“I’m not afraid of the word romanticism.” – Robert Ayers in conversation with Yigal Ozeri.
I’ve known Yigal Ozeri for something like four years now, and written about his work for ARTINFO on several occasions. He is a genuinely larger than life character, and one of the most voluble, most likeable characters on the New York art scene. Born in Israel in 1958, Mr Ozeri has been working here for almost twenty years now and since 2005 he has become the hugely successful painter of beautiful but somewhat disconcerting figure paintings. As well as showing in New York with his close friend Mike Weiss, he has shown recently at Galerie Dukan & Hourdequin, Marseille, France, the Alon Segev Gallery, Tel Aviv, Israel, and the Byron Cohen Gallery, Kansas City, MO. He is pursued by a bevy of eager private collectors, though he is not without his detractors, who baulk either at his work’s romanticism or its sexuality.
His latest show, “Desire for Anima”, opens at the Mike Weiss Gallery on Thursday, September 10. It is made up almost entirely of large-scale oil paintings on paper (there are some preparatory drawings included, and a beguiling video piece) and last week I talked to him at the gallery while the show was being hung. We covered technical matters – as he explains here he works from photographs or video stills – discussed the issue of sexuality in his work, and touched upon the relationship of his painting to the contemporary scene. Mr Ozeri reveals himself to be an artist utterly convinced of the special importance of what he is doing and of his relationship to the history of art, and this turned out to be one of the most provocative conversations that I have ever had with an artist.
Yigal, who are the young women in your pictures?
Something like six years ago when I first decided I wanted to work with models, I put something on craigslist. Girls showed up who’d posed for magazines, and they looked like something out of Penthouse. There was no one that interested me. But by chance I’d also advertized for a man with long hair. This one guy showed up, a very interesting guy, and in conversation he said, “I have a girlfriend, but the problem is that she lives in the forest in Maine.” I didn’t believe him, but the next week we went and we met this girl – her name is Priscilla – in Maine. So that’s how it started.
And what was it that Priscilla had that those other models hadn’t?
Priscilla is the real thing. She’s a person who lives in nature, and all her food comes from nature. I didn’t believe that they still existed, but there are people who live like that. A new generation who live like the hippies did in the sixties and seventies.
Was Yigal Ozeri a hippie, back in the day?
I could not fulfill that dream back then. I was in Israel, just reading about it in the paper. But for me this is a way to see that life again, to live that life again. So I was looking for that kind of person, that kind of girl. They have no home, they’re not thinking about money, they’re not thinking about what they’re going to do tomorrow. And I found Priscilla.
And how did you meet the young women in these new paintings?
I met a designer, a Hassidic Jew who left the Hassidic community and became one of a group of people who live like hippies: people who live in a different house every day, and don’t even know what they’re going to do the next day. They are not beggars, they are not homeless, but they don’t have a salary and they do their own thing. I was fascinated. And this guy introduced me to these two girls, Jessica and Jana.
And when you did photograph them, it was out in this meadow. Why was that?
I am fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites – artists from nineteenth century England who went out into nature and celebrated nature. So I took Jana and Jessica to the home a couple of my collectors in New Jersey, where they have a beautiful, endless wheat field near their home. I could do a complete celebration in nature there.
What did you tell them to do?
I hardly said anything. I never direct anybody. I never directed Priscilla. I said, “OK, I’ll take the camera and I’ll let you do whatever you want,” and that’s how we did it. It was very playful. They did what they wanted, what they felt, and it was great. I used a long lens from far away and took thousands of photographs.
Then what happens? You select an image from those thousands?
Yes, then I work with it digitally on the computer. In Photoshop. Sometimes I change the light, or I change the colors. Then I print a big photograph. I do a drawing on paper from that, and then I paint. Every part gets the same amount of attention, the same focus. Look at the skin, and the degree of detail. There are maybe twenty or thirty layers there. People ask me, “Why paper?” Well, when you touch canvas the surface rejects you, but when you touch paper the surface sucks you in. It lets you work. It’s very friendly.
You work with assistants, don’t you?
Yes, ten painting assistants, and another five working on the video and photography. It’s a whole crew. They’re assistants who work like they did in the renaissance. . Van Eyck, or Velasquez, or Leonardo, or Rubens, they all worked with assistants. They were directors. I believe in that. Go to the Metropolitan Museum. The best piece there is that van Eyck where he used twenty-five assistants. And it’s the best piece there because every one of them gave their best.
The best artist you can find will work ten hours a day for six days a week. That’s sixty hours. We are talking about 600 hours a week. What one person can do in a year, we can do in a month. This whole show took a year and a half.
