Painting with a chainsaw

Jean-Yves Klein takes daring technical steps for a traditional painter, using a chainsaw, axes and chisel to 'paint' on wood.

Jean-Yves Klein 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jean-Yves Klein 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Greek mythology tells of a beautiful woman who follows her inquisitive eye to a jar that, unbeknown to her, has been filled with evil and malice by vengeful gods seeking to punish Prometheus for stealing their fire and sharing it with humans. The irony of Pandora – “gift-bearer” – of course, is that the only gift she bears once she opens the jar is the spread of plagues and disease throughout humanity. All is not lost, however. The lovely creature – and first female, according to mythology – closes the jar just in time to keep hope locked tightly away; it is preserved, still possible, not lost amid the new chaos of the world.
Painter and sculptor Jean-Yves Klein offers a glimpse of that hope inside his open vessels of heavily worked wood. Peering inside the vessels, the viewer comes face to face with surreally painted faces and swaying figures.
In his exhibit “Pandorica,” Klein takes daring technical steps for a traditional painter, using a chainsaw and axes and ripping chisel, rather than a paintbrush, to create dimension, light and shadow in the wood. He molded the wood of his pithos to produce grooves and deep lines that resemble heavy brushstrokes. Illuminating these slashes are ink sketches in bright blue, pink, green and orange.
“Untitled (Heads)” (2011), a 50 x 40-centimeter ink on wood, is a particularly arresting portrait. The three-dimensional carved female face, painted in electric blue, jumps out from the painting. A golden, choppy nest of wood encircles her worn face. The effect of the shaped wood, in adding depth and creating the lines and creases on her face, brings her to life.
“You can’t control the chainsaw because of its aggressive aspect, at the same time treating it as gently as possible. This is the tension which is needed to make the light switch in,” said Klein, 50, in a phone interview with Metro from his Berlin home last week.
“I started going deeper, deeper in the material and realizing I was painting with a chainsaw the shadow, and at the end putting color to it. It was quite exciting. It was like discovering a new field.”
The collection, which took Klein roughly two years to conceive and produce at the request of Gallery 39 cofounder Sharon Landesman Traub, features 12 pieces of ink on paper, oil on canvas and ink on wood, all of which bring together Klein’s sculpture and painting talents in a new medium.
While Klein is fairly new to working with wood, Greek mythology has been a theme in his previous exhibitions in Europe. In large part, he said, this is because of the summers he has spent in the Peloponnese since 1994. He uses the time to recharge his batteries and be influenced by the Mediterranean, poetry and mythology.
The sea has actually reminded Klein of the few years he spent in Israel between 1973 and 1976 as a young teenager, already an aspiring artist at the age of 13.
Along with his French parents, he moved to Old Jaffa’s Rehov Yefet from Montreal.
“My mother had this dream of Israel, and so they just did it,” he said.
Visiting Israel, albeit only for eight days for his exhibition, has been like coming full circle.
“Coming back to Tel Aviv was in the same way like coming a little bit home. It was really... something very magic somehow,“ he said. “When I came to see the gallery, for me it was an emotional thing. It was like I was going through the time tunnel again. All of a sudden, this time when I came back, my Hebrew was starting to pop up again.”
He would have liked to stay longer, and intends to return soon.
Klein left Israel to pursue his painter’s dream in the city of light, which he called his youthful “cliché idea of Paris.”
He studied at the Akademie St. Roch in Paris in 1976 and at the Hochschuleder Kuntse in Berlin in 1982, and was an artist in residence at the Foundation Starke in Berlin. He has exhibited in Paris, Bordeaux, Berlin, Dusseldorf and London.
In 2008, Klein took part in a competition to create a large-scale work of art for Josef Laggner’s Gendarmerie, a restaurant in Berlin. His “Bacchanal,” a 14 x 5- meter, 7-ton “monster piece” of ink-painted wood, won the competition.
Klein said it was meant to be the biggest painted wood relief ever done.
Landesman Traub happened to be in Berlin, visited the restaurant and saw the piece displayed. He was so impressed that he reached out to Klein to do a show in Israel, his first ever here.
“A bit like a dream of each artist, that work speaks for itself,” Klein said of the experience.
While citing contemporary American painter Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso as his inspirations, Klein reserved his highest praise for a 17th-century Spanish painter.
“[Diego] Velasquez is my superhero,” he said.
Klein praised these painters for their modern inclinations and reinventions of the craft. He, too, aspires to continually “try in my own language to reinvent,” he said, while always remaining a part of the tradition. The act of creating the works mirrored Pandora putting her hand in the jug, he said, as he felt at times that he was groping in the dark to access the unknown and interpret what he found.
The largest painting in the show, the brilliant 240 x 200-cm. “The Black Jug” (2011), is in fact not even really a painting, he said.
“I painted it on the ground, and then it was printed on the canvas because in this case, I was negating my own brush stroke... I was trying to reach a kind of absolute objective position of not having a handwriting,” he said.
Klein aimed to nearly vanish in his work to allow the “spectator” to be captured exclusively by the works’ aesthetic beauty, not by obvious signs of his touch – though the symbiotic nature of the relationship between artist and audience prevents his total disappearance.
“The spectator invents my painting. If the spectator doesn’t exist, I don’t exist as well,” he said.
The visual experience holds the inquisitive viewer captive in a puzzling beauty, but then prompts him to create a “message” of the work for himself, perhaps of hope, “kind of a universal code which each person can understand without needing to read a whole book or a whole five or 10 sentences,” Klein explained.
For now, “the box is opened,” he said, as he is working on a second series of “Pandorica” for two galleries in Germany, where he will show in September. As for his art entrance in Israel, he posits that reopening the jar encouraged a little hope to escape into the country.
“This was a special message for Israel,” he said. “That the act of ‘Pandorica’ is bringing hope again, so that things in a certain way could straighten up, values are being redressed, hope is redressed.”
These new values that could appear in the region, he said, would bring trust and peace between people. “Everybody can share this beauty in the world. This is what hope is about, I’d say.”
“Pandorica” runs until June 30 at Gallery 39 for Contemporary Art, 39 Rehov Nachmani, Tel Aviv. (03) 566-6631;