Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Untitled, Acrylic on Canvas, 2002, Private Collection, Washington DC Posted by Picasa

An Elemental Gesture

Novelist Chris Gardner writes about his reaction to Assefa's work:

If the act of seeing is eternal, the instant in which we think about seeing is not. Assefa’s work to me seems to inhabit that space--between our seeing and our thinking. His paintings and assemblages are almost monumental and elemental, as talismanic gestures, yet composed of sometimes tiny strokes, the equivalent of whispering with a brush upon canvas. I was immediately intrigued by the interplay between the richly painted surfaces and the fragile human and animal forms which float like smoke-ghosts and emerge almost as pareidolic image. To see anew the horse, the prototypical symbol of virility and speed, an enduring motif in human history, subsumed into the flatness and geometry of his cutouts was a startling experience.

Assefa's treatment of living forms, especially people, is so abstracted as to imply an almost unconscious iconoclasm against their depiction. There is the grace of his forms, care in each calligraphic stroke. His work inhabits many genres at once yet achieves a synthesis without becoming overly idiomatic. There’s always something to startle, especially when one examines his paintings at the tiniest levels. Sometimes I think he’s reinvented decorative painting, and at other times believe he’s reclaimed the most primal form of artistic gesture. In either case, they are quite resistant to a final word. There’s the playfulness and multidimensional space of Chagall, and a spiritual expression akin to the living corpses of El Greco. To me, to name influences would be to miss the invention, as well as to do violence to a singular vision.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Untitled, Acrylic on Canvas, 2003, Private Collection, Washington DC Posted by Hello

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Still Life 1, Oil on Canvas, 2004, Private Collection, Washington DC. Posted by Hello

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Un Art hors-les-normes: Painting, Collage and Assemblage by Assefa Yeshiwork at The Salve Regina Gallery

The process of engaging with Assefa’s work seems inevitably to require an engagement with the concept of “Outsider Art.” Originally coined as an English synonym for Jean Dubuffet’s conception of “Art Brut," Outsider Art refers to the spontaneous product of the imaginations of isolated and marginalized individuals. For Dubuffet, such art was, in its purest form, produced by individuals with limited or no formal artistic education who thus create from an inner compulsion or obsession, frequently utilizing mundane objects to create a highly personal visual vocabulary. By this narrow measure, Assefa’s works would perhaps not qualify. As the outlines of his biography show (outlines are all we know of Assefa’s life), Assefa, the son of an artist, received training in painting at the University of Addis Ababa after which he attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In his works, one can see possible influences from European and American visual art (the elongated forms of Giacometti, the sculptural impasto of Rembrandt, the emerging and receding colored planes of Hoffman, the late paper cut-outs of Matisse, the dream-state imaginings of Remedios Varos) and the likelihood of non-European influences of which we are entirely ignorant is strong.

But just as Dubuffet eventually had to reconcile himself to the fact that even the most autodidactic artists could hardly avoid some extrinsic influences, so, too, the concept of Outsider Art has come to embrace more than the works of pure naifs. Indeed, when the fascination with matters of biography that so often attend discussions of Outsider Art are placed to one side, what remains are the characteristics of the works themselves: a singularity of vision and a highly personalized visual vocabulary, both of which are not readily accessible to the viewer. It is these qualities of the works themselves that are the most important distinguishing features of Outsider Art. And by these criteria, Assefa’s paintings certainly do qualify. Regardless of his medium, Assefa has developed a series of marks and symbols that appear in most of his works. These symbols include—but are not limited to—the following: text, (written in a phonetic English, frequently taking the form of what appears to be automatic--or at the very least confessional--writing), a long vertical rectangle (sometimes drawn, sometimes constructed), sliced into tiny horizontal rectangles like a strip of notebook paper, and heavy, angular, fractured outlines--frequently executed in a mixture of Espresso and charcoal. In the process of generating a unique visual vocabulary, Assefa seems to have abandoned, (if he ever had them) more traditional concerns for proportion and spatial progression. There is space in his paintings, but it is not created through either mathematical or atmospheric perspective. He is also entirely unfettered by any concern for the life of his work. He paints on just about anything. Frequently he pastes pages from his scrapbooks onto the canvas or board or door or 2 x 4, before painting. He also seems to collect the kind of things that one might find on the sidewalk--pieces of pez dispensers, the guts of transistor radios, old calculators and circuit boards--and incorporates them into his works.

Assefa’s paintings place one in an interior landscape that is as arresting as it is difficult to penetrate. The strangeness of the topography comes--at least partially--from the way that Assefa uses mundane subjects in surprising ways, suffusing them all with an air of yearning and loss. Looking at these paintings is disorienting--like being dropped into a parallel universe, where everything is simultaneously alien and familiar, and where Assefa has the only map. Spectral women wander in and out of a green-gray mist, or sit thoughtfully, chin in hand. Horses spring into nothing, legs outstretched, a jubilant rider barely keeping his seat. A still-life is simultaneously there and not--the fruit dematerialize to briefly become flat color hanging on the air, before reconfiguring into apples and oranges on a table top. In another work, a seated woman dressed in white fills the picture plane. She is stooped, leaning heavily on her chair. her eyes are sunken, lost in her skull, which has itself been stretched into the shape of an inverted, double-yolked egg. She raises one gray hand in a gesture that is half beckoning, half resignation.

A walk through the works that were selected for this exhibition from his immense oeuvre shows that although Assefa may not be an Outsider Artist in the narrowest sense, his work is most certainly hors-les-normes (outside of the norms).

This blog will serve as an online catalogue and forum for the discussion of Assefa’s work. Please return often for image updates and posts by guest bloggers on Assefa and his work.

--Phoebe Esmon
Salve Regina Gallery

© 2005

Mark the date--June 23, 2005

Untitled, 1999, Acrylic on Canvas Posted by Hello
Assefa Yeshiwork: Selected Paintings, 1998 - 2005
June 23 - August 11, 2005
The Salve Regina Gallery
620 Michigan Ave NE.
Washington, DC
Please Join us for an opening reception
Thursday, June 23, 2005 from 6-9 pm
Take Metro's Redline to Brookland/CUA
campus map located here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

All Contents © 2005