Jwan Yosef in conversation with Alice Zucca

Jwan Yosef is interviewed by Editor in Chief Alice Zucca

Jwan Yosef’s roots are firmly anchored to a polychrome and profound combination. Born of a Kurdish-Muslim father and Armenian-Christian mother, Yosef shapes his cultural heritage in a background characterized, since the very beginning, by an element of duality that promotes and enhances the intriguing foundations from which his transcendent artistic research develops. If Yosef’s heterogeneous religious experiences can shed some light on his conscious and deeply rooted sense of spirituality, the collection of geographical coordinates that he gathered during his life path can help us understand how his artistic themes evolved. A native of Syria, he grows up in Stockholm. “I never really lived in Syria. Growing up in Sweden I was considered Syrian; once I went back in Syria, there, I was considered Swedish”. Thus he develops an attitude of double that leads him to start a research based largely on the investigation of the intermediate states of duality. Construction and deconstruction, identity, the sense of alienation, the human need for belonging and the processes that man goes through to get there. A research that also focuses on the material itself and the object “Art work” as such as an object. 

Jwan Yosef, Portrait for XIBT © Photo: Nivin Yosef / Editing: Nicolas Wagner

Jwan Yosef has worked from Stockholm, London and now Los Angeles. Represented by Praz-Delavallade, LA/Paris and Stene Projects, Stockholm. Founding member of The Bomb Factory Art Foundation, London, UK. Having graduated his BFA from Konstfack (Stockholm) in 2009, he undertook his MFA at Central Saint Martins (London) in 2011. Recent solo/group shows include The church of the Artists, Rome (2019), Stene Projects, Stockholm (2018), Guerrero Projects, Houston (2018), Praz-Delavallade, Los Angeles (2018), The Goss-Michael foundation, Dallas (2018), De Markten, Brussels (2015), Divus Gallery, London (2013), UMELEC, Prague/Vienna (2013), Beers Contemporary, London (2013), Galleri Anna Thulin, Stockholm (2013) and Kulturhuset, Stockholm (2012). Yosef has contributed with both works and text to magazines such as Crush Fanzine, UMELEC and DSECTION. He has participated and been awarded the Beers contemporary award for emerging art (2013) and The Threadneedle Prize (2013). Yosef is part of the Public Art Collections of Karolinska (Solna, Sweden) and Stockholms Kulturforvaltning (Stockholm, Sweden).

AZ:  In the process of deconstruction and construction which is present in your practice it seems to me that, even in the act of the destructive abstraction, the final aim is always to achieve a form, which is often human since faces are what seems to catch your attention when and if you represent something. After all everything that’s physically present in this world has form, we know how a painting, a sculpture or a face are made and also their appearance is something we can recognize. 
The fact of believing we can recognize a shape is of consolation, we embrace the feeling of safety that comes from thinking that we are faced with something we can identify, that belongs to our heritage, something that we feel we can relate to, even though we might not understand it fully because, as the myths behind the shared sentiments of every culture teach us, although often hard to accept, everything is in constant change. 
In this meta-sculpture of the concept of representation all the elements are visible, there’s the canvas, there’s the structure supporting it, even the screws are in view anchoring it to a wall that’s also visible. There’s no falsehood, the process that gives birth to the artwork is exposed, as if it was seen through frames in a timeline where we can choose where to stop, dwell and then continue. What’s behind the illusion that’s so dear to a vast part of the art history of the past here is also put on display, it’s a realism that, although abstract, goes beyond representation, representing it in itself. We are, in our estrangement, forced to recognize the artwork as an element, as the form. 
And this is the key of this deconstructive dualism, which at the same time shows itself to us for what its nature is, for what was then, what is now and what could be in its potential. Almost with a cinematographic quality a story which is ongoing is shown in its transformative process. The materials which create the structure, the faces which are forced to change by nature itself, lifes in the making. Hints that are recognizable but when decontextualized through deconstruction, in their new context they open new perspectives and new insights about the concept of art, the idea of representation, and man, both as a single individual and as a part of the whole. 
Can you talk about this process of deconstruction and the relationship with the materials and the element of duality starting from your personal experience? 

