In discussion of one of the women featured in his new body of work, “Garden of the Gods”, Yigal Ozeri wistfully notes, “This is the perfect face of melancholy. It’s such an intimate moment. She is remembering something.” That Ozeri summons memory and melancholy within the same breath is not contradictory but complimentary, for two delineate the extreme bookends of desire. Yet, it is not the desire to recreate a past event that defines the works as much as a meditation on the space between reality and fantasy. That is, Ozeri does not imagine or emulate a pre-existing scenario from which humanity had since devolved. Rather, he conjures scenarios that could have never existed, and the memory to which he alludes in the above statement is not of an actual event but of a gap between the physical and metaphysical, that which cannot be proven or unproven, the axiomatic realm in which the women freely roam.
Associations of Ozeri’s work with the Pre-Raphaelites are inevitable, for like the women featured in the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John William Waterhouse and John Everett Millais, among others, Ozeri’s women are to be read as embodiments of poems, sonnets and chants, not mortals. Seldom do viewers see their feet for they are extensions of the earth on which they tread. Like the weeds, the trees, the branches, the rocks, and the grass blades that envelope them, they are every bit as natural and organic in their being and consequently, their appearance. Their willowy figures are bent by the wind, their skin is caressed by the sun, and their fingers are as delicate as petals. There is no sense of resistance in their bodies or unfamiliarity in their facial expressions for they are one with their surroundings.
The white garb in which the women are dressed is of importance. As a color, it is a blank space, a return to a primal existence, one that is not stained or colored by experience. It is imbued with an immediate sense of purity, neutrality and innocence and almost removes the women from judgment. They are rendered as modern-day reincarnations of Eve, for centuries the emblem of treason but now redeemed in her union with the Earth from which she was created. It is perhaps that memory to which Ozeri refers in his earlier statement, one of a time in which Eve was merely the first woman and not the first conniving seductress. But even if that is the memory that Ozeri alludes to, it is one that exists through oral and literary legacies, not a scientific or photographic proof, and as such, remains elusive.
Interestingly enough, photography plays an enormous role in Ozeri’s work. As seen in his previous oeuvres such as “Priscilla in Ecstasy” and “Lizzie in the Snow”, Ozeri relies on photography as source material. In her discussion of the field of photography, Susan Sontag noted that a photograph is “a trace, something directly stenciled off the real.” In that regard, the resulting image does not have to prove itself or justify its authenticity for it is culled from existence. A photograph, after all, is “taken”, not “made”, which immediately aligns it with the Truth. Nonetheless, Sontag also noted, a photograph dilutes the importance of experience. In that regard, the photograph’s strong ties to reality are the very same thing that discourage the viewers from experiencing reality to its fullest. The photograph becomes readily acceptable as a surrogate of something that once happened, and by virtue of its having been recorded, substitutes that which it portrays.
At this thought, in fact, one cannot help but evoke the beliefs held by traditional civilizations that a photograph captures, arguably steals, the soul of the photographed individual. The resulting image, therefore, is not merely a record, but a chip of realty, an object with a stolen spirit. As such, the photograph likewise devalues reality and diminishes the importance of physical experience. In that regard, one may wonder when looking at Ozeri’s images – all based on photographs that he himself had taken – whether they are mementos of a reality that he was in no position to steal, or perhaps relics of fantastical ruins that he ought to have left untouched within the realms of the imagination. This suggestion could hold some truth had it not been for the fact that Ozeri’s photographs are not the end product but a vessel for the paintings.
By painting and recreating the photographs using the thinnest of brushes, masterful skills and boundless patience, Ozeri deftly and painstakingly re-animates the photograph with a human touch. In doing so, he breathes life into the fleeting moments that he had captured, challenging the momentary recording of the photograph, turning the temporal to the eternal. If any spirit had been stolen in the photographing process, Ozeri lovingly restores it to the women depicted. The paintings, accordingly, are not to be read as photorealistic, but rather, as transcending reality, a visual meditation on the soul.
The power of the paintings lies in their devotion to the unseen. Like the impressionists, the paintings leave viewers with a sense of ambience, as opposed to didactic interpretations of reality. Despite their clarity, they evolve past their own subject matter as well as their own materiality, acting as a visual trace of an untouchable but undeniable spirit.
Similarly, the title of the series, “Garden of the Gods”, is redolent of another historic artwork of a similar title that also emphasizes the elements of aura and energy over human physicality – Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” In both bodies of work, the garden acts as a representational nexus in which excess is celebrated. The physicality or accuracy of the space is negligible since the actions that partake within it supercede the link to reality or a sense of familiarity. The central panel within Bosch’s masterpiece, flanked between the birth of Adam and Eve on one side, and the hellish progression to sin on the other, depicts the liminal space between the beginning and the end, the pure and the sinful, and it is that very same space that Ozeri captures in his own garden. Like Bosch’s interlocked figures connote the pleasures of life, Ozeri’s women are emblems of something that extends beyond the human condition. They are not primordial or devolved, but rather, they comprise the sliver of energy between the two.
It is upon close inspection that viewers begin to discern the gentle brushstrokes form which the women are made; the layers that build up their skin, their hair, their white dresses and their surrounding. Paradoxically, as viewers approximate the works within breathing distance, the women slip away from any photographically familiar sense of reality and into the world of a painted fantasy. It is us, the viewers, who are then left with what Ozeri termed as “the perfect face of melancholy”, feeling as though we were on the cusp of remembering something truly magnificent and otherworldly, only to quickly acknowledge that it had never quite existed.