In his first Canadian solo show presented by Angell Gallery, Yigal Ozeri makes a sensory impact. The Israeli-born and New York-based artist is showing a new series of lush photorealist paintings titled Territory, alongside photographs and a video. Staying within his characteristic domain, this body of work presents Pre-Raphaelite-inspired portraits of beautiful young women in bucolic settings. But Ozeri explores a more complex subject in this series, casting young female Israeli soldiers as the protagonists of his work.
Ozeri’s painted portraits on canvas and paper have a mesmerizing photo-like finish. His high-definition style follows from the lineage of the postmodern return to illusionism spurred by a group of American painters in the 1960s. These artists exploited photography and trompe l’oeil devices to create life-like images that taunted you to look twice – is it a photo or is it a painting? Such flagrant disregard for modernist tenets puzzled critics at the time; in parallel with the rise of conceptual, land, and performance art – all of which sought to abandon object-making and the studio – illusionistic art seemed downright counterrevolutionary. But by the1970s, these paintings were being exhibited widely and to warm public reception. There was clearly a thirst for art that was once again visually pleasing and, well, collectible. In that decade, several interchangeable terms were coined to reify this tendency, among them “Photorealism,” “Super Realism,” and “Hyper Realism.”
Ozeri’s photorealist paintings reveal impressive craftsmanship and disciplined dedication. Executed meticulously after photographs, the painted surfaces of his works are precise yet sensual. They adeptly capture various idiosyncratic sensory qualities – the glow of moist skin under sunlight, the weight of a wet dress clamping onto the body, and the brutal force of waves crashing into rugged rocks. Much like in a photograph, areas of detailed, sharp focus are seamlessly integrated with more painterly zones of soft focus. But Ozeri seems not be concerned with just replicating the photograph, nor just replicating real life. Instead, his work takes reality and transports it into a dreamlike and mythical realm.
The majority of the series is comprised of portraits of a beautiful young woman in a floral dress. She lies half-submerged in water, her skin covered in a soft veil of sunlight. This dreamy idyll, however, is tempered by a hint of the ominous, as her repose and long brown hair spur an immediate association with John Everett Millais’ tragic Ophelia. The theme of death asserts its presence even more when the viewer recalls the subject is not just a beautiful woman and a mythical nymph, but also a soldier serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). In several works, the woman’s expressive gaze falls directly on the viewer. Her eyes become a portal from the idyllic dream world to the disquieting realities of political conflict and violence. When a woman comes of age in Israel, she is required to give two years of military service in the IDF. The knowing but vulnerable gaze of this young soldier reveals a girl who’s had to grow up too fast. The ambivalent tone of Ozeri’s paintings reflects the ambivalence of lived reality for soldiers in the IDF. Just as his art tethers between the real and the ideal, individual actions are fraught by the tension between agency and duty, between national defense and violent offense, and between land rights and human rights.
* The exhibition is on display till August 10, 2013 at Angell Gallery, 12 Ossington Avenue. Gallery hours: Wed – Sat 12 – 5 p.m.