JY:  I always consider a painting a point of a moving image, as in film. I strive to a form of panning or movement even though what is on view is a still or  stagnate piece; I still look at it as a movie still, something in constant motion. When you mention cinematographic quality I fully agree and feel an immediate satisfaction in your observation! Form and shape is essentially what I work with, where a flat painting transitions into a sculptural object. It’s making works and objects you can read from start to beginning and sometimes in a circular timeline almost. The beginning and the end, the construction and deconstruction are on view at all times. Hence the visibility and the ‘reveal’ of the wall and screws that hold up the painting; what is meant to be hidden is seen and equally important as the presented piece. What would be considered ‘destroying’ and crumbling a painting in this case becomes a work in full bloom, in this particular series the portraits are unfinished until they are sacrificed. It becomes a play of complexes, where I rather than making portraits I portray my own relationship to the actual material and mediums I work with. My own dual relation to oil on canvas painting and the result of that, it’s a little bit like killing your darlings in the end.

In the canvas works I destroy the material because I consider it holy and traditonal art material, whilst when I work on plexi glass, which is an industrial plastic material, the result is almost the opposite of that. Rather than breaking the material I try to mend it by painting a trompe-l’œil form of masking tape. Where the painted ‘object’ is appearing to tape the two separate plexi pieces, but being oil paint it only gives the illusion of functionality, it becomes completely useless in its apparent purpose.

All this is based on my own experience of duality in my background and upbringing. Where religious, sexual and the many roles I occupy as a person become the foundation to this constant portrayal of duality and complexes, both positive and negative; where destruction and mending becomes one. Where my own search for approval or belonging becomes adamant in my work. As much as the material itself plays a focal part in my narrative it is also a way of expressing my own personal history and complexity in how one relates to ones heritage. Being of Muslim and Christian descent, also of two in modern history, opposing cultural backgrounds (Kurdish/Armenian). Then being brought up in Sweden it nearly becomes a form of inception in alienation, as much as it is isolating it is also an almost liberating state, being without a state.

AZ:  Earlier I mentioned the concepts of appearance and perception, in a nutshell, your de-representations, both when they are figurative or when they’re not, always suggest the kind of story that is coming out of the canvas or that’s going in if we consider the engagement of the observer.
An expedient which is achieved thanks to reducing the elements involved in the totality of the components of the artwork and that paves the way to thousands of interpretative possibilities. Once again the element of duality is present – this time by subtraction – and it’s characteristic of your production, even more so considering the monochrome pieces in this series, since you show both everything and the bare minimum at the same time. All the elements are always visible, they remind us of what we are looking at, the object, but the canvas – the setting of the “dream” – is white, the image has disappeared.
Talking about the image and its nature, Blanchot said that “when there is nothing, the image finds in this nothing its necessary condition, but there it disappears”.
The positive quality of the image reveals itself oxymoronically in the fact that it is a limit in itself, compared to the indefinite, and as such it’s not a limit to ourselves, it doesn’t isolate us but it’s able to protect us from the pressure we have when choosing what to see.
The image can be used as a tool to support an ideology, a way of being or something to believe in. The image is what affects our existence, it helps us to make choices and we feel like we can control the absence which has become, for a moment, an “interval”, since the true essence of the image is to always represent something intangible, our feelings, a dictatorship, God. Their nonexistent materiality is frozen in a moment that is always in the past and, paradoxically, we can be in touch with it through the medium which the image is made of, could be visual or tactile, a painting or a photography.
The image therefore fulfills one of its functions which is to humanize the shapeless nothing, making it pleasantly available and allowing us to believe, as in the dept of a happy dream, that is apart from reality and that we find immediately behind us, as pure happiness and superb satisfaction, the eternal transparency of the unreal.
The image, according to the common analysis, comes after the object, it’s its continuation. We see, then we imagine. So, in the creative process, the potential image should come after the canvas. It’s only thanks to its support, the framed painting, that we can identify it for what it is even in its absence. So, in the end, the image comes always after the object.
But “After” also means that the object needs to distance itself in order to for it to be “captured”, let’s think about the act of taking a photo, or the act of thinking and remembering, it’s something comparable to the “distancing” from the canvas to which the image is subjected in your work. Therefore, in the nothingness, the idea of seeing something that finally belongs to us is generated, but in the act itself of becoming an image, it already turns into something else distant from us. It instantaneously changes into a moment in time that is experienced. As the elusive, the unrealizable, the unperturbed, the image becomes detached from its separated concept, it becomes itself the separation. Consequently, the image is always nothing more than the presence of an absence.
What does this absence represent for you? And what about the image?

