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Painter Alexander Yulish ’97 is making his mark on both the New York and Los Angeles art scenes.
By Doug Daniels
n the age-old debate between nature versus nurture, Alexander Yulish ’97 represents both sides. Artistic talent is in his DNA. His mother, Barbara Pearlman, is a well-known New York painter and sculptor, who invited her son into the studio at a young age. But he also grew up in Manhattan, directly next door to the famous creative incubator the Chelsea Hotel—a fabled establishment in which the ghosts of legendary artists, musicians and literary figures long roamed the halls alongside their modern heirs.
That early exposure to the sensibilities of the art world, combined with a richly seasoned path that also includes a role in director David Lynch’s Inland Empire, is reflected in Yulish’s deeply personal, large-scale abstract paintings.
CC Magazine spoke to Yulish about his work, his childhood and his pivotal experience as a member of Conn’s crew team.
Doug Daniels: You divide your time between New York and L.A. How do you think living in two vastly different cities impacts your work?
Alexander Yulish: I feel very fortunate to be able to live in both places, because they’re both such intensely emotional cities. New York feels so alive; it’s almost hyperkinetic with this whole network of veins moving underneath it as you walk down the sidewalk. And if you’re aware, you can really pick up on the energy of the city, the people and the sounds. I think that has to make its way into my work, because everything you experience subconsciously goes into your work. Los Angeles is just as aggressive as New York in many ways, but it’s so beautiful it’s easy to be lulled into complacency, so I almost feel like I have to work harder there.
DD: What’s your process like? Do you prefer to work at night? During the day? Do you work on a painting for a bit and then come back to it?
AY: I like starting early and working into the late afternoon. I lose my focus by around 4 p.m, so I try to get a solid six hours in the studio. There’s a misconception, I think, that artists operate at a leisurely pace, and wake up, enjoy their coffee and relax. But for me, there’s almost an obsessive quality, and I can’t wait to get into that studio. I’m constantly thinking about my work, and by the end of the afternoon, I’m completely emotionally exhausted and I need to detach.
DD: What’s your entry point for a new painting? Are you inspired by current events, or something you’ve seen on the street, or is it more about examining your personal life?
AY: For me, I think it’s personal. It has to do with what’s going on in my mind and my emotions. But there’s no question that everything I witness or might hear on the news, or even a piece of music I listen to, will create an emotional dialogue that I might not be aware of. But when I go into the studio it suddenly comes out in my work. The key is to paint on an even keel. I don’t want to go into the studio with a preconceived emotion. If I’m angry or overly happy that will cloud the real emotions at my core. But once I start painting that’s when the fight begins. One minute I’m elated because the painting is going at a great pace, and then literally one stroke later I’ll feel like I’m about to lose it. I want to climb onto the roller coaster with an even keel, then take it for a ride, with no holds barred. That’s how you find authenticity.
DD: What’s your approach to colors? How do you contextualize them? Is there any strategy behind them?
AY: It may sound strange, but I think of myself as a vessel. I love when the work just flows through me, because that’s when it’s the most pure. So when I’m painting and all of a sudden I reach for that red, and start using different reds and yellows and blacks, and start mixing them with other colors, I’m creating a dialogue that expresses what’s going on in my mind at that moment. The colors I pick are really a subconscious extension of my current emotions.
DD: When do you know you’re finished with a painting?
AY: There are a couple of things: First, when it feels balanced, and the painting holds together, I know it’s done. But I also think of a painting as a conversation. Conversations usually wind down and come to a natural close when there’s nothing left to say, and nothing left on the table. For me, painting is the same way. That’s why 99.9 percent of the time I don’t like to leave a painting for a few months and then go back to it, because it’s a completely different conversation at that point.
DD: Do you like to experiment with different formats?
AY: The majority of my paintings are 8 by 10 feet or 6½ by 6½ feet, but the largest piece in my last show was 10 by 18 feet. I’m just starting to experiment with smaller sizes now.
DD: How important is it for artists to experiment and try things that might make them uncomfortable?
AY: It’s absolutely paramount. I constantly have to strive to take risks and challenge myself, because otherwise I’m not growing, and neither is my work. You might do a show that people love, but you have to be willing to do something with your next show that those same people might not like. I’m always terrified to get back in the studio after a show, but it’s so necessary to keep experimenting, even though you’re still using the same alphabet and the same tools. You need to take risks every single day. That unpredictability is what excites me and what drives me to paint.
DD: Are you interested in pursuing other art forms outside of painting?
AY: Yes, but not yet. I’ve seen this with my mother. She was a painter her entire life until about 20 years ago when, one day, she realized painting wasn’t enough for her anymore, and she became a sculptor. Right now that voice telling me to explore other forms of art isn’t strong enough to make me deviate from painting, but I hope in my lifetime I’ll try something else.
DD: You’ve spoken about your passion for architecture. Is that something you ever considered as a profession?
AY: I’m the type of person who gets so excited by architecture that I’ll pull over, jump out of the car and admire the angles of a beautiful house, and I’m sure that finds its way into my work somehow. Being an architect is something I would love to do in the next life. There’s something about living in a work of art that is exciting. Architecture is so undervalued as an art form. John Lautner’s Wolff House is one of the most beautiful pieces of art I’ve ever seen, and you can live inside it and experience it in so many different ways. Yet paintings by artists you’ve never heard of can sell for more than that house. I would like to see great architecture like that given the same status as priceless art.
DD: Does it drive you crazy when people tell you your work reminds them of another artist?
AY: It did in the beginning, but not anymore. I realize now that that’s how people connect with something.
DD: Who are some of your favorite influences?
AY: Francis Bacon, Willem de Kooning, Wassily Kandinsky, Robert Motherwell, Joan Mitchell—those are just a few.
DD: What do you hope a viewer experiences from your work?
AY: I want them to have a visceral reaction. I want someone to get a jolt or, ideally, to get electrocuted when they see a painting. What I don’t want a viewer to feel is indifference. I’d rather they say one of my paintings is the worst thing they’ve ever seen than to not really have a reaction at all.
DD:What was the most important part of your experience atConn?
AY: As an only child, I grew up as a bit of a loner in New York, and I always felt like something was missing. So when I got to Conn somebody suggested I try out for crew, and I loved it. It was the first time I ever felt like I was part of something. I loved that you were only as strong as your weakest link. It was the most profound experience of my whole college career, because I never imagined I could share such an intense bond with people. When you’re on the water, and that lactic acid begins coursing through you, and you know your body is starting to shut down, you have to work through it, and you know that everybody in your boat has your back. There’s nothing like racing the submarines on a cold morning, as steam rises off the river, seeing foxes darting around on the shoreline. Those images are burned into my memory. That mentality of not giving up that I learned rowing at Conn, is something I access every day when I’m painting.