Exhibit preview: The traumatic beauty of Ori Gersht

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From the August 28, 2014 edition

The captivating beauty within Ori Gersht’s photography and video works are obvious, but that’s only part of the reason the Israeli-born artist is recognized as one of the most interesting and provocative individuals currently working. Aside from the stunning aesthetics, Gersht is drawing attention and accolades for the contemplation that permeates into each image.

“His work deals with all levels of history, violence and beauty. So there are a lot of directions in it,” said Rebecca Ibel, director and curator of the Pizzuti Collection, which will feature three videos from Gersht over the remainder of 2014 as part of the “Now-ism: Abstraction Today” exhibition. “In my opinion, the beauty of contemporary art is about the world around us. In one image, [Gersht] presents the human condition of all different sorts.”

Gersht’s work presents its meaningful complexity in the thematic subtext. The powerful visuals (often still life, landscape or portraiture) are designed to convey a consideration of the human condition — how it’s both beautiful and immensely flawed.

Gersht contemplates the violent, traumatic history of humanity; hence, he uses locales like Hiroshima, the Middle East or the Pyrenees Mountains. The latter is the setting for his video, “Evaders,” which premieres Sept. 5 at the Pizzuti Collection. “Evaders” recreates philosopher Walter Benjamin’s attempt through the range to escape Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

“You get a sense with Gersht’s work that just under the surface of this beautiful landscape is this traumatic history or an element of conflict,” said Tyler Cann, contemporary curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, which will exhibit a number of Gersht’s works in collaboration with the Pizzuti Collection this fall. “That has to do in some ways with how he’s treated the image; [often] it’s not just a straight-on photograph. The beautiful nature of his work is always undercut by that sense of violence. And that’s history too; a history of violence and conflict.”

A somewhat unexpected, yet prime example of the meditative quality within Gersht’s work comes through in his still-life photography series. He often references iconic paintings in the composition, but Gersht dramatically transforms them, sometimes through technical manipulation, or in the case of the still life, by blowing it up — literally in regards to his “Blow Up” series of exploding flowers.

Gersht is commenting on the tradition of still-life paintings, the works’ life-and-death theme, and how that contrasting theme parallels the splendor and savagery of human nature.

“Traditionally still lifes include a sense of mortality; a fruit that’s on the verge of rotting or a fly on a rose petal. Or, even further, a memento mori, a reminder of death, like a skull, and … are often about the fragility and ephemerality of life,” Cann said. “That stands in contrast to the paintings’ stillness and the fact that it’s everlasting in a way that the subject is not.”

“Nothing is really in a vacuum; we’re all part of a process. And Gersht really brings people in through recognizable ideas and places. He takes his work to a whole new level of places. I think because he does fit into a conversation about what is the still life and what it’s about,” Ibel said during a phone interview. “The still lifes coming out of the Dutch tradition were really about the human condition being a fleeting moment. They’re a complex subject in themselves, and Gersht just picked up that conversation and took it to a whole new place.”

The two-part Gersht exhibition is borne out of Ron and Ann Pizzuti’s affinity and relationship with the artist. The Pizzutis have collected Gersht’s work since his early days, and have collaborated with the art museum to host simultaneous exhibits, including Gersht’s photography (and one video) at the Columbus Museum of Art, where Gersht will hold an artist talk at 7 p.m. Sept. 4, and a three-video series at the Short North space.