Contemporary Sculpture with the Soul of the Ancients
Review by Grady Harp
And so each venture is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate, with shabby equipment always deteriorating in the general mess of imprecision of feeling, undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer by strength and submission, has already been discovered once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope to emulate- but there is no competition- there is only the fight to recover what has been lost and found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions that seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss. For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
Time, memory, resilient determination, passion for antiquity, and an independent spirit have been the accompanying muses for the creative flow of life submerged in art of Sabin Howard. While other artists may elect to quote some isolated aspect of previous periods of art in their striving to find a unique voice, a novel statement for which they will be recognized, remembered, Sabin Howard has always been consumed with his adoration of the sculptures of past civilizations – our cultural heritage too often visually discarded as historicity, a thing to know, a page in the progress to where we now stand. But his brilliantly conceived heroic sculptures emerge from his years of preparation that have brought him to the enviable status as a solitary move onto the plinth of the important sculptors of the human body of today. His classically inspired sculptures are not recreations but rather touchstones that represent his profound concern for his fellowman. In Sabin Howard’s words, ‘The body is a mirror of the mind. It’s not separate. When you look at a figure, the pose, the morphology—that all dictates a narrative about an individual psychology.’
Howard is a man of two worlds. Though he grew up in New York City, many of his childhood summers were spent in his mother’s home of origin in Torino, Italy, and that dichotomy of atmospheres – the hustling, ever changing chaotic need for things new that informs New York City was balanced by the splendor of the gentle, memory saturated moods of timeless Italy. The son of academic parents, he was exposed to museums early on but it was his time spent in the Medici Chapel in Florence, Italy where he came under the influence of the great works of Michelangelo and Bernini. He studied at the Philadelphia College of Art receiving his BFA in 1987, the Tyler School of Art in Rome in 1986 and 1987 where he was apprenticed to Paolo Carosone, and the New York Academy of Art receiving a MFA in 1995. He taught at both of the American schools for twenty years before devoting himself to his own work in his massive studio in Brooklyn. ‘I wanted to surround myself with the same beauty and grandeur that made me feel like I belonged to something greater than myself. When I am working in my studio surrounded by my sculptures, I have the same energetic feel that I had as a child looking out across the piazzas of Milan and Turin – one of serenity, grace, and power.’
As Howard’s meticulous eye for detail continued to develop, so did his ability to master the various tools of the art of sculpting. He works from direct observation of the live model, but often in his preparation drawings and early clay molds he mixes parts of various models’ bodies to achieve the effect he envisions. His studio houses armatures of steel bars forming a stick figure to which he applies Styrofoam to begin the shape and then molds his creations in plastiline clay. From clay he concentrates on the details his art illuminates, shaping and forming the sensuous appeal he views to be an ideal human form of sinews and curves, arriving at a metaphysical realism that edges towards abstraction: ‘I use design systems based on vortices and spirals. Those are ways energy travels through the bodies.’ His process is also additive: ‘The human body is based on a convex system where everything is pushing outwards from an internal pressure. So if this pressure is recreated in sculpture, you are actually showing the internal pressure of a human being: the spirit and the soul.’ A plaster cast is made, one of many parts that will allow the transformation of the perfect clay mold to the final stage at the foundry where the intensive lost wax method is used to form the final bronze stage of each work. For those unfamiliar with this complex method, it can be summarized as follows: First, the clay figure is covered in rubber and a hard outer shell. This forms a mold. Then wax is applied inside the mold, which is removed and reused, while the positive wax figure that results is covered in a ceramic shell. The wax inside this shell is melted away in a burnout kiln, and liquid bronze is poured in the void. Once the metal hardens, the shell is chipped away, and the resulting bronze statue is covered in an oxidizing glaze and finished by hand. And as the completed bronze sculpture finally emerges it must be brought to life by extensive patina work. The Pygmalion process takes countless hours of labor, but the art of Sabin Howard is an act of passion, solitude, devotion, and commitment – the evidence is the degree of perfection his works represent.
!SABIN HOWARD: Contemporary Sculpture with the Soul of the Ancients!
Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable.
George Bernard Shaw
Some may view his works and ask why he is recreating images from the ancient past, from the mythological characters that subsumed Greek and Roman and the great Italian masters of the medium. And while he does create images of Apo"o, Aphrodite, Mars and H ermes these are not replicas of the famous forms of the past, rather they are mythological ideas expressed in contemporary rarefied air that gives them a palpable presence of reality. His integument surfaces are not smooth and polished marble, but instead call forth a resemblance to the texture of skin that is real. Underlying muscles are anatomically defined without becoming academic. His other works deal with classically informed but contemporary settings for the concepts of Anger, Armor, S tubbornness and Persistence, Man, Eros, Ego, Satori (after Michelangelo’s ‘Day’), Mindfulness, and R eclining Figure. ‘My work gravitates toward order and harmony and the world making sense. First I learned the techniques required to create a renaissance figure: now I work beyond that to make studies that probe our human condition.’
Sabin Howard may take 2500 hours or more to move a figure from an initial concept to a finished bronze statue. Views of his studio with the artist at work conjure thoughts of the peak of the Medici times when art graced all things public and private and sacred. Sabin Howard references the past with reverence, but at the same time he has bought the splendors of another era into the soul of the present. His technical genius is astonishing, his spirit indomitable, and the art that comes from his mind and hands and body is transporting. As the New York Times commented, ‘Sabin Howard, a sculptor of immense talent, has created some of the last decade's most substantive realistic sculpture. When viewing his works, visitors may be reminded of the time when Donatello and Rodin walked the earth.’