Yishai Jusidman won’t run from a challenge.
The Mexican painter of Jewish heritage toiled for six years on a series of paintings called “Prussian Blue,” now at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, because it was supposed to be impossible to paint the Holocaust.
And “if the Holocaust can’t be represented,” he asks, “then why bother dealing with it?”
Through the years, Jusidman points out, “there haven’t been many painters” who have even tried to address “the problem of painting the Holocaust.”
And then there’s Jusidman, whose arduous efforts from 2010 to 2016 have resulted in a series of 32 paintings that are at once lovely and deeply chilling. They are based on photographs of gas chamber sites and rendered with the pigment Prussian blue.
In 2010, Jusidman saw an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, of works by Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, including his famous “Gas Chamber.” The text that accompanied the 1986 painting suggested that representing the enormity of the Holocaust in visual art was essentially impossible — and that provoked Jusidman.
“To me, they were a disturbing acknowledgment of failure of the Holocaust as a subject for painting,” he says.
As a painter, that was something he couldn’t accept.
“I told myself, ‘Well, why don’t I give it a try?’ ” he says. “A bit presumptuously, perhaps.”
Once he took up the challenge, he had to find a way to do it.
His way in was through the pigment Prussian blue. Not only was it one of the first lab-produced pigments, discovered at the start of the 18th century and once the uniform color of the Prussian army, but it was also responsible for blue stains on the walls of some gas chambers through a reaction with poisonous gas Zyklon B.
“For me, this became evident that if painting has anything to do with the Holocaust, it’s through this pigment,” he says.
Prussian blue is also the impetus for an ongoing, if long-discredited, rumor that not all the gas chambers were used for gassing, as not all of them have blue stains.
Jusidman used the blue exclusively, combined only with “flesh tone” paints and diatomaceous earth similar to the pumice-like carrier for Zyklon B. Balancing the poignancy of the pigment itself, Jusidman based his paintings on photographs as a way to avoid both metaphor and clichés and “neutralize subjectivity.”
“The paintings were not about my feeling on the subject,” he notes.
The source photographs — mostly, but not all, of the interior of gas chambers — are presented in an annex next to the gallery, along with a timeline and information. Jusidman says this is partly to clear up misinformation that exists around gas chambers, but it also gives the viewers a different perspective as they pass back through the gallery of paintings.
“Maybe you will come and look at them somewhat differently,” he says.
That’s because Jusidman’s show isn’t about the Holocaust as much as it’s about painting itself. That makes sense for an artist who is deeply concerned about what painting can do. Still, the show is not all “concept.”
“The beauty of the pieces trips you up,” says Lucía Sanromán, director of visual arts at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, who first saw “Prussian Blue” at Jusidman’s Los Angeles studio.
“It’s a very serious work,” she intones. “At the same time, it’s an astonishingly beautiful work.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Jusidman was born in 1963 in Mexico City and grew up secular but “very Jewish,” he says. “The Jewish community in Mexico pretty much stuck together.”
But his work had never dealt with Jewish themes before this. Now “Prussian Blue” has taken a long chunk of his working life.
“He has the kind of rigor to look at this issue for six years,” Sanromán says.
The exhibit will run at YBCA through March 25. On Jan. 13, Jusidman will be in conversation at the Palace of Fine arts with Cuauhtémoc Medina, chief curator of the show’s original home at Mexico City’s Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporanea.
An early version of “Prussian Blue” (with 14 paintings) showed in New York in 2013, and the newer more expansive exhibit is scheduled to travel to Chile, Argentina and Spain. That will keep Jusidman busy with installations — which, after spending all those years so close to a deeply horrific subject, will be a change.
“Certainly,” he says, “this is the most ambitious series I’ve done.”