Fascinating Figures from the Fantastic Imagination of a Visual Alchemist
On The Transreal Art of Susannah Israel
There are many hidden treasures in the hills and valleys of Northern California; gold being the least among them when compared to the impressive colony of artists that live and work there. And the tradition of ceramic art in the region represents a unique cultural treasure – you can see it exhibited even in the facades of buildings – and spawned a tribe of modern alchemists who turn sand into great art.
The medieval Moors that ruled Spain were said to possess an alchemy that could magically turn sand into gold….but this proved a myth when confronted by modern science. Great ceramic artists turn sand into priceless treasures for real; and once created, like fine diamonds, they will grow more valuable with time. One of the brightest stars in this artistic galaxy that illuminates the East Bay art world is Susannah Israel: Sculptor, Teacher and insightful Critic.
In a world where art schools and universities turn out “well-trained” artists in a never ending stream – people who have been tutored in the history and techniques of their chosen field – the search for an original style is endless. And in the modern era this has more often than not led to gimmickry, farce and sometimes tragedy; far less to success. Ms. Israel is one of the rare artists who have achieved an original style that is as distinct as the sound of Miles Davis’ trumpet, which is unmistakable to even to the casual jazz fan.
Ms. Israel’s work reminds us that there really is a sharp distinction between innovation and what I have called elsewhere “a mindless search for novelty.” Just as she demonstrates that personal style is the result of mastery in art. Alas, while to the untutored ear all of Miles Davis’s records sound alike, Ms. Israel’s art is said to lookalike by commentators with untutored eyes: the novice, philistine and pretentious dilettante.
In such instances the observer appears to be mesmerized by the distinctiveness of the artist’s style, much as Immanuel Kant was mesmerized by the church steeple outside his window, as they ponder the meaning of the work. I have always felt that people who think all of Miles’ music sounds alike were either tone deaf or tasteless, and I get the feeling that those opinionated wags who say Susannah’s art all looks alike are in need of a seeing eye dog, who would probably exhibit better taste and judgment. With Miles it is the pervasive use of the mute in one of his most prolific and musically profound periods that leads the careless listener to conclude that all of his music sounds the same.
Yet the careful listener can easily hear the vast difference between Miles’s languid legato phrasing in “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Someday My Prince Will Come,” compared to the rapid fire staccato statements on up tempo tunes, although he is using the mute in both performances. Likewise, the careful viewer can easily see the dramatic differences in the work of Professor Israel. Like Miles’s Mute, it is the otherworldly character of her figures that stands out in the minds of most people.
While this is a signature element of her style, the variety of ways in which it is expressed is dizzying. Susannah has produced over 5000 works of sculpture – which have brought her honors and accolades and are exhibited in museums around the world – and from what I have seen of it every piece is unique. They express the full range of human emotion – pathos, bathos, mirth, mystery and more – a truly remarkable achievement.
This can be clearly seen in the photos of her work below. Artist who achieve an original style often arrive there by different routes. For Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, two of the greatest innovators of 20th century music, it was the need to free themselves from the musical conventions established by the great virtuosos that preceded them on their instruments – such as Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter on alto-saxophones, and Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie on trumpets – and find their own voice.
Susannah, however, although no less intent on freeing herself from the influence of her mentors, nevertheless arrived at her style by virtue of philosophical considerations anchored in her personal history. Part Chinese, part Spanish Sephardic Jew, and Part Irish, she has never fit into the neatly defined racial and ethnic categories that have shaped race relations in America.
Her father, Dr. Calvin Israel, a Spanish Jew that grew up in Jazz Age Harlem and cut this teeth in Greenwich Village with the “Beats,” was first a radical labor organizer then metamorphosed into a professor of Literature and a Beckett scholar. Her mother – Bonnie Burbank– was a history teacher and a painter. It is no wonder that Susannah is such a lover of books and avid reader that she is a throwback to the likes of Robert Penn Warren, a two time Pulitzer Prize winning writer, banishing television in favor of books.
All that reading made for an inquisitive mind and a free thinker. Thus it is also not surprising that she would question social conventions and even taboos about race, gender and sexual orientation. Living in San Francisco – with its open minded cosmopolitan ambiance – facilitated her unconventional take on social reality. It is reflected in the family she formed; a Afro-American father, a multi-racial mother, a white daughter and a bi-racial daughter who is Black like Barack. Ironically this was the “all-American family” even as most white Americans continue insist it’s still Ozzie and Harriet.
As a result of her experience with race and ethnicity, and the fact that many of her closest friends and colleagues are gay or lesbian, added to some misguided attempts to classify her art by gender, Professor Israel decided to make a statement in her art about arbitrary and dangerous distinctions between human beings, and thus she makes her figures unrecognizable based on gender or race. Hence the otherworldly characters that populates her oeuvre, which many would describe as surreal.
My decision to label her work “Transreal” is no mere play on words; it is meant as a mark of distinction. Although Surrealism was revolutionary in its time, when Salvador Dali was all the rage early in the last century, the aesthetic philosophy that guides Professor Israel’s work is of her own invention. What Susannah shares in common with surrealists is her unwillingness to be bound by the limitations of “reality” imposed on “representational” art and surrender to the dictates of her imagination. She tells us:
“My approach to my materials is a combination of well-practiced skill and reckless disregard for established convention. I willingly sacrifice lifelike anatomy to questions of composition and gesture. I use both high and low-fire clays. A confirmed alchemist, I am always testing new formulas. I use nontraditional materials with clay – paint, metal, found objects, – when they serve the work best. I tell my students ‘Use all your options,’ and I actually do take my own advice.”
