Film Review #238: Stretching Boundaries: The Life Work of Sculptor Arlene Abend
Director: Courtney Rile
Cast: Arlene Abend et al.
Arlene Abend in her studio. Photo: Courtney Rile, Daylight Blue Media.
If you haven’t seen the Arlene ABEND retrospective, Resin-ating Metal, which opened at Edgewood Gallery at 216 Tecumsah Road on November 5th, you’ve still got all of December to see it, because it’ll be on view through New Year’s Eve. A survey of more than three decades worth of Abend’s sculpture – in cut, cast and incised steel, bronze and other metals plus the later, ground-breaking cast resin pieces – is a lot to shoehorn into such a small gallery, but this exhibition of 33 pieces has been managed pretty successfully. Well, make that 36 pieces – because the three large, circular wall pieces sold almost immediately. Gallery owner and curator Cheryl Chappell asked Abend to make replacements, which she delivered last Saturday – by mid-afternoon two of those sold too.
On Tuesday morning, Abend said, “These were some of the most difficult pieces to do, because they are deceptively simple – every element has such an impact. And it’s a kind of silent conversation between myself and the materials – I pick a hanging point, but they really find their own balance as I make them. And it was a total surprise that people would enjoy them so much! I had thrown these pieces on the floor a couple years ago – they were scrap metal and I wasn’t really doing wall sculptures much anymore. But at Cheryl’s gentle urging I made these.”
Although as curator Chappell picked most of the pieces and decided upon the exhibition’s floor-plan, Abend insisted on including one piece depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (the snake is there too), an almost-life size upright piece made of a single sheet of steel that, bent and folded, presents front, side profile and back views of the couple.
Abend calls it a “big plasma cut,” referencing the torch conventionally used to cut steel, which she has adapted for the intricate, lacey cut-outs of garden vegetation and surface incisions that depict the couple and so resemble drawing with a brush. Years ago, before the need to work in three dimensions overtook her, Abend primarily made drawings and paintings, and this piece reminds us of her facility as a graphic artist.
“Well, I make very good rear ends,” she laughed. “But you do need to be able to draw when you work as much on commission as I have. Your client needs to see what you’re only describing, so I make drawings or maquettes. Then I have to become my own fabricator and make the piece and sometimes that is more mechanical. Although I would say that commissions push me in a way that has led me into new areas – when I have to design in terms of the context where a piece will be and consider things I wouldn’t if I were just doing something for myself.”
Abend also wanted to point out the arresting three-part wall sculpture Remnants, made in 2005, three oblong pieces of cast bronze with parts of her face emerging in pieces from each surface. I remembered seeing this in her studio when I had first visited and found it retains its hold now.
“This started out as wax remnants from something else,” she commented, “and it just wanted to be made. It’s so different from the original piece – really very dark and distorted and emotional. I had an idea of the patina I wanted but I rushed it and it turned green on me.”
Even more emotional for Abend, she says, are the series of cast resins she had made, which may include tiny cast metal figures or clear casts of her own face and hands. They are technically difficult – when she began working on them there was some question of whether the material could even do what she aimed for – and demanding in other ways.
“The resins ask of a lot of you!” she said. “They are mechanically difficult, they are physically hard to do, they are dangerous because the material takes planning and safety measures and time, and the final grinding and polishing is quite a commitment. And I did these alone. I wanted to work with refractions so I gave them many surfaces – that’s why all these pieces are on turntables so you can see through them from every angle – and I worked with the cracks and bubbles that have been part of the process. And they have been the most emotional for me of any of the work. I started with that one, Breaking Out, which has to do with my need thirty years ago to have more than a life as wife and mother, and this last one, from this year, Fascinating Failure, seems like the opposite – my hands are covering my eyes – like the need to keep from seeing what’s ahead. But will I do more? Well, never say never.”
See the movie this Saturday at 2:00 PM
The Edgewood’s opening reception in November also featured a TV monitor looping what documentary-maker Courtney Rile called a “teaser” – you can see that below, at the end of this story – of the documentary Stretching Boundaries: The Life Work of Sculptor Arlene Abend. The film has its premiere this Saturday afternoon at 2:00 PM in the Everson Museum’s Hosmer Auditorium at Harrison and State Streets downtown.
