at The BAG, Los Angeles (through 19 February)
Reviewed by Eve Wood
Yehonatan Koenig’s luminous ink drawings are studies in both absence and presence, suspension and saturation, death and rebirth. The patterns he creates in his drawings repudiate any obvious associations one might have when considering the act of mark-making and, indeed, the process by which he creates these works is in-and-of-itself an act of both defiance and meditation. One might attempt to configure a story from these images, or at the very least, contrive some kind of skeletal narrative. However, the beauty of Koenig’s process insists upon a commitment to the unknown, and the ability, on the part of the viewer, to completely surrender to the idea, famously penned by Gertrude Stein, that “there is no there there.”
Koenig might be called a modern-day alchemist, and while he is not specifically attempting to uncover the Stone of Knowledge or discover the transmutation of metals or panaceas able to cure disease, these drawings represent visual testaments to the sheer and uncompromising power of the imagination, as well as an alchemic spirit. By “spirit” I do not mean a religious ideation, but more an exploration into how and why we exist at all. That’s what these drawings do best: they require us to be both present with them and with ourselves. They mediate the distance between the space of our bodies and our minds, wherein larger and more far-reaching philosophical queries begin to take shape.
Many of the images in this exhibition appear to derive from the natural world, as in Asymmetrical Arabesque, which resembles a spiral jetty, of sorts, albeit exploding out of a more constrained network of lines and patterns. This drawing in particular expresses tension through movement, wherein the drawing is at once static yet enigmatically alive, like a winsome alien creature come down from the skies in search of likeminded beings. The patterning here, as in other drawings, resists literal translation. Do these shapes constitute an arcane iconography? They resemble sacred texts, yet one has the sense that this is the language of the stars, the greater cosmos, rather than any specific or verifiable semantics.
In keeping with the art of alchemy, Koenig’s drawings operate more like transmutations of thoughts into action, or dreams into living, breathing organisms with consciousness, with their own discerning sentience, rather than static objects on the wall. Works like the strangely enigmatic Heichalot specifically embody this kind of transmogrify, wherein the inside of a sunlit corridor transforms into a kind of sacred geometry where the singular white patches appear as portals to the unknown.
Koenig is fascinated with presence and absence, and this work explores both these impulses equally. The piece is a diptych, and on one side the light is more dramatic and theatrical, whereas on the other side the shadows begin to recede. The mark-making here becomes a consecrated repetition, as though the patterns create more of an absence than a presence. The fact this is an interior space suggests a human presence, yet the emptiness of the surrounding architecture aligns more with privation and tranquility. Interestingly, the obvious lack of human presence becomes a point of exploration. It is as though Koenig is mining his own heart and soul toward a deeper, more complicated perception of himself; or as Kierkegard once put it: “It is the duty of the human understanding to understand that there are things which it cannot understand.” This might sound like a true conundrum, especially given the propensity inherent in our human nature to avoid that which is painful and difficult, but Koenig makes a case for difficulty here, and by “difficulty” I am not referring to a facile understanding of how things appear on the surface but a more comprehensive and necessary wresting with existential questions regarding our place in the world, and what lies beyond it.
But don’t be fooled, Koenig’s drawings are also incredibly seductive. They are reminiscent of the meticulous drawings of Vija Celmins, whose impeccable images of natural phenomenon — including the ocean, spider webs and desert landscapes — capture the essence of these natural occurrences, consciously abstracting them until they appear more as repeating patterns rather than something we might recognize as part of the natural world. Like Celmins, Koenig is not seeking to represent a familiar trope we might find comforting. Rather, he is attempting to break apart our staid notions of self and steer us more toward a self existent in everything, whether it be, as the Buddhist teachings remind us, a chair, or the inside of a building, or the intricate patterns of a leaf. Koenig’s work alludes to the connection of it all, even through dispersal or outright chaos. If nothing else, these intimate drawings suggest a desire to expand our human awareness to include the ephemeral world of things unseen, or to represent the divine as a biomorphic equation that is boundless. We are also part and parcel of that consummate equation, if only we could immerse ourselves completely and without judgement into the living world.
A closing reception for Ink on Paper will be on February 17 at The BAG, with jazz pianist Jeff Krasno and spoken-word songstress Rachel Reid Wilkie in live performance.
Private viewings by appointment.
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Featured Image: Yehonatan Koenig’s Winter Solstice. 2022
Eve Wood is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Wood’s poetry and art criticism have appeared in many magazines and journals including Artillery, Whitehot, Art & Cake, The New Republic, The Denver Quarterly, Triquarterly, Flash Art, Angelino Magazine, New York Arts, The Atlantic Monthly, Artnet.com, Artillery, Tema Celeste, Art Papers, ArtUS, Art Review, and LatinArt.com. She is the author of five books of poetry. Also an artist, her work has been exhibited at Susanne Vielmetter and Western Project and Tiger Strikes Asteroid in New York. Wood is currently represented by Track 16 Gallery in Los Angeles.
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