakhilevich doesn’t build polysemic fake-constructions, he doesn’t play with his audience, forcing them to join in and riddle. He is sense-oriented and avoids banalities. Therefore his landscapes are minimalistic, made of elementary “shapes”; they project general emotions.

All of his narratives have something to do with reality: they reflect it and paraphrase it. Painting doesn’t put off the narrative and the narrative helps the painting to refine; light and colour demonstrate the verve and the wholeness. There is only the very essence of the landscape left; only if the realities of life demand it, then there are characters – equally faceless and recognizable. Every detail turns into a symbol; pure mood becomes apparent.

Surprisingly Yakhilevich is still trying to conjoin modernism and postmodernism. He explored, mastered and made them both suit his requirements. They both have already lost their classic lines, twined together into some kind of special lyrical minimalism, where they are still trying to argue about superiority, influence, and prospects. The result is a heady mixture of conflicting styles; but, for me, the vital spark in his work shows that modernism is winning the struggle.