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  • Interview by Rosie Osborne

Guy Yanai

Capturing the ordinary everyday, Yanai's paintings feel at once fleeting, yet etched in stone. Born 1977 in Haifa, Israel, Guy Yanai grew up in New York and currently lives and works in Tel Aviv. His paintings consider the overlooked: an unoccupied room, a lawn sprinkler, a common houseplant. His work teeters between real and fake, consequence and insignificance, permanence and transience, materiality and the immaterial. In our interview, we discuss his earliest memories, his artistic heroes and giving up on fighting against his talent.

Sea of Galilee, 2016, oil on linen, 70x64 cm

Tell us a little bit about where you grew up. What’s your earliest memory?

I have many, many, many beautiful memories. My childhood in Haifa was really magical – a different era. Very free, very open. A real neighbourhood. I remember a white Subaru; going to a monastery in Jericho, watching Superman with my brother and father. I remember my mother telling me that my grandfather had died … Failing at swimming; pizza for 10,000 shekels (the days of inflation), my mother bringing back a falafel in a brown bag from downtown. It was like magic.

Do you remember the moment when you realised that creating was something you absolutely had to do?

Yes, I do. Kind of always. The main problem was when I was fighting against it. At the age of 15, the decision to create was clear and conscious.

Do you remember a particular moment that you experienced seeing a work of art for the first time that will always stay with you?

Seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s bed at MoMA, aged 16. My friend and I took this ghetto bus from Boston, then walked to MoMA from Port Authority. At that age, Rauschenberg, John Cage and Cy Twombly were my biggest heroes.

Is it strange looking back at your previous paintings now, as if you’re re-reading a diary from the past?

Sometimes it perplexes me, sometimes I’m in awe. It’s a very strange relationship. I don’t hold on to older works of mine – they kind of scare me. In the studio, for the most part, I don’t keep any of my older works.

What are you currently fascinated by and how is it feeding into your work?

I’ve been fascinated by pretty much the same things for a while now: ancient mosaics, roman frescoes, early Renaissance painters … It’s the stillness that is really moving. In the same breath, that’s why Baroque paintings kind of gross me out.

Do you ever paint from dreams?

I’m tormented! I have nightmares all the time.

Which authors have had the biggest impact on your life and work?

Michel Houellebecq and David Foster Wallace. All of their work. I like to read.

Would you say that having children affected your artistic process?

Yes, absolutely. It made me want to impress them – to make them proud. Also, when you have less time, you tend to do more.

If you could add any piece of artwork from any time period to your collection, with no budget, which piece would you choose?

The Flagellation by Piero della Francesca in Urbino. It’s a small work on panel. And a big big Matisse cut-out. What could be better?

The full interview with Guy Yanai is in Free Spirits, available to purchase here:

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