THE TIME OF STONE
From the outset, I identify the time range of Yael Artsi’s “stone time” - stone time qua living time – as straddling two sculptures she created between 1986 and 1990. The first - “Old Lady” (1986) - is a classical figurative sculpture in Carrara marble (height: 1.5 m.), focusing upon the shriveled and withered skin of a woman’s body. The second – “Woman” (1990)- is a primitive marble torso (height: 80 cm.), archaic in character, of a woman in the early stages of pregnancy. Both works hinge upon body: the pagan fertility of the latter statue set against the decline and loss of fertility in its predecessor. Female fertility is represented in dense volcanic rock, very rough in its chiseled texture. Female decline and infertility is represented by a polished texture, smooth and soft, surrendering to anatomy and Hellenic beauty (even if Artsi responds to the youthful Venusian ideal with an aging feminine body). The triumph of beauty and art over death ?
There we have the two polarities of life time in Artsi’s work: both are also polarities of work in stone - the external finish set against the material’s untamed interior – and of sculptural styles. Both polarities extend into the work of this sculptor from Kibbutz Sdot Yam, both before and after the aforementioned dates, to the same degree that both unite simultaneously in her sculptures, instilling many of them with a tension of opposites that reflect fertility, parturition, creation and creativity. Among Artsi’s earlier works we should point to the 1978 wood sculpture “Old Woman” (height 55 cm.) which incorporates into the naked torso a uterine focus along with a semi-abstract surge of collapsing organs. This sculpture has a presence far more primitive than the classicist marble version dating from1986. Thus, “Pregnancy” - a bronze sculpture dating from 1979 (height: 54 cm.) - draws the eye to an organic flow, over the swollen belly and abstract organs attached to an amorphous mass of rock. Here we are again brought to the tension between fertility (pregnancy) and its loss (the aging body), even if, on this occasion the sculptress has dispensed with the linguistic and stylistic contradiction between the two sculptures, saving only the resort to different materials. Apparently, whenever Artsi’s work touches upon old age, it expresses a rejection of the loss of femininity; the dimension of the gentle caress is still present, even at the polarity of bodily decay. In 1986 Artsi fashioned a sculpture in white marble, “Couple” (height: 80 cm.) which unites into a single polished voluminous entity the ball (female ?) and the cylinder (male ?), the latter storming and hovering in the utmost delicacy of volume. However, it is less an abstraction of coupling that the sculpture reveals; rather - feminine physicality with a vaginal cleft at its core.
This route of female fertility in stone would lead on to “Fecundity” – a basalt sculpture dating from 2000 (height: 39 cm.) - a raw rock whose swollen belly is whittled from the rear like a cavern, condemning the “wild” block to transformation into a uterine shell that appears to have survived some ancient ceremonial rite. Six years previously, Artsi had fashioned “Sensuality” (height: 30 cm.), again a touch of classicism gliding smoothly over the female rump and other body parts, conquering the savage rock with an erotic caress. And on that selfsame track – embryo, navel, breast, belly: consider “Embryo” (Carrara marble, 1997) – a spherical body, smooth, organic, abstract, squeezed into itself with a minimum of marks of the division of body parts. Or “Navel” (Carrara marble, 1991) – a sculpture that extracts from amorphous rock the enlarged organic volume of the female navel, a momento of parturition. Compare it with the granite sculpture dating from 1996, likewise entitled “Navel”: an utterly smoothed belly erupting riotously from the black dolomite rock. Or consider “Birth”, a white marble sculpture dating from 1978 (private collection, Athlit) where a nude woman stretches out on her back over and out of stone groundwork: her body extends, grows and hatches from a rough stone cradle like a smooth, organic entity abundant in soft curves, even if her essence is robust (the presence of a single breast connecting with diagonal torso which stretches the figure from knee to a sturdy shoulder that functions as a second “breast”).
Ever more sculptures of fertility, pregnancy and parturition, among them “Cloning” dating from the nineties: the shell of a feminine torso, dividing into two like a gate (with a central hinge); the shell is the mould of a separate, formless body, at its hub a realistic smoothed navel. These are indeed the underlying motifs that link Artsi’s work into the single monolith of a creative woman artist. Accordingly, even when the professed motif is “Sails”, “Mooring Post” ??? etc. (like the series of Labrador granite sculptures she created in Holland in 2001) these works too implicitly proclaim: fertility, parturition, and explosive vitality.
Artsi studied in 1974 under the French sculptor Etienne Martin. 1913, and some of her sculptures exhibit an affinity with Henry Moore, which assures the organic-anatomic-erotic aspect of the monumental archaic torso. Thus, “The Gate of Caesarea”, a local stone monument (height: 4 m.) brings to mind an enormous artifact of antiquity, a kind of hip-bone (note the softness of the volumes) which condemns anyone passing through the “gate” to a penetration in between the two legs of a prehistoric female creature. Here Artsi maintained a subtle tension between the construction work in stone and the sculpting of volumes, which is simultaneously the tension between the architectural and the organic. This section of works also comprises “Equilibrium”, a bronze sculpture dating from 2000 (height: 2.30 m.) likewise a kind of archaic “object”, rounded and heavy, simultaneously closing and opening, with soft physical volumes beckoning us to enter the mysteries of her body.
