Internationally Renowned Artist Yigal Ozeri Brings Works to Lilienthal Gallery

Yigal Azeri, Photorealism Exhibtion, Lilienthal Gallery, Knoxville, February 2024
Yigal Ozeri, Photorealism Exhibition, Lilienthal Gallery, Knoxville, February 2024

Lilienthal Gallery in Emory Place features an exhibition by Israeli born, New York based photorealist artist Yigal Ozeri, opening tonight. The artist will be present in the gallery to discuss his works tonight and Saturday and Sunday from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. His works are included in the collections of both the Whitney Museum and the Smithsonian among others. With solo exhibitions around the world in such places as Bologna, Barcelona, Los Angeles, Toronto, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Munich, France, Denmark, Peru, India, the occasion marks the first time his original works can be seen in Knoxville. Some of the works viewed here have not been previously shown to the public.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Yigal speak about his work over dinner, in a salon, and most recently as we walked through the new exhibition. His passion for art, beauty, and his work shine through not only in his paintings, but in every conversation. It’s a lifelong pursuit marked by hard work, extreme talent, and very good fortune when he needed it.

It started when, as a very young child, a neighbor recognized his gift as they painted pictures of animals from the encyclopedia. He returned every Saturday to paint. Early art classes ended in mixed results as teachers struggled to understand his boredom at their lessons. He had one teacher who recognized his talents and secretly gave him special attention. He ultimately attended art school in Israel, but his path was set.

Visiting New York City for the first time, in 1989 with a friend, the two stayed in a YMCA due to limited funds. By fluke, the two met an influential person in the arts world who saw a small catalogue of his work and sent him back to Israel to get the originals. On his return, she showed those to the director of the Jewish Museum who set in motion his first solo exhibition there.

Yigal Ozeri
Yigal Ozeri, Road Trip; 36 x 24 in, Oil on Canvas, 2023
Yigal Ozeri, Flowers in the Desert

The exhibition went well, but at the end, a major collector (he had purchased a Jasper Johns piece that week for $17.75 million) purchased all remaining works for the then stunning figure of $32,000. The director of the show told Yigal he must move to New York City. After his move, a friend helped him secure a studio where he would work for many years.

Yigal’s artistic journey started with a focus on abstraction, but he soon found himself drawn to works by realist artists, such as Andrew Wyeth, and realistic works by artists such as Chuck Close. His life work became photorealism with a focus on portraiture, often of young women in natural settings. More recently, his attention has turned to scenes from New York City and scenes including Americana. The exhibition contains grouped examples of each.

One example of his earliest work with portraiture included in this exhibition is his portrait of Priscilla from his ecstasy series. The oil painting, which could easily be mistaken for a photograph to the untrained eye, shows the emotion of ecstasy, much as Millais’ portrayal of Ophelia. Yigal met Priscilla, who lived in a tree house in Maine, and recognized her connection to nature, feeling she would be the ideal subject for the series.

He photographed and filmed her in Costa Rica, then painted her from the photographs, though his final paintings never match a particular photograph, as he moves photograph elements to make the art he imagines. He calls his process “erasing the photograph.” He speaks in near reverence of this series as Priscilla, uncoached, “It was mesmerizing. The water was freezing. Ecstasy is a small death . . . that scene I will never forget.” Tallya Bensira, who helped bring the exhibition to Knoxville said, “He is a poet on canvas,” as she pointed to the light on Priscilla’s face and the depth created in the painting. Yigal said it was amazing to watch her in her element. “People say it is about beauty. It’s not about that. It’s about emotion . . . new birth.”

Yigal Ozeri, Priscilla in Ecstacy, Oil on Paper
Yigal Ozeri, Betty Boop, 30 X 40 inches, Oil on Canvas, 2022

The journey of photorealism has been a difficult one at times. Major museums shied away from the form in the 70’s and 80’s, embracing Pop Art as the legitimate contemporary form. That has changed in recent years with the development, for example, of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection of the form, of which Yigal is a part. His work stands out from the others because it contains a human, emotional element often missing in the works of others as they copy photographs which are often still life photos. It tells a story and in that, Yigal has changed the art form.

Tallya said, “In a photorealist painting there are a few levels of enjoyment, of understanding. First of all, you admire the ability. This is an exceptional ability that Yigal has that very few people in the world have . . . But when you look at that you see different levels, suddenly you see the background is not as sharp . . . look at the hair, it’s a single-strand brush . . . It’s all about discipline. Look into her eyes.”

Yigal Ozeri, Photorealism Exhibition, Lilienthal Gallery, Knoxville, February 2024
Yigal Ozeri, Photorealism Exhibition, Lilienthal Gallery, Knoxville, February 2024
Yigal Ozeri, Photorealism Exhibition, Lilienthal Gallery, Knoxville, February 2024

Yigal feels who he paints single strands of hair and how he gets the finish on his paintings makes him unique. Richard Estes came to his studio to see how he works and was amazed at his layering over not-dry paint, which is part of how he gets the effect. Chuck Close came to his studio to see his work on paper and how he paints hair, saying, “You will stay in history because of how you paint hair, faces, light. I’ve never seen an artist like you. This is emotional.”

Tallya pointed to another painting of a diner that contains a juke box in the center, a large Betty Boop statue, and more elements associated with Americana. In the very edge of the photograph is a hand of a person seated at a table. We can’t see the rest of him, but it adds mystery and story to the work. Who is he? Why is he in this place?

This is how the story begins. Every work has a story. That is why a call him a poet. It isn’t simply a reproduction of reality, and he gives it to you in hints . . . Photography was an end to realism. It was neglected for a hundred years and considered not important because the camera can do it better. Now people want to see the talent, the ability, something they can’t do on canvass . . . figurative art is returning to the stage . . . What Yigal is doing in photorealism and realism in general is doing, is bringing back the essence and quality of the old masters.

Of his recent work on New York scenes and Americana, he said his daughter, who is director of his studio, pointed out that his focus on beauty had not included the beauty around them. She pointed out the great scenes on New York City streets. She pushed him in that direction, and he feels it was a good decision. Sometimes he uses models in a setting and sometimes he simply captures a scene as it presents itself.

Yigal Ozeri, Photorealism Exhibition, Lilienthal Gallery, Knoxville, February 2024

Fourteen years ago, Yigal, along with Eugene LaMay, with support from moving mogul and developer Moishe Mana opened Mana Contemporary in Jersey City. The two-million square foot former tobacco factory serves as a incubator for young artists and a center for the arts community there with studios, residencies for artists, and two large galleries. Locations have been added in both Chicago and Miami. In addition to pursuing his own artistic vision, Yigal continues the thread of art history as he mentors artists there.

You can meet Yigal and hear him talk about his art this evening at a black-tie event at First Friday event at the gallery (23 Emory Place) or from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm Saturday and Sunday afternoons. For the remainder of this month and into June the exhibition will be available for viewing during regular gallery hours (Noon – 6:00 pm, Wednesday, Friday – Sunday) and by special appointment.