Yigal Ozeri: 'A Creator of New Things and an Imitator of Nature' Revisiting Photo Realism in Contemporary Art (Part 1 of 2)

05/01/2015 06:16 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

When you meet Yigal Ozeri, you feel you have stumbled into the presence of someone different. Like an eternal '70s rockstar, his personality exudes from the top of his unruly hair to his often outlandish shoes. Then, when you view his artwork, it clicks. You are immersed in color and light and, above all, the concept of beauty. There in front of you are the most perfect young women you have ever seen photographed. But of course, that's because Ozeri's works are not photographs at all: they are paintings.

When viewing these works, one starts to develop a new vocabulary to describe them. It is as if Ozeri "photographs" a painting, or perhaps "paints" a photo. Indeed, as an important member of the photorealist tradition, he plays a role that is beyond that of a painterly hand. The photographer, director, set designer, stager, technician, stylist, and, of course, painter of these works, Ozeri lives in a world in which beauty, and the creation thereof, is paramount.

Looking at Ozeri's work, one wonders: What is beauty and what is beauty's place in contemporary art? How do aesthetics in their most complex form fall away from the canvas, leaving only material perfection? In his photorealistic body of work, Ozeri unapologetically seeks to harness beauty in its most concentrated essence.

Though Ozeri has been heralded as one of the leading photorealists of our time, his world is too perfect to be photorealistic. It is as if Ozeri is capturing a true moment of godly nature, including color, shape, composition and the body, through his own eye, and through the eye of all those who have captured beauty before him.

Umberto Eco, in his seminal aesthetic text The History of Beauty claims, "[i]n the fifteenth century... Beauty was conceived according to a dual orientation that today strikes us as contradictory, but that contemporaries found coherent. Those contemporaries saw Beauty both as an imitation of nature in accordance with scientifically established rules and as the contemplation of a supernatural degree of perfection that could not be perceived by the eye because it was not fully realized in the sublunary world... The artist was therefore at once -- and without this seeming contradictory -- a creator of new things and an imitator of nature" (pp. 176-178).

This, too, is Ozeri's gift: he captures the beauty of nature but in doing so creates something even more impactful. Through his photorealistic portraits of lovely young women in nature, Ozeri demonstrates an existential need to create beauty and does so through a synthesis that is reflective of our contemporary age. His facile shifts from contemporary photo realism, impressionism, the sublime, Rococo, and even Greco-Roman classicism are the work of a master who can not only work ably in all forms but also lives in an inner world where the highest expression of beauty is not one contemporary aesthetic but a mashup of all that has come previously.

In over thirty years as a painter, Ozeri has spent the last fifteen in a dialogue with photorealism. In 2003, Ozeri started to photograph the pigeons from his studio window every day throughout the year. He then began to explore painting the pigeons through the photographs he took, forming his first body of portraiture (1). Ozeri progressed to people, and has found, thus far, his ultimate expression of beauty in women in nature.

1. Yigal Ozeri, Confusion, 2004

In his early photorealistic works, Ozeri seems to practice these historical quotations. In Elizabeth, 2004, he paints two subjects, man and girl, but he bathes the female figure in a beautiful light, far more beautiful than a camera could ever reproduce (2). Truly, in Elizabeth, we see the light of Vermeer, whose Holland could never have been so light-bathed as we experience it (3). Similarly to the way light plays across the body and face in such works as The Milkmaid, in Elizabeth, Elizabeth's face, as she reaches for the curtain, becomes enveloped in light too perfect for nature. In both Vermeer and in Ozeri, this is an aspirational light, not a light of reality -- a light too beautiful to exist.

2. Yigal Ozeri, Elizabeth, 2004

3. Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658

Continuing on his quest for beauty, in works where Ozeri focuses entirely on his female subjects, we find him quoting the romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites (4,5). Soft hair, haunting eyes, and carefully choreographed scenes form fairy tale vignettes that both reference works such as John Everett Milais's Ophelia and Dante Gabriel Rosetti's Helen of Troy and contemporize them to herald the loveliness of Ozeri's modern-day Venuses (6,7).

4. Yigal Ozeri, Sasha with the Fortune Tree, 2005-2006

5. Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Helen of Troy, 1863

6. Yigal Ozeri, Priscilla in Ecstasy I, 2008

7. John Everett Milais, Ophelia, 1851-52

But perhaps the most important referencing that Ozeri engages in is back to Greco-Roman sculpture, where beauty is defined by balance, compositional harmony and symmetry. In Untitled (Olya), Ozeri depicts his model with a symmetry and balance that belies human imperfection (8). Even her pose, which at first seems so very contemporary (why is it that girls today have such terrible posture?) echoes the contrapposto stance that revolutionized Greek sculpture, allowing compositional balance and dynamic harmony to disclose psychological intent. Though it's Olya's dominant arm, and not leg, which balances her, her pose quotes this classical trope, as is evident in such examples as Praxiteles's Aphrodite Cnidus (9).

8. Yigal Ozeri, Untitled (Olya), 2013

9. Praxiteles, Aphrodite Cnidus, c. 4th Century B.C.

Through all these works, Ozeri seeks the pinnacle of beauty: paraphrasing from the balance and harmony of Greek sculpture and philosophy, the light and color of Dutch genre painting, and the rich narrative Romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ozeri assimilates all within the crisp perfection of photorealism. And it is exactly this style of multiple quotations that makes his work, ultimately, so contemporary.

In his current body of work, opening on Sunday at Mana Contemporary, and which I will explore in my next column, Ozeri takes pushes this practice of quotation further. Indeed, in the new works, it's a symphony of referents that creates, quite arguably, his most codified quest for beauty yet.

Utilizing these tropes of historical beauty, Ozeri sells us a product of perfection: a codified, multi-referent, total view of the sublime that goes beyond what a camera can capture. His work is bigger than life, bigger than mere perfection in nature. And this can be taken literally as well. In his massive canvases, Ozeri delivers us beauty bigger than life, physically larger, but more concentrated and more intoxicating, as well.

And knowing Ozeri, larger than life is exactly what he does best.


Next week: "How imperative is beauty in mixing the ingredients for a perfect image? Analyzing Yigal Ozeri's Revolution at Giverny, A Return to Women in Nature (Part 2 of 2)"