Artist tricks the eye with lifelike paintings

Yigal Ozeri has gotten used to double-takes. The painter, a Tel Aviv native who has made New York his home for 20 years, takes great satisfaction in the combination of wonder and confusion his work sometimes elicits from viewers.

“It can be called photorealism,” Ozeri, 53, says by phone from his New Jersey painting studio. “But I truly feel that I’m painting from life — it’s my way of capturing reality, capturing a moment or a performance.” Known for their “trompe l’oeil” effect (one can hardly tell whether they are paintings or photographs) and for their recurring motifs (young women relaxing in rustic, pastoral settings), Ozeri’s paintings have been exhibited internationally since 1988.

His first Bay Area show, a solo exhibition of new work titled “Territory,” opened May 10 at the Jenkins Johnson Gallery in San Francisco. Included are new large-scale oil paintings as well as a group of smaller watercolor pieces.

Many of these paintings focus on New York City’s Central Park, which Ozeri captures as a sort of modern-day utopia; his carefree subjects, lounging in nature, recall both Victorian romanticism and a more contemporary female sensuality. The artist cites Andrew Wyeth as an “idol,” but says he deals with women and nature in a much less “conservative” way than did the celebrated American painter.

Megan, a painting by Israeli-American Yigal Ozeri

“I was a city boy all my life,” explains Ozeri, who started painting around age 10. His father would take him on trips to Jaffa and Jerusalem, and the budding artist spent his time drawing everything he saw. “So for me, when I first came to New York and saw Central Park,” he says, “that was it — that was nature to me. And the fact that it was in the middle of the city, that made it all the more beautiful.”

His signature style is the result of a multi-step process. Women are photographed in a setting of Ozeri’s choosing, but with minimal direction — it’s important that they be truly relaxed and free to move however they wish, he says. Ozeri then works on the images digitally, printing different versions to use as studies for the work, which he then paints in oils on paper (as opposed to canvas). The result is a richly rendered portrait in which textures like hair and grass and fabric come alive; viewers feel as though they’ve been dropped directly into a warm summer morning in the park.

Ozeri’s unique approach is also the culmination of decades of artistic evolution: He achieved considerable success in Israel before the age of 30, showing his abstract paintings in museums in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Slowly, he began to transition into architectural paintings. But it was at the Museo del Prado in Madrid, while standing in front of a piece by renowned portrait painter Diego Velázquez, that Ozeri had a career-changing realization.

“I stood in front of one piece for three hours,” he recalls, “and it changed me completely. I said to myself, ‘If I want to call myself a painter, I will have to paint figures. I have to learn to paint a portrait, little by little.’ ”

Rony by Yigal Ozeri

The artist, his wife and daughter moved to New York in 1991, following the Gulf War, and Ozeri continued his transformation; he felt the arts community in the city was crucial to his career. At his first painting studio in Long Island City in Queens, he began painting the natural scenes he could see outside his window, as well as the pigeons that liked to sit on his sill. It was during this time that he began to take photographs in different light — morning, afternoon, early evening — to use as studies.

For the last three decades, Ozeri’s work has been part of permanent collections at New York’s Jewish Museum, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Haifa Museum of Art, among others. This newest exhibition comes to San Francisco after shows in New York (where he’s represented by the Mike Weiss Gallery) and Denmark.

The artist — father to a 25-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son — resides in the West Village with his wife. But he relishes the opportunity to visit new cities.

“Aside from my work, my mission is to educate people, and I very much enjoy talking about art,” Ozeri says. “I love meeting people, and if people feel a connection to my work, then I am always happy to talk about it.”

“Territory,” through June 30 at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter St., S.F. www.jenkinsjohnsongallery.com.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.