What does it take to be a real artist? “The real test is”, according to Shai, “when your ego isn’t being petted on a daily basis and you’re all alone in your studio”. Vivid sun-soaked landscapes and uneasy comical figures are smeared across Shai Yehezkelli’s paintings. His world of ever-wandering characters and wiggly shapes are painted straight from his mind and onto the canvas, no planning needed. Fluke? Or straight up raw creativity? 
So you once said that being an artist was what you were “destined to do”. But when did you realise this, and how did you get to where you are today?
I keep asking myself if I’ve finally become the artist that I one day hoped I’d be, but I’m never sure. I have this ‘Plato’s idea’ of an artist and I keep struggling to see myself as it. I think the moment I realised was when I became fully occupied with the concept of art as a way of living, which naturally happened when I was a student. But that notion became more complex and less romantic when I finished my studies. That’s where the real test is: when your ego isn’t being petted on a daily basis and you’re all alone in your studio. This loneliness is my best tutor and is necessary in order to become true to your self.
If you had to describe your work in one sentence what would it be?
Funny but not haha funny.
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Could you talk us through your process to create a finished piece, or do you work back and forth on many at a time?
I usually work on several paintings at the same time. Sometimes, I have to wait for the oil to dry on them, and sometimes I have some spare paint on my palette that I don’t want to waste, so I smear it on another painting. But then there are times when I need to stay away from one work, like taking a break in a relationship. Then I can think about it all from a distance, and see her for what she really is.
Often, you paint on found surfaces such as wooden palettes or material picked up off the street. Does adapting to different surfaces change how or what you paint?
I started painting on found material when I didn’t have money to buy canvases. But soon enough I was infatuated with this magical shop: the street. Every material responds differently to paint, and every surface has its own texture, shapes and wounds. However, the surface is never the issue, it’s just a material for me to push paint on. I don’t care much about its history when it comes to the painting itself. I love it when artists like Rauschenberg or Ido Bar-El do that, but it’s not for me.
Your recent exhibition in Hamburg certainly was something to write home about. I’m especially excited when paintings move away from being a canvas hung on a white wall, and that central painting melted from the ceiling right down and to the floor. Do you think you’ll continue to push and change-up the gallery space in the future?
I relate to this sentiment very much. I painted mostly on un-stretched canvases, and I like the fact that they became a curtain or hung carpet. They become physical, beyond being ‘a picture’. I was dealing with this idea in both my recent solo shows in Tel-Aviv (at the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art and in Julie M. Gallery) and also in a show I was taking part in the Jewish Museum in Basel. I am still very much interested in it, without dismissing the more traditional way to exhibit a painting.
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You feature a lot of recurring symbols in your paintings: religious iconography, palm tree motifs and the smiley long-nosed characters being just a few. Similar to having favourite colours, would you say that these icons and symbols form part of your palette/visual library?
Definitely. I have stopped working with visual references since 2010 because I realized how much more challenging and intriguing it is for me without them. Of course, it’s also more difficult and frustrating at times, but it’s the price to pay for what I believe is as close as I’ll get to true artistic freedom. These symbols started off as an image that captured my mind, became meaningful and, sometimes, sneak up on me when I paint.
I’ve noticed that a lot of your paintings are titled as a self-portrait, and you’ve mentioned that you identify with the Wandering Jew figure as an allegory for your self. Are your artworks a narrative about your own identity?
I think that any artwork is a self-portrait. It’s always a mirror of some sort. In my case, it’s never aiming to be a ‘representational’ self-portrait but a mental one, so to speak. However, I do try to avoid placing my self or my biography into the work – so that these self-portraits can be universal in a way. My own interest and relationship with the Wandering Jew myth is something that I think of in universal terms, rather than stemming from nationality or religion. It’s about being unwanted, without a ground under your feet everywhere you walk to, or having a home and a country but still feeling lost and detached.
In your show In Praise of Avalanche, you exhibited painted ceramic vessels or Kads alongside wall-hung paintings. Unlike traditional definitions, I see painting as something far more boundary crossing and fluid. Do you see your 3D work more as an extension of your painting practice than being its own discipline?
I do. But the painted ceramic vessels started off for a very boring reason – I found a box of things outside a ceramic artists studio ready to be thrown away. Some of it was broken, some hadn’t been fired, and most of them were defects made by students. I just thought, “Great! Something to smear the paint left on my palette onto.” I then started to like it – their fragility, and the idiocy of trying to paint on these poor objects.  There's a real trend of artists who make usable ceramics – but ‘proper’ ones, with glazing and shit. I guess I’m a bit jealous for not being able to do something that is actually useful…
“Loneliness is my best tutor and is necessary in order to become true to your self.”
I’m also super intrigued by your trippy, surreal drawings. Do you keep a sketchbook by your bed for those late-night peculiar ideas?
I only keep my books and iPhone near my bed. I use a sketchbook when I’m on long rides or in a boring lecture.
You’ve mentioned that you arrived in the painting game a little late, and how your first passions were literature and music. What are you currently listening to in the studio and, when you get the chance, what are you reading?
Yes, my first acquaintance with contemporary art was only when I started studying art at the academy. I’m currently listening to Brockhampton a lot, the new Amen Dunes album and also to A. Savage’s solo album. I just finished reading Exterminate All the Brutes, by Sven Lindqvist, and I’m currently in the middle of Eduardo Mendoza’s The Mystery of the Enchanted Crypt. Which is hilarious and exactly what I need after the horrors described by Lindqvist.
Could you tell us about the art scene in Tel Aviv, and whom we should be following?
Tel Aviv is tiny, which is not a very known fact. I only recently discovered this on my five-month residency in Hamburg. People abroad tend to think it’s huge because of how much art is going on here. There are quite a few art spaces and a lot of good artists, which makes it hard to name one or even twenty. I think Tel Aviv has high standards.
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Obviously, you don’t shy away from the brightest tubes of paint; I really love that. Which colour could you not live without?
It really depends on the day, but give me the three primary colours and I’ll be fine.
Finally, I know I’m itching to see some of your work in the flesh and I bet everyone reading this is too. Do you have anything coming up soon?
Thank you. I have some shows planned this year in Tel-Aviv, and another one in Miami next year. Hope to see you in one of them!
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