In 2001 Artsi created the white concrete sculpture “Mother Earth” (height: 1 m.) – a heavy abstract structure, a further non-anatomical torso, in entirety belly, its texture recalling the wind over sand dunes and/or the folds of a fluttering dress. Be that as it may, the texture is extremely soft, crypto-“feminine”, which draws a response of massive earthiness confirming a confident stature on the ground and timeless solidity capable of withstanding any affliction. Like Artsi’s other sculptures, this one too represents a kind of sculptural proclamation of the power of the creative female. This alliance between sculptress and woman stands out in “Adam and Eve”, dating from 1997 (Indian granite, height: 3.5 m.). Here Adam is set apart as a vertical unit with Biblical-Oriental expression, his body/robe marked out in diagonal chisel marks exposing the coarseness of the stone. In other words, Artsi’s “Adam” is a figure characterized by activism and relative time. By contrast, “Eve” is a spherical, mundane body, utterly smoothed, the navel at its hub, a body that responds to the commotion of the male with timelessness, with the power of fertility and a quiet inner fortitude.
Not fortuitously, the fertility aspect is attended by the beast aspect, the aspect of virility: as in the sculptures: “Biblical Lion” (1998, height: 3 m.), “Water Buffalo” (1985, bronze and marble, height: 21 cm.) and “Bear” (1996, bronze and marble, height: 27 cm.). In each of these, the beast’s archaist, semi-abstract body is replete with great inner power, restrained by gloss and “Brancusian” minimalist unification yet exuding savage might, as in the “unruly” finish of the lion’s mane. Artsi’s “The Biblical Lion”, an especially imposing sculpture simultaneously archaist and modernist, is located at the Open Museum in Tefen, where it takes the achievement of Avraham Malnikov (who created the marble lion at Tel Hai, 1926 – 1934) to a higher level of massive stone construction amalgamated with delicate, subtle anatomism, to achieve a stylized “savagery” (the hair of the mane): the tension between rationalism and untamable power, between art and primordial nature.
Bestial force and fertility proclaim life and dynamism, which incessantly erupt from Artsi’s stone, a struggle between the forces of nature, between creation and time dissolving into immutable eternity. This is the struggle between time and timelessness in Artsi’s sculptures. Consider her two “Genesis” sculptures, one from 1999, of local argentine stone, 3 m. in height; the second from 2000, a small stature of Indian granite, 30 cm. in height: in both works, the sculpture materializes from the spherical/ ovine stone in a flowing eruption of savage stoniness etched with flow lines. The “classicism” of the polished treatment of the sphere’s surface (2000) or in the “epidermal” layer “below the skin” are merely a preface to revelation of the authentic inner secret of the stone – the Dionysian, volcanic force, powerful and aggressive, which enfolds the secret of life. For if classical sculpture promises us the hint of beauty lurking within the stone (Michaelangelo), Artsi comes along to declare: within the stone lies vitality, waiting to burst forth with the potency of life. Accordingly, in the imposing monument Artsi crafted in Tel Aviv to commemorate Yitzchak Rabin (1996), plates of basalt seem to be agitated by a subterranean force: the tombstone bears the tidings of the power of life concealed beneath.
Vitality and primary force, which seek to break out of Artsi’s sculptures, also find figurative expression in the sculptress’ attraction to “the strong woman”. “’The Pregnant Woman’ is replete with strength” the artist pointed out in an interview (to the Israeli daily “Hadashot”) adding: “(Women) are blessed with a strength that represents the divine, because they grant life. To me, fecundity is the strongest of natural forces.” But it is not merely pregnancy. For Artsi also represents the figure of the strong woman in a powerful lift of knee or shoulder. We identify this in a nude figure seated bent over (“It’s woman from Morocco,” the sculptress stresses) and/or in another nude figure (white Galilee marble, circa 1990) seated in Oriental posture, thrusting a muscular knee upwards. In a greenish serpentine stone sculpture from the mid-sixties we encounter another sturdy woman reduced to belly, a breast and a shoulder thrust forward (as substitute for the second breast). It seems that the sculptures of one-breasted women represent Amazons (who were reputed to cut off one breast to enhance their prowess with the bow). Not infrequently, the memory of “the strong woman” links up with the memory of the Moroccan woman, a great mother, a figure the sculptress bears with her as a childhood memory (we should stress: Artsi, born in Morocco in 1946, emigrated to Israel in 1966, at the age of twenty). In a modular sculpture dating from the mid-eighties, she resorted to a semi-abstract language to sculpt a quasi-Moroccan (or Biblical) family, a set of human units (which are monumental even if the height of the sculpture does not exceed 40 cm.) whose presence touches upon topography and beasts (with udders).
So it is: force and its containment, primal eruption and its sublimation, East and West, nature and culture. Here we have the dualist syntax of Yael Artsi, an untiringly creative sculptress who incessantly couples polished (“classical”) refinement of the stone’s surface with the savage (“archaic”) flow of its interior. Thus, in “Gate” (1998, Turkish travertine, height: 4.20 cm.) two totems are emplaced like a pair of ancient tribal gods. Here we detect no male-female tension between the two, but in itself, the coupling-separation proclaims fertility, and above all, the “crude” vitality of the stone’s interior, which erupts/squeezes from the finely polished external layers, again signals creation, growth, parturition. Such is the stone sphere of “Evolution” (2005, black granite, diameter: 1.80 m.) whose spectacular polish is “ripped” by a chaotic eruption of natural and untrammeled stoniness that defies domestication. The spectator is left in no doubt that these sculptures are self-portraits of the sculptress, she herself a strong woman, Eastern and Western in her culture, a woman who is mother and creative artist, with two contradictory forces grappling within her, and whose sculptures achieve an equilibrium between art and nature, between law and liberty, and between order and turmoil.
Translation: Peretz Kidron