Rile and Mike Barletta together comprise Daylight Blue Media. They made last spring’s popular documentary, The 15th Ward and Beyond on commission by Syracuse University’s South Side Initiative. That film had a red-carpet premiere last spring at Syracuse Stage that sold out two weeks in advance and has had several other public screenings since – each of them packed – the most recent on Tuesday night at McKinley-Brighton Magnet School on West Newell St. The 15th Ward and Beyond is eventually destined to wind up on the South Side Initiative’s Syracuse Black History Project’s online “virtual museum,” and there hasn’t been a decision yet among all the parties on whether to make it available separately on DVD.
Last Sunday Rile and Barletta let me watch a rough cut of the new film abut Abend, then a tad over an hour long. Rile said they were aiming for 50 minutes or so in length – they had material to edit out, some to add, decisions about music and transitions – but there was enough there to see that this is an even better film than The 15th Ward and Beyond. It’s an excellent film about how an artist works, and an excellent portrait of an artist in our midst who’s now taking stock on what such a lifetime means.
Around 50 minutes is a good length for television broadcast, though Rile and Barletta haven’t gotten to discussions about whether that will ever happen. But they have gotten to discussions with Abend about making the film available on DVD and one of the pleasures of Tuesday’s gallery walk-through was learning that they’ll take orders after Saturday’s screening for DVDs and also that they plan to make copies available at the Edgewood through the holiday season too.
“Stretching boundaries” is a phrase Abend suggested for the title because she says her entire career as an artist has been about that stretch. She notes for example that when she first turned from drawing and painting to sculpture – she began with ceramics, wedging clay in her bathtub and making constructions rather than throwing pots on a wheel – her adult-ed instructor kept telling her to downsize, that her work was too large for the kiln. In New York City, Abend went on to study at Cooper Union, where she says the entire approach was based on the question, “What if?” After moving to Syracuse and taking up metal sculpture, Abend completed a fine arts degree at Syracuse University with the legendary Roger Mack as her mentor – but she also spent five years in night classes for vocational welding at Central Tech, at a time when one of the instructors thought teaching women to weld was “just wrong.” Abend says that “Pfft!” of a welding torch lighting still excites her after all these years.
“She’s only five feet tall,” notes The Post-Standard columnist Dick Case in an interview in the film. “I have said before that she’s a small woman who works on a grand scale.”
Abend, whose sculpture Earth’s Energy in the World Trade Center was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, also had the commission to turn a salvaged, slightly bowed World Trade Center steel girder into a sculpture for the memorial outside DeWitt Town Hall – she says as a welder she understands the degree of heat that was necessary to bend that girder – and the film has footage of that towering piece, far larger than anything in Edgewood, with Abend dwarfed beside it. She’d like to go that large again, she says.
Case has been following Abend for years and he relates to Rile and Barletta the fate of Abend’s Carousel Mall commission – 17-feet-high polished aluminum horses for the entrances of the mall: a race horse, a zebra, a Pegasus, a unicorn and two smaller horses – now all taken down and stored, except for the race horse and the unicorn.
There are also interviews with Jim Hueber, president of the local steel fabricating company, Mack Brothers, who’s known Abend three decades and speaks about respecting her for her craftsmanship and work ethic. Gallery director/artist Anne Novarro Capucilli of Limestone Gallery in Fayetteville speaks about first meeting Abend in Rochester. Teacher Mary Cunningham relates how Abend tackled the project of teaching welding to public school students. Delavan Center owner Bill Delavan relates how the Labor Day storm of 1998, which destroyed Abend’s studio there, couldn’t destroy her enthusiasm for celebrating her quarter century in his building with a bottle of champagne. Linda Bigness – who pitched in to make the retrospective a success – relates how Abend’s story and example inspired her own leap into becoming a working artist.
The film remains ever cognizant that Abend turns 80 next spring and that the Edgewood exhibition is a career retrospective – as she says on screen, “like a period on a sentence” that she is grateful she’s able to have the time to make. There is footage from Abend’s father’s home movies – amazingly, that toddler is clearly Abend herself, playing in the sand at Brighton Beach and even then, she comments now, making sculpture. And there’s a clip from a television interview that must date to the 70’s, when the knock-out lady welder briskly shows how it’s done.
Yes, I’m going to the annual Plowshares Crafts Fair too, among Saturday’s many travels – but I wouldn’t miss this. This is what “local treasure” is all about.
A shorter version of this review appeared in the December 2, 2010 print edition of "The Eagle" weekly in Syracuse, and in entirety at www.theeaglecny.com.