“I believe that sculpture can and should be a mythic function which enables us to transcend our daily reality and give us insight into the nature of matter and also to the interior of the mind. It is often true that the most complex of ideas can be expressed the simplest of forms.”
Michael esbin”s sculpture is just that simple and elegant. But a study of his forms reveals exactly what he intends a mythological, a symbolic meaning that enables us to view the world and its physical laws with a new appreciation.
The worlds of art and science are constantly trying to understand each other. But each is prevented from understanding the other by the lack of concrete symbols. Esbin points out that this has not always been so.
“Think of Leonardo da Vinci- he was both an artist and a scientist. But today the two have separated because science has become more and more specialized and now requires a mathematical language which is needed to prove scientific interpretations. And this abstract language can no longer be modeled into traditional painting or sculpture. It has become impossible for an artist to interpret advance scientific thoughts into artifact. The artist”s tools haven”t kept pace with scientific advances. They are still largely craft oriented. In the case of sculpture, it is still the hammer and chisel.”
It is with a no lesser subject than eternity and universality that Michael Esbin works. He came by his art in an unusual way. In his teens he was taking courses at the School of Visual Arts in New York. His sculptures were both figurative and abstract. He was working almost entirely in clay. One day his teacher told him to “go out and buy some stone”. He did and describes the experience as being almost orgasmic. He was nineteen. “I found it so exciting to work in stone. Totally different from modeling in clay. There I could conceive and create. With stone I had to study the material and I had to learn how to use it to advantage and still express what I wanted to. My first experience with marble was just unbelievable. It has a life of its own. A light of its own. But working in marble in New York presents some very solid problems. You need space in which to work and you need the material. Years ago marble was available in Queens, but not so today. I had no alternative. I had to move to a place where I could find the material I wanted.” And so, with logic and determination, he packed his bags and said goodbye to family and friends and moved to Carrara, Italy. “When I arrived I could not believe what I saw- the material in abundance. And artists, many artists working there.”
At first there was a language problem, but Esbin solved it with American logic. “I refused to converse with anyone in English. I had to learn and I had to understand. It took time but I learned.” He also set about studying the material at hand. “There are so many types of marble. And I wanted to work also in granite and quartz. There was a lot to learn about the material which was to become my life.
“It excites me. When I want to start a new piece I have first to choose the block. One never knows what it is going to look like when cut. And, of course, it influences the result.” Esbin works on a large scale and his first problem is to have the block of marble cut to the basic dimensions. Then he has to carve it and finally finish it. Aside from the artistic qualifications, that is not always as simple as it might sound. “I recently worked with some Brazilian quartzite. It is an absolutely beautiful blue stone. But it is very hard. Harder even than granite. In fact it is so hard that ordinary cutting tools won”t cut it. It needs equipment with a diamond disk. When I bought the stone I was advised against it. I learned why. But it is so beautiful that I am glad I did.”
Esbin points out that primitive man had a mythology which helped him to interpret the cosmos. His mythological heroes were linked to the forces of nature through his art. But for modern man, understanding the inner workings of the universe is the property of remote science. Esbin is actually seeking a new mythology one that speaks to contemporary society of a newly defined cosmos. The language he uses consists of recognizable but somewhat transformed ordinary shapes.
One of his sculptures, “The Passage of Time” has a basic Euclidean form which he proceeds to “pull” out of shape. It is a rectangle, a frame. He takes our concept of a rectangle two pairs of parallel lines which join at four corners and returns them to us in the form in which they exist in curved space. In its altered state the form becomes part of a dynamic universe and expresses part of Einstein”s theories. But “The Passages of Time”, conceives the rectangle as it happens in the universe where there are no parallel lines, no straight lines and no rectangles. Esbin points out that if one sees “The passage of Time” as a frame, then it is one in which space is relative and fluctuating—framing a world upon the point of view of the viewer. Esbin also says that: “Without a mythic or spiritual content, art becomes banal. I think it is one of the most important issues in contemporary art and I don”t think it is being properly dealt with by artists today. In our society, the values that we accept and live with are structured in such a way that any attempt to locate oneself within a spiritual context is generally viewed with disdain.”
Esbin deals with simple forms. But his work does not belong to the school of Minimalism. He does not require that the viewer understand his work immediately. He expects the viewer to spend time to reflect and mediate about it. Scale is an important element which helps the viewer to stop and think. His work is not giant, but it is large. It is not monumental and it does not dwarf the viewer into insignificance. But it does demand respect—and that challenges the viewer.
Esbin”s sculptural idol is Brancusi, and one can readily see that master”s influence. But Brancusi sculptured by hand. Esbin uses modern tool—modern stone-cutting equipment—modern polishing equipment. Nevertheless, he does not let these new tools carry him into “industrial art”. Esbin says: “Mastering the use of certain specialized equipment such as diamond saws, electric grinders and sanders has enabled me to explore all kinds of new ideas with stone. But I refuse to let technique become an overriding factor in my work. I try to strike a delicate balance between hand carving and the use of industrial machinery. That balance is very important.”
“When working with marble every single piece is different. Every single piece is individual. Choosing the block I am going to work with is not unlike meeting a new love. At first there is curiosity. And then, as one cuts the stone and works with it, it is just like getting to know a human being. There may be flaws to be considered and worked around. And there may be beautiful graining that was never expected. It becomes a very intimate relationship.”
The art critic Willy Rotzler wrote recently: “Starting from basic figures such as a circle, cylinder or polyhedron, Michael Esbin gives his sculptures a fascinating enrichment and refinement in shape. The process of differentiation can be compared to the work of the poet, who produces a literary work of art from simple linguistic elements using a subtle choice of words, adjectives and metaphors. Basic figures are essentially static. However, Michael Esbin always produces a dynamic effect in his sculptures because he sees motion and change with time as attributes of living. The plastic forms themselves are doubtless static, but they seem to arise from dynamic events: the interplay of physical forces is clearly perceptible.”
Fortunately, it is not necessary to have a cerebral understanding of Esbin”s work to appreciate his sculptures. By themselves they have a commanding presence. The marble is beautiful and each sculpture is beautifully worked. The may be enough. But when one spends more time with these sculptures and reflects upon them, then it is possible to realize that they are a tiny window open to the beyond—a beyond that can include the farthest reaches of inter-galactic space, the innermost heart of the atom or a deep personal spiritual insight.
Esbin also says:
“Sculpture is thought of as form in space. This idea has been established and accepted throughout the ages. However, until recently the notion of form/matter and space itself were conceived of as being in a sense static, without a sense of true cosmic dynamism. It is my desire to create sculpture, within the realm of geometric abstraction, which embodies this principal and returns us full-force to this concept of a universe which is truly animate. Abstraction is thus a way or a path which reveals the most powerful and profound aspects of nature in the most directly accessible manner.”
Esbin”s work aims to bring the viewer closer to bridging the gap between cultures through concepts which are part of a coordinated universe including the artistic, scientific, and spiritual realms.
Esbin has set for himself an immense and ambitious task. It is fortunate that he is still a young man and that he has many years in which to contribute his outstanding abilities.