Knowing by Hand

Joshua Abarbanel merges handmade and digital

Artist Joshua Abarbanel is a study in contrasts. He focused on ceramics as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley and in his MFA program at UCLA, yet he teaches digital media in the art department at Los Angeles Harbor College. These disparate art practices—one steeped in ancient techniques where the hand is integral, the other on the cutting edge of technology—successfully merge in his current works that capitalize on the power of digital tools and the intuition and knowledge of the artist’s hand.

In the early 2000s, after a decade of sculpting in clay, Abarbanel began working with digital media, creating prints on paper. By 2012, craving a return to the tactile experience of making art by hand, he created a sculptural self-portrait employing butterfly imagery. For Metamorphosis (Self Portrait) he used photography and digital tools to imprint his eyes onto butterfly wings of his own design, which he then hand-painted and assembled. Metamorphosis (Self Portrait) truly marked a metamorphosis for the artist, as it set into motion a dynamic new series of sculptures that combine the use of machines and the handmade.

In 2013 Abarbanel was invited to create a work for an exhibition at American Jewish University in Los Angeles titled Sacred Words, Sacred Texts. He was drawn to the old Jewish tale of the golem, an anthropomorphic creature shaped from inanimate matter by human hands and magically brought to life. Created to be a helper, a companion, or a rescuer of a Jewish community in danger, the golem inevitably runs out of control and becomes a threat to its creator. In this way, the idea of a golem addresses themes of creation, creativity, power, and redemption.

In one version of the golem story, the creature’s forehead is inscribed with the Hebrew word emet (truth). This golem could be “deactivated” by removing the first letter in the word emet, aleph, thereby changing the inscription from “truth” to met (dead). Thus, Abarbanel’s first golem is an 18-inch-long ceramic sculpture covered in wood forms of the Hebrew letters mem and taf, which together make the word met (dead). This potentially powerful golem is in the “off” mode, so to speak, though the possibility of bringing him to life is ever-present in the form of a necklace with a broken chain draped around the creature’s neck, from which hangs the aleph that could activate him.

For Abarbanel, making that first golem lead to a profusion of new sculptural work that relate to his long fascination with the act of creation and the passage of time. He often uses forms and patterns evocative of biological, botanical, geological, and mechanical structures. Finding inspiration in fractals, accretive formations, and the Fibonacci sequence, Abarbanel’s compositions serve as metaphors for archetypal relationships between people, between individuals and communities, between artists and their work, and between humankind and the planet.

Presently he is working on a project for the Jewish Museum Berlin, which has commissioned him to create a large-scale version of his golem sculpture for their fall 2016 exhibition, Golem.

For more information about the artist, please visit www.joshuaabarbanel.com. To learn more about the Golem exhibit go to www.jmberlin.de/main/EN/01-Exhibitions/02-Special-Exhibitions/2016/golem.php.

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