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IF YOU LOVE IT IT WILL GROW 

 AN ARTICLE BY NIRA TESLER, Ph.D.*

More is hidden than revealed in Gala Oelsner’s most recent body of work. To decipher the images requires concentration, in-depth observation and physical intimacy. Only in this way, can one truly discover the layers of the work that begin with one image and end with a completely different one. This moment of discovery is one of both wonder and appreciation of their complexity.

The artist’s book If You Love It, It Will Grow contains sensual images of various types of flowers in varying techniques, some in two dimensions, and others in three dimensions. A closer look reveals at the center a photograph of a woman’s body, usually a head, back, arms, or legs, in a specific position. More surprising still is the realization that the flower is composed essentially of the repetitive assemblage of the female body part, which the artist has posed, photographed, manually cut out, and assembled into a new object.

Oelsner uses the technique of photo-collage, starting with a single image, which she then repeats multiple times in a well-planned composition. She then adds layers using different techniques such as painting, drawing, embroidery and more. She meticulously cuts out each photograph by hand, a process that does not end with identical images. Instead each image is slightly different, a result analogous to the replication process in the natural world. And, in the work, as in nature, it is the subtle differences that heighten the allure and effect of the whole (let it grow, p. 6-11)

According to Oelsner, the body in the black-and-white photograph, which is the starting point for most of the works, is isolated and complete. It metamorphoses when it assumes the shape of the flower. The complex and demanding process and the repetitive, almost obsessive use of the same photograph reflect, for her, the natural course of the female body that regularly prepares itself for fertilization and reproduction. The works allude to the parallel between a woman’s sensuality and her reproductive role and that of the flower in nature as a beautiful instrument of fertility and regeneration.

​Through her art studies and practice, Oelsner became aware of the metaphorical affinity between the sensuality and sexuality of the female body and flowers articulated in text and image since antiquity. The text that most embodies this idea is the biblical Song of Songs, with its rich pictorial expressions through which the lover describes his beloved, among them “a lily among the thorns” and “a locked garden” (in Latin: hortus conclusus), the latter a reference to the virginity and modesty of the bride.(1) Christianity adopted these expressions to describe the qualities of Mary as virgin-mother, the coveted yet unattainable woman, who is compared to a “locked garden” and “a lily among the thorns,” in images that have become engraved in the minds of believers and in Western culture in general. (2)

​This same idea appears in the work of some of the groundbreaking early twentieth-century modernist American women photographers and artists. For example, the close-up photograph Magnolia Blossom and Two Callas from 1925 by American flower photographer Imogen Cunningham, and the iconic painting Black Iris No. 3 from 1926 by Georgia O'Keeffe, capture the flower’s sensual structure and affinity to the female genitalia. These works, created nearly a century ago, inspired Oelsner to explore the subject in both text and image in contemporary art. (3)

Oelsner’s work is in dialogue with the daring print series Les Fleurs by avant-garde French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, which is half self-portrait and half seductive flower portrait. Also with the work of Eva Hesse, who was the first to use woolen threads that dangle emphatically from the wall to the floor. Oelsner’s work New Identity I (p. 14-15) was inspired by Georgia O'Keefe’s Black Iris No. 3, mentioned above, as well as by the scandalous work The Source of the World (L'Origine du monde) by French nineteenth-century realist painter Gustave Courbet (p.20-21). One can also detect the influence of the erotic flower photographs Portfolio of Flowers by Robert Mapplethorpe.

Oelsner also uses raw white porcelain to sculpt flowers and female figures in some of her work, which acquire a light pink, feminine hue after firing in the kiln (p. 24-25). She uses unglazed white stone clay in its natural state in What Would I Tell My Child, to highlight its unique pure and vulnerable qualities. Oelsner explains that while the porcelain leaves are thin and fragile, they are also powerful and durable, and represent the potential of the female nature that appears delicate on the outside but is strong on the inside. Oelsner writes: “The complexity of being a woman, a mother and an artist is reflected in this work. For me, each identity has a different light and expectations. Each role has its own distinctive voice, which is hidden inside an intimate petal” (p. 29).

Oelsner’s deep interest in the woman-flower analogy comes in part from her own personal journey, and her choice to move to a new country and build her family there as a young woman. Her decision to move from Israel to the United States in the late 1990s, from one cultural and geographical environment to another, made her question the effect this would have on her identity and development, personally and professionally. She found in the world of flora an affinity with her decision to relocate, and questioned whether she could grow, flourish and fulfill herself in her new surroundings, just as she would have in her original environment.

​A mother of three, Oelsner has thought deeply about womanhood and motherhood, about the process of growing a new life inside her body, and the pressure she feels as a woman having to juggle her various roles as a spouse, mother and artist. All these identities and responsibilities are present in her work. Her thinking about motherhood as a progression from pregnancy to birth to nurturer emerges in her work in her attempt to replicate and cultivate her creations, in the sense of “If I don’t care for and love it, it will not grow.” An example is Hatching (p. 29) in which a female figure lies curled up in a nest-like mesh structure next to empty porcelain eggshells. The figure hides her face in her arms, and it is unclear if she has abandoned the shells next to her or if she is abandoned, and in her desolation, is unable to get up and join her hatchlings who have grown and left the nest.

​Oelsner’s thoughts about motherhood on one hand, and her perception of herself as an independent, autonomous woman on the other, are expressed not only through her multi-faceted works, but also in the texts and poems that inspire her.

It is fitting, then, to conclude this text about Galit Oelsner’s work with a short poem by Israeli poet Efrat Mishori (4) (b. 1964), which succinctly summarizes her personal and artistic journey and the tension between motherhood and a woman’s sense of self. All these and more, serve Oelsner as building blocks for her moving, sensual and layered work.

​And I still do not know what to tell my child:

That I am his mother

Or that I am

Me. 

* Dr. Nira Tessler is a curator, artist, researcher and lecturer on the history of art and design in “Talpiot” – Israeli Academic College for Education. She is the owner of the Art Salon Gallery in Tel Aviv.

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