JY:  It is funny when I sit down to think of the work I do and its relation to god, in many beliefs it is thought that no artist can take claim to their own work as they are merely a vessel or a tool for the constant light (art) that is flowing around us. My ego still struggles with that idea; it is frankly a constant battle even though I would like to think that idea being true I’m still eager to look at my work as something solely mine.

I find calm in an image that kind of whispers its message to you rather than screaming it in your face. The purpose on painting white canvases white, is again to play with my own relation and frankly fear of a ‘blank canvas complex’, as in that moment right before you start painting a painting, I completely fear that moment; such as ‘Am I ready for what’s coming?

Once I was flying in to New York and at the border control an agent was questioning me about my work and asked if I could show him images of my paintings; I pulled out my phone swiped to my white painted Object series and showed it to him. He looked at it and simply said ‘but there’s nothing…’ I laughed and frankly agreed. There was a white painted canvas being stripped off its stretcher frame, and his point of view was a legit one, there was really nothing to look at for him. I really enjoyed that moment and it keeps coming back to me every time I work on that series.

Technically my Object series goes from a painted image to a 3-dimensional object, sculpture if you want; it is almost a reversed process from your description of ‘first comes object/then image’. Again looking at the process as something maybe more circular than linear, no end or beginning really.

AZ:  The subtractive process of abstraction continues also in the development of the installation.
The materials and the perceptive quality reaffirm here their importance, after all it’s the material that creates the link between the potential idea and the existent, enabling us to interact with the space. The adhesive tape and the dialogue you establish between the different consistency of the materials you choose also recalls the concept of duplicity and perception. A material can refer to another one, the masking tape in tension is like wood, the duct tape is like steel, like beams of an architectural structure, but they’re so fragile to the touch that, their breakage – like a veil of Maya – has almost the power of driving us to negate or confirm our beliefs. It’s an ongoing process, through which one finds oneself in an epiphanic space, made once again of recognizable references (the cross, the geometry), intuitions and complexity but that also suggests an introspective solemnity to which the observer is magnetically attracted to once he finds himself in front of it, perceiving its vibrations and harmonies. 
Can you talk about these installations? 

JY:  The tape installation, Tensegrity, is really my take on art materials in its more direct form. There’s no painted version of the material but the practical object itself being used. It was a kind of a giant leap for me to branch out to installation work; instead of an extension of my painting it rather became a focal element in my practice. In my own head a total mind blowing experience. The simplicity of a tense and stretched tape piece attaching the wall with the floor, two separate entities, with both endings made as crosses (religious if you want and practical if you may), is for me in its minimal form a perfect element of harmony. Its vulnerable materiality where it can be pulled off in a whim makes the work even stronger for me. Where one single tape piece can look like a delicate fragile cross whilst an installation with 20 crosses in a row would look like a violent crusade. The use of silver tape representing construction, abduction or a tied up sexual act whilst the fragility of masking tape immediately refers to my daily use of art materials and simple functionality.

In the end the tape pieces and the painting completely imitate each other, where the use of color transcends from the painting to the tape and vice versa. My studio becomes this unified room in color and scheme. I always come back to a very muted color palette, my studio is the opposite of a messy colorful space and instead it is neatly white and under toned in appearance, much like the work itself; quite in appearance yet loud in its message, message of the in-between state of duality.

For instance my latest series ‘Trade in For Gold’ is literally a play of dualism where canvases are spray painted with acrylic gold paint and then written on with headlines and wordings I would find above pawnshops on Bethnal Green road back home in London, where I used to live. Looking at the value of real gold compared to the value of the art piece itself, where one eventually literally is trading in the work for gold (money). Also playing with my own heritages relationship to gold, where traditionally gold is still a proper currency somehow, it becomes almost a caricature of myself as an Arab. When as immigrants coming to Sweden in the 80s the one valuable commodity we would have as a family would literally be pieces of jewelry and gold. There is a grand satisfaction for me in completing that circle with paintings in GOLD, like almost tickling ones expected ability as an ethnicity.

In the end it becomes a very subtle play in duality, where I’m attempting to portray a state of no states or all states for that matter; almost a nothingness that for some spectators becomes invisible, for others a loud and violent act and for some a moment of harmony.

All images © Jwan Yosef, Courtesy Praz-Delavallade, Gross Michael and the Artist