Ice, Water, Pebble and Wood–Joshua Abarbanel's journey from the ephemeral to the tangible
By Purva Chawla
Ice–A beautiful, crystalline material that never ceases to fascinate. Much of its charm lies in its ephemeral existence. Something pristine and exquisitely crafted in ice dissolves, and vanishes rapidly making its experience even more precious while it lasts.
It is this transient and elusive material that artist Joshua Abarbanel chooses, as he frames his response to the most unique and intense of experiences—A journey into the Arctic Circle.
Each year, The Arctic Circle Residency brings together a group of artists, architects, scientists, and educators for an expeditionary residency program. This team explores remote locations in the Arctic region, all the while developing artistically and professionally, and forging interdisciplinary collaborations.
In 2015, Joshua joined The Arctic Circle residency, sailing for two and a half weeks aboard a Barquentine tall ship. Alongside twenty-five other artists and a small crew, Joshua traversed the international archipelago of Svalbard, ten degrees south of the North Pole. His experiences in this stunning, stark landscape and the art created by him in situ have been captured and represented in his current exhibition–Finding North, on display from November 12–December 16, 2016, at the Los Angeles Harbor College Fine Art Gallery in Wilmington, California.
Before the crisp lines, botanical and mechanical forms that were laser-cut into thin sheets of wood; before the many layered, intricate patterns of sculptures and wall-mounted 'Reefs' signature to his work, Joshua Abarbanel worked with ceramics. And with water.
Joshua's early works in the 1990's included ceramic sculptures and wall reliefs that were paired with water creating unusual and unexpected fountains. To Joshua, water was as integral an element as its ceramic counterparts in these works. It was water, after all, which activated the ceramic forms and brought the whole to life.
Knowing this wields a new perspective of Joshua's most recent work with ice. The fact that water—in its liquid and solid states—is a familiar material to him is apparent now. "The desire to harness the energy of water, and to capture its transition from one state to the other has always been there," he says. In some ways, the ephemerality of water ties back to our own transient existence as humans, a train of thought that Joshua mentions when we speak with him, studying his work for our 'Master of Material' series.
Returning from an unconquered landscape of glacial shards and treeless ice mountains, how does one unpack this experience for an audience?
A diverse mix of formats—including photographs, video, sound, and sculpture—are Joshua's choice. For his Finding North exhibition, which he is treating as a workshop for this new body of work, Joshua uses multiple physical mediums to represents forms and ideas from his journey to the Arctic.
The newest sculptures in this exhibition are the most captivating; they are cast from a blend of pebbles and ice that melts away during the opening of the exhibition. The residue–mainly pebbles left behind as the ice melts–become the viewer's way to interact with the sculpture that was and dwell on the ephemerality of ice and conditions in the Arctic.
Experimenting with this mixture of materials, Joshua was able to capture and represent more tangibly and permanently, the form of the 'Ice Boat' that he created in situ in the Arctic Circle, as well as a columnar totem-of ice and pebbles.
Also in this exhibition are two of Joshua's Hull sculptures, created with stained and unstained wood, paint, and concrete. The sculptures are inspired in part by the glacial shards that Joshua encountered in the Arctic, which are also documented through his photographs in the exhibition.
Taken together, this combination of mediums and materials depicts the brutal landscape of the Arctic and conveys how this region remains an unconquered frontier, where humankind has never been able to make more than a toe-hold.
In sharp contrast to the fluidity and blurred lines of the materials we have talked about so far is Joshua Abarbanel's work with wood.
Interestingly, it was a tool that brought Joshua to wood, a material he has worked with extensively for more than five years. Joshua’s access to a laser-cutter lead him to explore wood as a medium. Finding that the inherent properties of the material’s grain and texture lend additional meaning to his sculptures, Joshua began to revisit the shapes and designs of his previous works in clay.
Today, Joshua creates wall-mounted works and sculpture using layers of cut wood, which he makes into forms and patterns that are evocative of biological, botanical, geological, and mechanical structures. The dimensional pieces evoke such inspirations as fractals, accretive formations, and the Fibonacci sequence.
These works are fascinating not only for their beauty but for the hybrid way in which they are generated. First, the individual pieces are laser-cut from digital patterns he draws, to arrive at precisely shaped pieces. After that, the assembly process moves entirely to the intuitive and organic movement of Joshua's hands. With no set final shape in mind, Joshua begins putting individual pieces together, operating by touch and feel, and finding order in their diversity and assembly.
What do we make of the diverse materials, styles, and forms we have just seen and spoken about?
While these may seem like individual threads of exploration, with entirely distinct skills, Joshua Abarbanel's work holds the promise of each of these materials, styles, and skills coming together in a vibrant and final whole over time.
His work with water, and now ice gives us a small glimpse of this and points to art and sculpture that will fold in many mediums and styles, each of which Joshua has mastered.