Fan Mail

Fan Mail: Jwan Yosef

Thank you, Will! Today we celebrate A. Will Brown’s 50th and final Fan Mail column, and wish him farewell as he embarks upon new adventures in his job as the curatorial assistant of contemporary art at the RISD Museum of Art in Providence, Rhode Island! We’ll return in the fall with a new Fan Mail columnist, stay tuned for the announcement.

Look closely, what do you see? A blur, a suggestive motion, an image frozen in time—perhaps all of these are visible. Jwan Yosef’s paintings simultaneously contain movement, latent sexuality, tension, and flat, representational arrangements created by combining painterly techniques and unexpected material forms.

Jwan Yosef. Head, 2013; oil on Perspex; 31 ½ x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Jwan Yosef. Head, 2013; oil on Perspex; 31 ½ x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Jwan Yosef’s painting Head (2013) exemplifies the artist’s interest in portraying representationally simple motifs with potent double meanings. Head depicts a man’s head in profile, with gently closed eyelids and his lips protruding just out of the picture frame, and it has a subtle sexual quality (a topic Yosef acknowledges and embraces in his work). Is the man engaging in oral sex, fulfilling some act of pleasure just outside the edge of the painting? The figure—the head—is captured with the qualities of a film still, caught within a frozen and blurry moment, depicted in a reduced palette of colors that are rendered in a series of horizontal bands of paint seemingly pulled across a smooth surface—slick and evocative.

Jwan Yosef. Pairs, 2013; oil on Perspex; 7 ½ x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Jwan Yosef. Pairs, 2013; oil on Perspex; 7 ½ x 10 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Like a washed-out image from a fading television screen, Pairs (2013) is also sexually suggestive while maintaining a nuanced softness. In the painting, two nude men stand next to one another against a green-and-blue background as each holds an unfolded centerfold that depicts two women baring it all in a Playboy or Penthouse-type magazine. Perhaps the men’s devious smiles are real, painted from life, or perhaps they are merely imaginary and contextually implied. Either way, the nearly illegible faces and strong outlines of the two figures hold an aura of mischief. Yosef’s brushwork here, in soft but commanding horizontal lines, reads less like a film still and more like the static of an early color television caught between channels, or one that has been redacted or blocked from non-subscribing viewers. Painted on Perspex, Pairs was inspired by Yosef’s early work in film and video. The slickness of the surface further enhances the connection to the screens.

Jwan Yosef. Confirmation, 2013; oil on Perspex; 25 ½ x 31 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Jwan Yosef. Confirmation, 2013; oil on Perspex; 25 ½ x 31 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

At times, Yosef’s work verges on the purely abstract. In Confirmation (2014), the artist applies one color, a burnt Sienna, with similar horizontal brushstrokes in a variety of values. Two faces, or perhaps two halves of one face stretched apart, frame the edges of the painting as a figure stands in the center, depicted from the knees up. The singular color and the stretched brushstrokes have just enough white between the horizontal lines to challenge the eye to find a single, comfortable resting place. The painting looks like an image forced through some kind of flattening or washing-out process; the figures appear lost somewhere between places, neither here nor fully there.

Jwan Yosef. Object, 2014; oil on canvas; 49 x 39 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Jwan Yosef. Object, 2014; oil on canvas; 49 x 39 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In another series, the artist says each painting has “a dual meaning that translates as both an object and as something that objects.” In this series Yosef paints a representational image over thick layers of white paint, and then he bends, pulls, and manipulates the canvas into a sculptural form that seems carved from stone or made of a thick sheet of metal. With these Object works, Yosef is interested in the ambivalence between objection and objects as it relates to his family history as the child of an Armenian Christian mother and Kurdish Muslim father, two groups that have been at odds, at times violently, throughout history. Object (2014) is a purely abstract canvas painted a rich and flat white and folded in on itself, nearly dragged down the stretcher bars, and left as a monument to ambivalence. Aside from its elegant form and stark whiteness, what is intriguing about Object is the notion that there could be an image underneath the obscured folds of the canvas, erased by contortion.

Jwan Yosef. Ahmad, 2014; oil on canvas; 27 ½ x 21 ½ inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Jwan Yosef. Ahmad, 2014; oil on canvas; 27 ½ x 21 ½ in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Ahmad (2014) takes Yosef’s interventionist and ambivalent strategy a step further, as he folds a portrait of his father into a three-dimensional object—a painted structural form that seems to be in the process of being crumpled. The artist’s father’s eyes, one hooded by the bent canvas, stare out with a smile and a welcoming expression.

These object canvases and Yosef’s earlier paintings ask us to consider what a painting can be, what it can embody, and how a set of simple motifs rendered in black-and-white can delve so deeply into the very nature of art making and cultural makeup—what does it mean to be an object of objection, or to object to an object based on its state of simply being real? Jwan Yosef’s paintings and sculptures are complex creations that challenge perception and the very act of representation.

Jwan Yosef was born in Syria, grew up in Sweden, and currently lives and works in London. He received his BFA from Konstfack in Stockholm and his MFA from Central Saint Martins in London. His work has been shown extensively in London and Stockholm, and internationally in group and solo exhibitions including Dallas, Madrid, New York, Vienna, Brussels, and Prague. In 2013 he received the Beers Contemporary Award for Emerging Art in Painting, and the Threadneedle Prize.


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