My system is that they work for me ten hours a day, three days a week, and the rest of the time they do their own art. They’re not slaves. I’m not like Jeff Koons. And they don’t work for me for more than three years. They go on to do their own art and I take on new people. It’s like an education.
Let me just be certain about this. Does your brush touch every part of the picture?
I touch every single part in every piece. I’m like a conductor who works with the different elements. The assistants do the drawing and they start putting in a lot of layers. It’s very fast. Then I start to get involved in a big way with the highlights. I have help, but only one person works with me on the highest detail. I do most of the main stuff – the hair, the face – but you need a lot of people otherwise you don’t finish. Filmmakers have a lot of people working with them. Some do the costumes, some do the scenery, and they’re brilliant artists. In the end, a lot of people are involved in a great piece of art.
Can we go back to the Photoshop stage? Will you sometimes combine different elements from two different photographs?
No, and this is very unusual. If you take one of today’s figurative painters – let’s say Lisa Yuskavage or Marilyn Minter or John Currin. Everybody says they are the most important contemporary artists, but they are very academic. John Currin uses art history and makes a collage: he takes a shot of his wife and he takes a body from Cranach and he puts them together and he has a painting. I’m not saying anything against that. He’s a brilliant painter. But what I do is completely different because I disconnect myself from art history. I worked with it for many years, but what I do now is push through to real life. I am dealing with reality. I think that I am one of the only artists who does that, and this is the kind of stuff that people don’t understand.
Well, explain what you mean by reality.
This is reality. You cannot get that if you go to the studio and manipulate what you have. I don’t manipulate. I take reality as it is. In my paintings you feel the moment, the smell, the breath. Like this painting of Megan: I spent a long time with Megan. She’s not a model. She’s just a regular person, a regular girl who goes to fashion school. I took her to Central Park, and I told her, “We’ll find the location, but I’m disappearing, and you do whatever you want.” She chose her clothes, and she brought her stuff and made a picnic – sitting down, lying down, doing whatever she wanted the whole day, and I was shooting from so far away with a big lens that she didn’t see me. I really let her do whatever she wanted. And this is what I’ve achieved: I can get inside people’s lives.
So, you’re saying there’s no sexual dimension to these pictures?
In its final results I don’t feel that my work is about sexuality. It’s about joy. I think that two naked women in a big field of wheat is the most complete connection with nature. It’s completely about freedom. It’s completely about celebration.
But people often talk about these young women as your “muses”. That word often has a sexual implication.
Maybe, but I don’t have that sort of relationship with them. You have to be like a shadow that goes with them. But you cannot have a relationship with them. It’s hard. I’m a married man, I have kids, and I love my wife and I love my family. It’s tempting. But you can’t have them falling in love with you. You have to be very careful. It’s a decision that I’ve made.
But surely they are your friends?
They’re really good friends. They introduce me to all their friends and their family. If they need anything they can call me. When you do something that is so intimate with people, you have to be part of their life.
You try to get into their head, but without interfering.
Tell me why you’ve borrowed Carl Jung’s word “anima” in the title of this show.
When people tell you over many years that you are a certain way, it probably means that you are that way. People have said for years that the point of view that comes out of my work is that it’s like a woman painted it. That’s a big compliment in my opinion, and I’ll tell you why. It’s like I come to these girls not like a man with his sexual gaze but as a part of their heads. Like Carl Jung said, there’s a part of a woman in the head of a man. That’s the achievement here. I really think that it’s happened, after the six or seven years that I’ve been dealing with this subject. That’s what’s unique – I’m not like most painters who have a dialogue or a friendship or a relationship with a model. It’s not like Andrew Wyeth. It doesn’t work like that. It’s work with a different point of view. That’s what I meant about reality.
Some people might call that romantic, rather than realistic.
I’m not afraid of the word romanticism. This is what I bring back to painting, and what I bring back to the art world. The art world is so full of violence, of death, of disgusting stuff, and I bring romanticism, the back to things. Or really I don’t bring it back – I show it in people who are living today and want it like that. To show people living in nature without malice, people who need nothing besides love, is more radical than going taking photographs in Iraq. With all the things that are happening in the world today, all the violence, all the sex, I take things to the opposite place, to the most freedom , and to the celebration of nature. And there’s a lot of this new generation who choose to live like that.
Look what’s happening in architecture. Look what’s happening in film, and in fashion. Everybody’s moving to the next generation. We have to move to a different place. We cannot stay still any more. How many times can you use illustration? How many times can you use comics? How many times can you use American pop? It’s been done. You have to move to a new place, to real life.