Yisrael K. Feldsott on the river in all of us, spiritual medicine and living with Hell’s Angels.
Yisrael K. Feldsott has been painting and making art for almost five decades. In his early twenties, he exhibited his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, just part of of his notable, mythological journey. When Peter Selz, the well-known art historian and former curator of SFMOMA, viewed Feldsott’s work for the first time, he said the work simply stunned him with “its vitality, the spontaneous sense of ordered chaos, and the artistic quality.” He contacted Robert C. Morgan, an esteemed art critic and art historian, to view Feldsott’s work and write the introduction for the exhibit Cries, Chants, Shouts & Whispers: Songs of the Forgotten. Morgan interviewed Feldsott again recently, as preparations were underway for a second opening of his show in New York City.
–Bonnie Lou Feld
Robert C. Morgan We have talked about conflict and bloodshed several times during our conversations, and as you’ve said, there has always been a war during your lifetime somewhere. What kind of appeal are you trying to make to the audience in your paintings that deals with war subjects, or subjects of people being humiliated, tortured, and so forth?
Yisrael K. Feldsott It is interesting that you ask that, because somebody at my last art opening asked if I was a political artist, and the question stopped me for a moment. I really paused and thought about it. My response is that I don’t feel that I’m a political artist. I sense that I’m painting from some mysterious level of my own humanity and the outrage that I feel in relationship to violence, disagreement, or conflicts in the world is juxtaposed with the quality of cruelty, vengeance, and the need to destroy another people, another tradition, and another culture. These are really the issues that have galvanized me.
RCM Do you think we are living in a time where the whole notion of culture and identity is in danger? Threatened, I should say.
YKF Yes, that is the right word. There is this quality where it is not enough to win an argument—you have to destroy the other person’s point of view, their identity, or their sense of belonging to win.That is precisely the predicament that really has brought me to some level of deep disturbance. I think in my paintings, I am asking people to reflect on that aspect that resides in all of us. I don’t think that what is happening on a meta-level globally is some kind of aberration; I think it emanates from some place inside all of us that is kind of “un-contemplated.”
RCM It is a reflex instead of a contemplation.
RCM I sense that in your work, I’m looking at this really terrific painting—I don’t know why I didn’t spend more time looking at it earlier—called Master of Game, the Law and the Hunted. It’s not political art, and I say that on a basis of having read that wonderful book by [Herbert] Marcuse called The Aesthetic Dimension where he said that just the desire to express oneself apart from the social context of which one is a part, whatever that might be, that’s political enough—you don’t have to force the issue.
YKF Right, right. (laughter)
RCM This painting is filled with a lot of the terminology of your work in terms of what we were just talking about. I just think it is a great painting. At the same time, I could not talk about it only in aesthetic terms. I know that Peter Selz has asked you this question before in reference to beauty, and I think either that evolves or it doesn’t. But when I look at the painting with the tablets, the menorah, the house, and this figure there is kind of floating above in some sort of astral zone, with crossed legs and a snake who is rearing up from below . . . it’s a mélange of various things that are cohesively moving into one another. There is no right or wrong or this or that—it’s just there.
YKF I think that in that painting and in many other paintings (certainly the ones that are most successful), there is a drawing down into some kind of river that I believe is in all of us. I believe that it is a kind of encryption in our DNA. I trust that these stories and images emanate from some place within us that reflects a certain commonality to all of us. When I reach down into that river, I draw out this kind of imagery, and that’s why, to me, it speaks to the law—and the law comes from many places, but there seems to be some kind of commonality or depth to what that is about. That river is the place where that comes from, and it comes out in many different forms. This collective unconscious is expressed in many different ways, idiosyncratically, by different cultures.
RCM I just flipped over to Sands of Sorrow, which was done in 2005, and somebody is being subjugated with their hands over their head—it looks like a native person of some sort.
RCM The soldier is beside him, sticking his rifle into his side and the houses, the huts are burning from behind. That is a very different kind of painting—it is a darker painting, a more earthy painting. Master of Game is a much more transcendent painting in a certain way, although some of these same oppositions are there. It is done in a different way. It is lighter. Sands of Sorrow contains more darkness. What about light and darkness in your work? I could go on and on with examples but I feel like that might be a theme, whether it is conscious or not.
YKF It is certainly a fundamental reflection of my personality, which tends to oscillate in these swings. I think, like anybody, I find myself along the journey of life, and there are moments where there is an opening, a visioning, epiphanies, a sense of peaceful reconciliation with the elements of the world as they are and my place in them. Then there are moments of absolute struggle, where I am in inner turmoil, and that’s reflected by outer turmoil, and those energies collide. That is when you find this meandering line in my painting that goes back years and years. You just see me meandering across that journey—losing myself, and finding myself, and losing myself, and finding myself, and the paintings become records of it.
