Painting skin of the world – the works of Yigal Ozeri

‘Reality Check’ exhibit brings photorealism to Tel Aviv.

A DETAIL from ‘A New York Story’ by Yigal Ozeri. (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
A DETAIL from ‘A New York Story’ by Yigal Ozeri.
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
Israeli-born painter Yigal Ozeri wears two wrist watches. One shows the time in New York, the city in which he lives and where he built a career. The other shows the time in Tel Aviv, where his latest exhibition, Reality Check, is now on display at the Zemack Contemporary Art Gallery.
Ozeri is just as happy to point to the various pendants he wears – each holding an interesting crystal from a land he has visited – as he is to express his pride in his son, Adam, an attacking midfielder for the Argentinian team Ferro Carril Oeste.
His charms don’t just hang in the air. Ozeri, with his mane of gray hair and an easy smile, is one of the most successful painters today in the genre known as photorealism. This form of painting, which seeks to reach rare technical mastery in depicting the world humans can see, is often described as one possible answer to the question, “What is painting good for in the age of the camera?”
Linked to the artwork done by Chuck Close, Andrew Wyeth and Gerhard Richter, one possible answer is that in photorealism, paintings reflect the world as humans experience it. We do not take everything in impartially, as a camera does. Humans focus on some things, allowing others to blur and fade, and we care for what we place at the center of our focus.
Ozeri argues that photorealism is one of the three great schools of painting, or human ways of seeing, to have emerged from the US. The other two are pop art, championed by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and abstract painting, championed by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.
It is not without reason that the casual art lover is usually more familiar with the large-scale energy of Pollock or the icon-like value of Campbell Soup cans by Warhol than he is with Close, Wyeth or Richter.
Abstract art and pop art invite the observer to invest the works with meaning. Otherwise they don’t work. The observer must trust the unique universe that inspired the fingers of the painter, that they didn’t perform a magic trick, a con, but offer something of worth. Children, after all, can drip paint on a surface. It is possible to dip a donkey’s tail in paint and have it drip, but for the well-trained eye, a Pollock painting has something that an animal or a child cannot imitate.
WHEN ASKED why he didn’t go to see Wyeth’s paintings, a curator Ozeri remembers said that Wyeth, “is an esoteric painter who paints women in a Pennsylvania field.” The curator meant to belittle the 1948 painting Christina’s World, which is on permanent display at the New York City Museum of Modern Art.
One of the better known American works of art in the 20th century, the painting is referred to in the popular 1990s comic book Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, where the protagonist and his mother express deep admiration for it. The enjoyment and delight many find in figurative art are the reasons the unnamed curator scoffed at it. The painting lifts the weight of mountains, but not ones made from intellectual stuff.
“Such [dismissive] views of Wyeth are made by curators who can’t relate to emotion,” Ozeri says. “His painting dealt with beauty, the relation between an artist and his muse. He did it in a personal way and painted the loves of his life, and he lived his life as in his paintings.”
One such example is the 1977 painting Braids, in which Wyeth painted Helga Testorf. He would spend roughly 15 years painting her, creating nude paintings and portraits of the German model. The sessions were kept secret from both their spouses at the time, which led to some speculation as to the full nature of their relationship. In his 2006 article “A Villain in Pigtails,” New York Sun writer James Gardner claimed that Testorf “has the curious distinction of being the last person to be made famous by a painting.”
“This is America,” Ozeri told The Jerusalem Post, “from the Coca-Cola bottles of Warhol to the abstracts of Rothko, [American art deals with] fierce surfaces of color that depict life itself.”
Having arrived to New York City in the 1980s, Ozeri had the good fortune of being discovered by Louis K. Meisel. Not only did Meisel champion the concept of photorealism, he is also an esteemed collector of another unique American art form: pin-up girls. He wrote extensively on Mel Ramos, Gil Elvgren and Edward Runci. In the field of painting, he promoted such noted artists as Richard Estes and, of course, Ozeri himself.
“He is a rare man,” Ozeri says of Meisel, “because he cares about his artists, and will even give up his commission in some cases to help them out.” In 2013 a painting by Ozeri was selected for the cover of Meisel’s book Photorealism in the Digital Age.
After closing at Zemack, Reality Check will tour the US starting with the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan in 2020.