This is the source of her unique style, and her works only “look alike” to the untutored or prejudiced eye. Many people who insist that all of Ms. Israel’s work looks alike know nothing of serious art, they are pompous ignorami, given to muttering muddled manure masquerading as learned opinion. But let me hasten to add that professional critics who have ventured an opinion on Professor Israel’s sculptures have been kind, if not reverential.
Professor Michelle Gregor, an outstanding ceramic sculptor in her own right, has called Ms. Israel “A ceramic sorceress.” This salutary assessment of Susannah’s work was echoed in a statement from the California Conference for the Advancement of Ceramic Arts, who called her “one of the most fascinating artists working in the field today.’ Yet Susannah points out that despite her good fortune in winning critical acclaim, the commercial market place has been indifferent, if not hostile, to her work and the field of ceramic art in general.
Fortunately the art merchant’s opinions shall have but little moment, because great art will find an audience and a market long after the memory of these snide and ignorant philistines, who genuflect before Mammon while sacrificing truth and beauty upon the altar of commerce, have faded from the scene. In fact they shall be remembered in history as the art world’s equivalent of the television executives who turned down Bill Cosby’s “Huxtables”. Which, soon after it was aired, became the most popular television show in the world!
Susannah’s treasures in clay will last as long as the rock of Gibraltar if the curators do their jobs. Yet despite her great originality she is working with materials provided by mother earth that some conservative critics say is not the stuff from which great art is created – for them clay is for modeling bronze sculptures. And the difference between the two in their considered opinion represent the distinction between “art” and “crafts.”
Yet one has only to study the remarkable sculptures Susannah molds from clay to see that, despite their attempts to sway the conversation through intimidation by pretensions to expertise, they are clueless. And while I claim no specialized knowledge of the art and science of ceramics, I recognize intelligence and beauty wherever I see it; whether in music, painting, literature, sport or an intellectual treatise. And I see generous doses of beauty, intelligence and inventiveness in the sculpture of this gifted artist.
As I carefully studied the uniqueness of her work, I was astonished at the subtle ways she manages to give each of her statues a distinct facial expression that seem to mirror spiritual qualities. Sometimes it seems that she just gives the clay a slight twist to produce a remarkably different attitude, bequeathing each figure a unique personality.
This heightened facility for subtly and nuance is the mark of an artist equipped with uncommon gifts, and defines virtuosity among molders of clay. Those critics who refuse to recognize the achievements of the best ceramic sculptors as fine art should be placed in the same category as those pompous churchmen who believed Johann Sebastian Bach was ruining the music of the high church.
The representations of Susannah Israel’s work in this photo-essay, though only a peek into the vast oeuvre of this prolific sculptor, speaks far more eloquently to her gifts than any words a poet, much less a critic, could conjure.
Each Statue Expresses a Distinct Persona
Even the casual observer can see it
Majestic in their Silent Repose
The Evidence of a Rich, Fecund Imagination
The Myriad Postures of Repose
To Each its Own
Chillin in tha Cut
Sometimes They Appear…
….To be in conversation
They even Gesture for Emphasis…
…..Like Real People!
As if they were alive
How animated they are!
Soul in a Restful Place
Terra Cotta Beauties
Reach out to the Visitor
Everywhere They Sit….
………Like otherworldly beings bearing silent witness to human folly
They Seem to gaze at Us…..
…….As if we are on display
Sometimes they even seem vain
Checking out their finely wrought forms in the mirror
They hang out in Cliques
In A Temple to Art
And Other Times………
……..They seem to be just hangin out
With Godlike Aura’s
They Fix their gaze down Upon Us
Dissatisfaction with the Foibles of Mortals
Seem Etched on Their Faces
Their Faces are life like Masks…
On which the entire range of human emotions are revealed
….Look as if they might speak
Some Got Attitude
Like they don’t give a fig….”Whatever!”
Look as if they speak to Each Other Every Night
And Boogie Down…..
In the Dark!
Other’s Prefer Ballet
Daring Duets at Dawn… It’s a Splendid Alchemy
And Some Prefer Solo’s
Dance! Ballerina Dance!
Some Regal Figures Look Like they are…..
Watching Each Other’s Back
Paragons of the Contemplative Life….
A Visual Paean to the Life of the Mind
They Stare into Some Distant Horizon
Which only They Can See
Fantastic Creatures Seem to Dwell Everwhere
Like Magical Astral Travelers
They Cavort on Desktops
As if they were in a Playground
Prometheus Tames the Eagle
Susannah Twists the Myth
Mixing Myths and Metaphors: A Modern Medusa…….
………Or a highly stylized Lone Ranger with Tonto Rising?
Sometimes they lurk in the Dark
Like Frozen Shadows
Many of these Fantastic Creatures began as Drawings
This is how Susannah Conceptualizes her Sculpture
They Now Paper the Walls
In that Temple to Art that she calls Home
Through Susannah’s special alchemy these drawings……
………are transformed into Marvelous Sculptures
A Hundred Years Shall Pass
And the Glow of their Majesty will Flare even Brighter!
Professor Susannah Israel!
The Innovative Artist that Created these Treasures….
Demonstrating the Magic of her Potter’s Wheel
The Artist Amid her Creations
A Spiritual Communion with Clay
Professor Israel is also a distinguished Writer /Teacher/Critic
The Statuesque East Bay Bohemian Amazon /Artist/Intellectual in her study
As Resident Director of the Oakland Mueseum of Ceramics….
The Fecund Sorceress Meditates…over he next Creation
Double Click to hear Miles Davis:”Someday My Prince Will Come.”
Text and Photos By: Playthell G. Benjamin
October 12, 2013