RCM So it is almost a diaristic account of your feelings at any given time.
YKF Well, that absolutely plays into it. I don’t believe that any artist is thoroughly able to separate themselves from their work, unless they come up with some sort of intellectual framework to function in. My work encompasses the rhythms of the world: it is my rhythms, the rhythms of life, of success and failure, struggle and contentment and the entire gamut of a human life. I think all of us human beings know those oscillations and mine happen in a personal way—but they also happen in a meta way and that the world around us kind of seems to come together and fall apart.
RCM There was a certain period of your life where you were really involved with horses and cows. Was that because you were with these animals, or was it more of an interior idea, a symbolic idea?
YKF It started because of the fact that I was this kid from Chicago, from an urban environment, and then I find myself in Northern California when I was seventeen. I am, all of the sudden, confronted by hillsides that are populated by cows, horses, and elements of the natural world. For me, it was an immensely stimulating visual and physical event to encounter these animals—their size, their uniqueness.
RCM Why did you choose the country, this kind of farm environment, over an urban environment when you came in—when you were seventeen . . . was that in the late sixties?
YKF Early seventies.
RCM Did you need to get out of the congestion of the urban environment or was there some other reason besides that?
YKF Let’s just say that there were a number of situations that occurred in Chicago and I found myself fleeing that environment. I had no sense of what I was fleeing to: I just knew that I needed to get out of Chicago. I had met a couple of artists from Northern California and I had this half-baked idea that I was going to find myself in some kind of New York café society where these older painters and I would have discourses about the direction of modern painting. Of course, I had no idea about the art scene that actually existed in Northern California, with these older artists all over the place, tucked into these very reclusive environments. So, I came out to California—it was just a bizarre synchronistic event that I pulled off the freeway before I arrived in Berkeley, which was my destination. I turned off the freeway at a place called Crockett, which is about forty minutes north of Berkeley. Without knowing ahead of time, Crockett happened to be the place where Roy DeForest and Clayton Bailey were living.
RCM How interesting—total coincidence?
YKF I wind up turning off the freeway there, and stop to get a sandwich, and at the meat counter there was a sign that said, “House for Rent.” In my young head, I think, Oh, I should probably go check that out. I went and checked out the house and the guy says, “Well, you can’t rent out the house because it’s already been rented, but you can live in the basement.” And so that became the first place that I lived at in Northern California, and it turned out to be the basement of a house rented by the Hell’s Angels.
RCM So the Hell’s Angels were living upstairs. . .
YKF Yes, the Hell’s Angels were living upstairs and I was living in the basement making all of this art. They thought I was this strange but interesting character and, in some way, I became their mascot. Then, of course, I was exposed to all of this farm animal imagery for the first time in my life—and it just really moved me. In the process, the horse became a symbol and a transcendent spirit that could carry one through other realms. It was all unarticulated and subconscious at that time and it was completely an intuitive process.
RCM But, eventually it became more conscious, if I understand your trajectory in terms of your life. When you went to the Amazon, for example, the shamanist idea was very much in front of you, and you were actually meeting shamans, as I recall.
YKF Yes. And, you know, for me then, it was a very interesting experience because people had described this experience of coming home. They had come to a place they had never been before and it feels like home. When I first encountered these people and began to have dialogue, communication, and interactions with them, for me, it was very much like coming home. All of a sudden there was a form to something I had been working in and struggling with, and grappling with for most of my life.
RCM And you found it there?
YKF Yeah, it was a very articulated, clear reflection of a more ambiguous journey that I had been on for many, many years before I ever met those people. And so for me it was, “Oh. I get it. I see.” And for them, I think they were struck by how a gringo takes to this culture.
RCM Do they use that word in the Amazon? Gringo?
YKF Sure, absolutely, and other words as well. (laughter)
RCM I’m looking at a painting called Medico, which is a very striking painting, where this figure that looks like a death figure is holding a chicken in one hand and what looks like a card, maybe a king of hearts. This death, maybe a female figure, has a kind of sexuality that is interesting; even though it is black with these white lines and very confrontational, it seems very charged with life. In other words, it is not pulling me down. It is really kind of challenging me to get on with it in a way.
YKF Yeah, yeah, there you go.
RCM Medico relates—well it seems to relate, tell me if I’m wrong—to your involvement with healing and with getting into a certain mode of contemplation, reflection, or meditation—is that indicative of that time period in your life?
