Michael Esbin belongs to an outstanding, now mature generation of stone-carving artists, although it must be admitted that this kind of work is not supported as much as it used to be—especially in America. It is likely then that Esbin moved to Italy some thirty- five years ago in order to embrace the stone-carving there; he lives in the historical center of Carrara, famous for its white and blue-gray marble. At a studio in Carrara, Esbin makes the stone sculptures he is recognized for. This includes sculptures such as the “Tibetan Sun” series, which celebrates timelessness in the form of circular stone rings.
Other works are deeply satisfying expressions in the carving and treatment of stone, surely a medium whose depth and richness indicate a way of seeing that results in spiritual, emotional and intellectual insight. Esbin now travels back and forth between Italy and New York City. He comes from a medical family on Long Island: his father was an ophthalmologist, and his mother, a medical illustrator. Somehow his situation has translated into a space of extreme openness—to both art and life. He is a person who transforms the difficulties of living into something deeply satisfying and formally accessible, as happens with his remarkable carvings.
The artist’s outlook is Buddhist, although it does not inform his works in any obvious way. In the “Tibetan Sun” series, he joins colored pieces of marble into good- sized rings. The circle of course is an image of emptiness and eternity in Buddhist art and writings. But whatever influence Tibetan Buddhism may have had on Esbin, it has not resolved itself in art that is didactic or literal in its interpretation of Asian thought. Esbin, who has acknowledged that the American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is someone he likes and has thought about formally, tends to work in stone in a manner that continues Noguchi’s vision, and expands upon it. In Tibetan Sun XF-16 (1984-85), we see a beautifully carved stone ring, made of alternating slices of red marble from Verona and grey marble from Carrara. The alternating shades of color in the stone impart a liveliness and exuberance we tend not to associate with stone carving. But these attributes are central to the way the artist sees the world.
It is interesting to think about carving’s position in the world of sculpture at this point in time. There was a place for the medium even a generation ago, but now the ad
hoc nature of art has resulted in waning interest in the implications of permanence in carved work of this sort. This is partly because the association of carving is traced to ancient cultures, which seem as if they have little to say to a world mostly interested in high technology and what happens in the immediate moment. In fact, such a situation points out the real need for work that goes back a long way, toward insights that are genuine and not artificial. Stone is a primal element of nature, and as such, it communicates a true sense of purpose when used in a ritual fashion, and this is what occurs in Esbin’s harmonious but never self-satisfied vision. Indeed, stone is known as the ur-material for sculpture, being the oldest of arts. By addressing these issues in his work, Esbin is not only keeping an ancient tradition alive, he is also pushing forward a vision that must necessarily become contemporary. He does this extremely well.
Besides maintaining a Buddhist calm in his works, which are full of presence, Esbin also relates to the Shinto religion in Japan, which reverences nature, in appearances large and small, understood to be demonstrating minor deities or spiritual beings—called kami—alive in both specific natural elements such as trees and streams and larger tracts of land, occurring as parts of entire geographies. The idea of Shinto, which is quintessentially Japanese and arose from the culture iself, without a particular founder, is to live in harmony with nature. And just as Esbin has determined to do that in his own life, so too does he find a harmony in the stone he works with. It is an intuition, but one that really makes a difference to the audience facing his art. One never senses conflict in Esbin’s work; instead, the formal gestalt works toward a resolution of forces, meant to present a positive vision of the world.
Other works by Esbin bear out his commitment to his vocation. One particularly successful piece is on one side curved like a circle and on the other side squared like a rectangular work of art. Titled The Passage of Time (1982), the sculpture is made of a darker gray marble, called Bardiglio marble and found in Carrara. One of the strengths of Esbin’s art is its symmetry, which emphasizes regular contours and a rational sense of form. This is found regularly in the “Tibetan Sun” series. But in The Passage of Time, we see the artist deliberately join a curved form to a rectangular one—it happens in a way that the two differing kinds of formal existence are being presented in one work of art. By merging two kinds of forms, Esbin wrecks, on purpose, the sense of unity we often expect from art. But in doing so, he makes his work much more contemporary, for it is free of the expectation of a seamless design.
The difference between Tibetan Sun and The Passage of Time opens up a highly interesting conversation about symmetry and asymmetry in art. The traditional expectation is that we should embrace symmetry for its unifying force. But ever since the age of romanticism, and its love of the ruin, there has been a more complex affection for the asymmetrical. Esbin’s remarkable technical treatment of the stone—the complex, highly difficult job of joining marble parts together with steel rods within, polishing the marble so that the surface is smooth, and then placing the work in an appropriate space—makes it easy to forget the modernist preference for the visually offbeat. Yet our taste continues to be influenced by the misaligned and disproportionate, in ways that favor The Passage of Time when it is compared with the “Tibetan Sun” series. This has very little to do with the actual merits of the two pieces mentioned; it is only that a particular taste will prevail at any given point in time. To Esbin’s credit, he has worked with more than one way of seeing, in a formally attractive manner that is esthetically highly successful.
A more recent piece by Esbin, from 2005-07, is called MU XM-07. Visually, it is a highly interesting work of art, for it consists of a white, tubular piece of marble that pierces a cube of serpentine marble in a most satisfying way. Although the artist tends to make work that, at first glance, seems simple, the visual, emotional, and spiritual implications of his work are in fact unusual and complex. In this piece, the suggestion of its gestalt has to do with the violence of being penetrated. The front of the cube is marked with rounded indentations of differing sizes, while the dark green color of the serpentine stone contrasts forcefully with the white pole passing horizontally through the cube. It is an abstract image, as all of Esbin’s works are, but it possesses a human energy in the emotional implications of the pierced form. Indeed, it has an archetypal gravitas to it—this is something that the artist does: he invests his work with a chthonic symbolism that registers profoundly in our unconscious.
Esbin’s creativity thus begins in a pure abstraction, but it is regularly subsumed within a language that is symbolic in its implications, enabling his audience to read the works in human, if not figurative, terms. His technical skill, which reads as a tour de force, allows him to build structures that resonate with his audience across time, cultures, and geography; in fact, his work speaks to basic imagistic structures within ourselves, in an archetypical sense. Art holds the capability of becoming more than the sum of its parts; Esbin knows this quite well, and has produced a body of work whose
implications play out on both esthetic and social levels. I say “social” levels because the artist endorses a way of thinking that joins the old and the new, the near and the far away. In doing so, Esbin shows us how to reconnect with older parts of ourselves that may well have originated elsewhere, even though, in the current moment, we likely feel more comfortable with a more recent sense of self, one physically nearer to our present origins. In the long run, he implies, it is the dialogue that counts—between people and art.