Monday, March 24, 2008

Yigal Ozeri's Skilled Subjugation

There’s no denying that Israeli-born artist Yigal Ozeri’s photorealistic paintings at Mike Weiss Gallery are technically stunning. Detail that only intensive labor with a single-hair brush can produce is combined with lush, naturalistic jewel-tones and a diffused luminosity in this series of 18 works in oil. Titled Genesis, the exhibition showcases a blonde, dreadlocked young woman named Priscilla emerging from vines, forests, and streams as if she were a part of the surrounding nature. Supported by a workshop of seven artists, Ozeri generates meticulously precise canvases that follow traditional standards and enter into art historical discussions.

It’s hard not to be dazzled by such skillfully rendered and aesthetically beautiful paintings, as they are a rare and prized occurrence in the conceptually-inclined, new-media driven New York art world. Yet, after one moves past the spell of Ozeri’s craft layers of meaning and multiple points of contention are discovered. Issues of gender, power, historical canons, and artist’s intent versus viewer interpretation brew under the surface of Ozeri’s mesmerizing creations.

The first three paintings in the exhibition are from a series titled Priscilla in Ecstasy and show the model/muse laying in the water amongst lily pads, mouth agape, with dewy tears falling down her pale face. The brocade on Priscilla’s dress, as well as her surroundings, are nearly identical to John Everett Millais’ famous Ophelia. The Pre-Raphaelite motif is unmistakable, as is the connection of Ophelia to aestheticization of women’s suffering and violence. The young woman appears to be in pain, either emotional or physical, although the title of the series suggests pleasure. The dichotomy of pleasure and pain is especially suspect in relation to a female subject being portrayed by a male both within preexisting societal power constructs and the history of Western art. From the very first portraits in the exhibition, one sees a woman in the role of powerless object, an archetype of feminine submission.

The surrounding paintings in the first room of the gallery are mostly nude portraits of the muse engulfed by nature. She is bare breasted riding a horse that exists outside of the picture plane, she is completely nude hanging on a tree, and sitting cross-legged with her head turned away, face obscured by her mass of dreaded hair. Once again alluding to art historical sources in the portrait Untitled; Priscilla lying in the woods, Ozeri invokes the tradition of the lounging nude, mimicking a wide range of masterpieces such as Trutat’s Reclining Bacchante or Manet’s infamous Olympia.

In John Berger’s seminal essay Ways of Seeing, the author differentiates between being portrayed as naked and as nude. “To be naked is to be oneself,” he states, “nudity is [to be] placed on display.” The question now is if Priscilla is depicted as naked or nude by Ozeri. Was the artist attempting to depict the essence of Priscilla the individual or was he using her young, nubile figure to titillate? The answer could be as multifaceted as one’s own desire to see their image duplicated or an artist’s quest to obtain beauty in every form. The implications involved in both using the unclothed female form and allowing oneself to be the object of such use are that the (male) artist/viewer ascertains power and control over the (female) model.

The back room of the gallery is filled with portraits of the woman from the neck up. In contrast to the full-body images in the previous room, in these works Priscilla peers out from behind vines, looking directly at the viewer. The expression on her face is soft and inviting, with a provoking Mona Lisa-like half smile. Her blonde locks are barely distinguishable from the tangled, sun-bleached vegetation, and her face is bare and natural. These descriptions might sound like the schmaltzy commentary of a women’s magazine, but that is perhaps because despite their exquisite detail and immense skill, the paintings project the familiar appearance of a fashion spread.

Considering the parallels between traditional Western nudes and Ozeri’s depiction of Priscilla as desirable (and obtainable), one could conclude that the Israeli artist’s paintings closely follow an equation of male dominance and female submission in which the woman becomes the object of the male gaze. The conjunction of the art historical, Pre-Raphaelite allusions to Ophelia, which represents a weakness in femininity, and the modern high-fashion aesthetic, which connotes women’s objectification, form a structure in which the female is essentially powerless. The paintings in Genesis fit into the male-dominated canon of art history through their use of devices such as inviting the male gaze, and presenting the nude, female form as a commodity one can own.

Ozeri is no doubt a talented and dedicated artist with a great appreciation of beauty and, one could argue, of the conventionally proportioned female form. The way in which he portrays Priscilla in Genesis, however, is less than conducive to the promotion of the young woman as an autonomous being. It cannot be expected that every artist exercise a feminist consciousness in their work, but it would be refreshing to see less males utilizing and regurgitating the same patriarchal equations that have unfortunately underlined the history of art. Hopefully Ozeri will find less hokey and subjugating ways to share his technical skill with the world.


Priscilla said...


YoungWilliam said...

I've yet to see many more of his works in their entirety (since most sites seem to just have a few images here, a few images there, instead of the entire multi-image works), so my personal jury is still out on the intent behind them; as I like to say tongue-in-cheekily, one murder does not a murderer make.

YoungWilliam said...

Pardon the double post, but the way to subscribe to a particular post after posting isn't very evident.