It was looking at a painting by Close that led Ozeri to take up the challenge of photorealism. “I am proud of being the only Israeli in that group,” he says. “My greatest achievement is that Meisel opened the door to let me in there [because] when you are a part of a group, your paintings gain more meaning.”
When viewing the paintings in Reality Check, it is easy to be taken by the high level of their execution. During the opening, most visitors were gaping and quickly reached for their phones for a snapshot. This quick knee-jerk reaction is not unrelated to the works. Ozeri has a series of paintings depicting young women, usually models, in various settings. These images are evocative of the age of social media we all inhabit. Taking the pains to out-perform digital filters with paint is not an easy decision to comprehend. Yet there is a thread that can link Ozeri’s models and pin-up girls, to the deep currents of painting history involving the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their influence on figurative painting.
Observe the 1888 painting The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse. A beautiful red-headed woman seems to pose, adorned with jewels, on a sleek boat upon a lake. The emotionally rich painting is on permanent display at the Tate Britain in London to this very day. The Brotherhood itself was a reaction to the grand manner of painting championed by Joshua Reynolds. While not widely celebrated today, Reynolds had been a successful and intelligent painter loved by many, among them Turner.
THE FORK in the road, so to speak, between the so-called “high-minded” painters and those who seek an appeal to beauty and emotions, could be seen there as well. To make it plain, both Reynolds and Gil Elvgren painted real women. Reynolds painted the high-born and their help, while Elvgren painted Kim Novak and Lola Albright.
Why is it that Reynolds is considered a painter and Elvgren an illustrator? Why is the work of one man well-regarded and the work of the other seen as “low”?
“My works invoke a worshiping of beauty,” Ozeri says. “They contain passion and admiration of beauty [because] I think that a portrait of a woman is an artistically superior thing [to do]... everything comes out of the woman – beauty, love, hate and so forth.”
His paintings here seem grouped in large themes: sweets offered at the market place, usually in big heaps and colorful packages; lonely people in big cities; and the sadness of those who are left out. In Tel Aviv he paints a man wearing a red fez offering Turkish kanafeh, a dessert made with thin noodle-like pastry. The man, with his cart and fez, was invited to the opening and indeed offered the audience a taste of his wares. An odd moment of reality seemed to step out of the canvas. This is one aspect of Ozeri’s paintings, celebrating the richness of the marketplace and what you can get in it. Candy, magazines, kanafeh, all in abundance, in heaps – for a dollar.
Yet these things are created by an economy of scarcity and, to some extent, the manipulation of desire. The market seems to offer everything, but it’s a wealth you can never really possess.
Into this doubt Ozeri is able to plant human moments of intimacy despite the hustle of city life: an elderly man glances at a young woman checking an item; a young man on the metro stares ahead; a black man stands next to a group of hassidim dancing. These are figures who are not on the market, so to speak. They live in a city of millions but are, at least at that moment, alone.
At the end of the road of loneliness is homelessness, when a person is so alone he doesn’t even have friends to offer him shelter. Ozeri paints people who are homeless; those who live in the Big Apple but rarely get to take a bite out of it. Perhaps this is the reflection of an immigrant who is only too aware of the hardness of American life and how easy it is to be forgotten and discarded. Or perhaps it is the Western visual tradition of seeking the Christ in the beggar, the divine in the most common things, as approached by an Israeli Jew.
Ozeri was already a committed artist before his first flight to America. His decade-long friendships include poet Ronny Someck, who contributed to the catalogue of the exhibition, and fellow artist David Vekshtein.
“We are from the generation of [art] magazines,” he told the Post. “We were not taught figurative painting, and we saw the great works in black and white reproductions. Those were the days of Henry Shelesnyak and Raffi Lavie,” he says, meaning the time in Israeli art where a great deal was given to “high-brow art,” where the produced work was not nearly as interesting as the mental story around it. Ozeri is well-versed in the ins and outs of Israeli art. He sings the praises of many young artists who came after that time like Yael Barana and Guy Ben Ner.
“I look at history all the time,” he says. “Art, to me, is like a relay race. If all you do is take the baton and run the same distance at the same time as the others have, what did you accomplish? But if you learn from the past, see the mistakes, and improve even by a little – that is your gain.”
Reality Check will be on display until December 27 at the Zemack Contemporary Art Gallery, Hei be-Iyar St. 68, Tel Aviv. For more information, go to