YKF Medico is a reflection of my understanding of that tradition and that healing process. There is a kind of androgyny that happens amongst the healers. In other words, they are weaving and combining both the masculine and the feminine principles in order to create a whole, or healthy experience, those energies have to be balanced in somebody. And so the healers absolutely embody that reflection of energies we would normally refer to as either masculine or feminine. Somehow, in that moment of confrontation you mention, confronting one’s own darkness, or disease, or death, that’s where the healing actually emanates from. It’s kind of like the piercing of a wound and cleaning it out. It’s kind of a scary process, right? If you’re injured, the last thing you want to do is present the wound to the doctor because you know the first thing they’re gonna do is clean it out. And so you’re kind of reluctant to show the guy where you actually got cut, where the glass splinter went in, or something like that.
RCM In our conversation a few months ago, which I enjoyed so much, I recall you bringing up the Eastern idea of this androgyny that is quite different from the direct opposition. In other words, this Eastern idea is not so much of an opposition, but shall we say an overlay or a glissando that’s moving in and out—I’m referring to this in terms of sound, for some reason. But the point is that when you encounter darkness there is light, and when you encounter the lightness there is also dark. This notion was woven into the theosophy of the 19th century, probably by way of the Silk Road. I’m talking about the later versions of theosophy, others began much earlier in Medieval times. Anyway, I don’t want to go on and on about that, but that attitude in relation to healing is extremely important for Western people to somehow try and understand. Do you feel that your paintings are maybe opening up the kind of dialogue that makes it possible to come to term with some of these ideas about light and dark, and dark and light rather than seeing these dualistic oppositions that Western people are so obsessed by?
YKF Deeply embedded in me is the sense that only in acknowledging, looking, and interacting with the darkness can one actually cultivate or expand the light within oneself, or within the world. People often refer to some of my paintings as very dark, almost suggesting that we dismiss that, which is the opposite response that we’re looking for from a healing point of view. Somebody comes to me and they have some kind of injury, and the first thing I’m going to say is, “Let’s take a look at it.” And of course there is a warning to the person that this is a difficult journey, that it is difficult to look at this material, and that it’s difficult to confront, to name, to feel. And yet the path of healing that is delineated by many of these traditions—not just the tradition of the Amazon but traditional healing modalities all over the world—would indicate that this is the path of healing.
RCM Right, you’re right. I did talk about the relationship between painting and healing in the essay. Do you feel that your involvement with painting is a way of really getting into the necessary state to give you the kind of energy, the kind of strength you need to transmit into processes of the healing? In other words, your painting is a way of strengthening yourself, by a release of the imagery that you didn’t know was there, but suddenly became there? Is painting a kind of revolution where your strength emerges in order to do what you have to do?
YKF For me personally, that painting is absolutely a journey into confronting and looking at the darkness that lies within me. And of course I have to work with it in this kind of visual iconography, so it’s kind of right in my face. For me painting has always been a rigorous, very strict discipline. So it has definitely cultivated some kind of ability in myself to see, to look, to confront, to name, to stand in the midst of some kind of chaotic disturbance and still be able to cultivate an energy of peacefulness and kindness or healing, in some cases.
RCM What do you feel your show is going to achieve in New York? Or should I say, what do you hope for your exhibition here, in terms of having these paintings on the wall and people confronting them. What would you like to see happen?
YKF Well that’s a difficult question, Robert. On some level I offer a different direction of a conversation that I think is lacking in the general community of the art world—certainly the gallery-museum world at this point. I offer a conversation about spirit, a conversation about our essential humanity, that seems to be buried in some intellectual concepts.
RCM In other words, the intellectual concepts become a kind of defense to ward off what is obvious. What we really need to do is evolve as human beings living together on this planet. Would you agree with that?
YKF In many respects—not in all, because you find pockets of it where you find amazing inspirational creativity—art has devolved into this kind of abstract equation that very few people can understand. For me, coming to New York is a hope to add another voice to that conversation and say, “Well maybe there’s another way to look at this, maybe there’s another possibility that art could once again act as an inspirational medicine for us, for our people.”
RCM Spiritual medicine?
YKF Yes, absolutely.
RCM So for you there’s this direct equation between a discovery of spiritual lack and possibly the necessity to revive some sense of authenticity in terms of who we really are rather than who we are trying to hide ourselves from.
YKF That’s really well said, and you know, I don’t have any big sense of my impact on the world or whatever. I realize that it is a very complex field and there are lots of people who are up to all kinds of things. It is simply as I walk around the communities and the places where I live, I see that the people are calling out for some kind of communication and dialogue that has spirit to it, as opposed to this quality of intellectual exercise or equations. There is something missing, and people are asking for it in all different kinds of ways. In some way, I am answering that.
Cries, Chants, Shouts, and Whispers: Songs of the Forgotten opens at Studio Vendome on October 17th.
My Enemy, Feldsott’s cross country “project of spirit” will be at Tibet House in New York on October 20th.
Robert C. Morgan is an art critic, art historian, curator, painter and poet based in Brooklyn.