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Ori Gersht
at Santa Barbara Museum of Art & Angles Gallery
Review by Diane Calder/Michael Shaw

In his photographs and film Ori Gersht brings together classical beauty with the chaos of violent action in a compelling mix.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, California
Continuing through September 4, 2011

Angles Gallery, Culver City, California
Continuing through July 9, 2011

Raise your hand if you know which artist said “I\'m thinking about scenarios where, in one place, there is a very bloody war, while in another place people are living a comfortable, decadent lifestyle.” Israeli born, London based photographer and film artist Ori Gersht reflects on that quote and arrives at a very different response to his examination of similar issues. He purposefully imposes chaos on serenity. Utilizing complex technology, he creates work that investigates the power of human intervention on natural beauty.

In 2009, when Gersht’s film “Pomegranate” was on display at Washington D.C.’s Hirshhorn Museum, in response to Joseph Caputo’s query regarding violence and the compulsion to watch it, Gersht voiced the words quoted above and included the following clarification. “My work is not so much a direct commentary as it is an open-ended observation of the absurdities around us. Violence can be very grotesque and also intensely attractive. What interests me is how the two — beauty and violence — live side by side, and how moments can be created and erased almost simultaneously.”

Opening with half a dozen stunning, enlarged, stop motion photographs of an exploding floral arrangement, Gersht’s first solo West Coast museum show directly addresses his point of view. Drawing their title from Michelangelo Antonioni’s visionary 1966 film, Gersht’s “Blow Up” series pictures shattered, airborne red, white and blue flowers mimicking the spectacle of Fourth of July fireworks ripping through the night sky. Although Henri Fantin-Latour’s “The Rosy Wealth of June” (1886), from the National Gallery, London, is a reference for this work, J. M. W. Turner’s interpretations of nature’s wrath must be taken into consideration when examining the London schooled Gersht’s interest in the sublime.

The first of three digital HD films, “Big Bang II” unveils the gradual transformation of Gersht’s floral arrangement into an abstract explosion of color and form, prolonging suspense via the use of slow motion familiar to fans of action movies. Pulling off Gersht’s blast requires the orchestration of exceptional camerawork, skilled pyrotechnics and the cryogenic preservation of flowers, allowing them to shatter like shop windows on Kristallnacht. Viewers who happen to catch the four-minute loop at its start will hear Israeli air raid and Holocaust memorial sirens as tension builds in anticipation of Gersht’s acceleration of the tempo of deterioration implicit in Dutch and French historical still life paintings.
By substituting a pomegranate for the quince in his film and stop motion photo reconstructions of a still life painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán, Gersht not only gets a blood red target for the bullet he aims at the fruit, but gains access to a multitude of religious and cultural symbols. Pomegranates signify the persistence of life and regeneration in the myth of Persephone. For many biblical scholars, they are the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden, an interesting factor when comparing “Pomegranates” with Harold E. Edgerton’s “Bullet through Apple” (1964). The pomegranate, bursting open, was considered to be a symbol of the fullness of Jesus\' suffering and resurrection in Cotán’s era. Although the Spaniard joined a Carthusian monastery shortly after “Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber” (ca. 1602) was created, this work and other examples of naturalism played its part in the Renaissance intellectual and scientific turn towards secularism that split open old faith based traditions.

\"Falling Bird\" (2008) and more recent photographic works featured in Gersht’s exhibition, “Lost in Time,” fuse the past with what the artist has called the “ultimate present.”  His brilliantly plumed dead fowl drops out of the sky like a nose-diving airplane. That threat of death and disaster plays out in the six gorgeous C type prints in the series, “Chasing Good Fortune” (2010). Gersht’s photographs of cherry trees, sakura, simultaneously suggest the sense of renewal celebrated at spring viewing parties throughout Japan and the ephemeral nature of life. The cherry trees blossom in clouds, a metaphor for group orientated Japanese culture. During World War II, Japanese cherry blossoms came to be used as a motivating symbol to encourage both militarism and nationalism among the general population. Cherry blossoms, esteemed for their short yet brilliant life, would often be painted on airplanes flown by kamikaze pilots on suicide missions. Gersht captured the images in this exhibition a year ago at historic sites, including Hiroshima and the grounds of Tokyo’s Imperial Palace. But in the ultimate present, after Japan’s earthquake, while evoking Gersht’s ongoing engagement with beauty, they also remind us that destruction can be compelling to watch.

In a concurrent gallery exhibition, “Falling Petals” ritualizes Gersht’s encounter with Japan during cherry blossom season. Many of the works exude an especially dark, ethereal presence thanks to their being captured at night, in some cases appearing as if a soft spotlight was shone out amidst the trees (it’s actually just the camera’s sensor working overtime). “Imperial Memories: Floating Petals, Black Water,” one of the strongest works, as well as a bit of an outlier in the show, is a cosmos of blossom residue floating enmeshed within the darkness of the river’s surface, an elegy and an abstraction simultaneously.  The show also includes Gersht’s high production short film, “Will You Dance For Me,” which depicts Auschwitz survivor and dancer, Yehudit Arnon, mysteriously rocking in and out of the darkness while we hear her recounting her experience of being forced to stand outside all night in the snow, as punishment from SS officers whom she refused to dance for at a party. Elegantly scored, the film, while at times a bit too overwrought, is anchored by supreme cinematography, and makes any reservations about an overabundance of melodrama entirely forgivable.

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