Newsletter of the Adelaide Jewish Museum – May 2003
Andrew Steiner – Sculptor
Adelaide may boast a small Jewish community, but it has its fair share of outstanding personalities. One such person is Andrew Steiner, and recently, I was delighted to have spent some time talking to him about his art works. He found his “true calling” in sculpture when he was introduced to its techniques and possibilities by a friend in 1973. He subsequently attended woodcarving classes in London as well as in Adelaide. Over the past 30 years he has had solo exhibitions in Paris, Budapest, Veszprem, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. His first commission was for a Catholic Church in the form of a life-size carving of a Mother and Child. Stained glass windows adorn the two synagogues in Adelaide. In both venues the stained glass is an integral feature of the architecture. In both venues the religious content of the work serves the dual purpose of beautifying the house of worship and enlightening worshipers to aspects of the religion.
Stained glass as a medium is one aspect of this versatile artist who draws, paints, and produces bronzes and woodcarvings. However, timber is his medium of choice. He is passionate about working with Huon Pine in particular, because, in his words, “It is quite a wondrous feeling to have that association and the privilege to touch this ancient material”. He has an intricate knowledge of the wood, and I learned much about its nature and the significance of the wood for him when I interviewed him at his studio in March 2003. Named by the French explorer Count Huon, it is found exclusively in Tasmania and grows only about one centimeter every 100 years. The pieces the artist uses are all long dead and fallen – some of them could be as much as 50,000 years old. At first, the pieces are stained, gnarled and cracked, but after months of hard labour and dedicated attention, one sees the total transformation of the wood. The result is a magnificent silky-smooth honey-coloured finish. Natural cracks and blemishes within the wood are retained as a feature of the final work.
The kinship that the artist has with this material can be perceived in the way he expresses his love for this “remarkable, absolutely unique material” and the honest way in which he realizes the three-dimensional forms that emerge from it.
The bases are an intrinsic part of his work as they are carefully considered forms, each one complementing the sculpture that rests on it in a harmonious, symbiotic relationship. Physical movement is a feature that he often incorporates, and by doing so, the viewer can interact with the work by influencing its position in space, and playing with the shapes and shadows.
The sculptures are inviting to the senses. The artist encourages people to touch. There is an irresistible urge to caress the highly finished surfaces. Some of the sculptures make a sound as they are moved – beyond the visual and the sense of touch, the artist plays with the viewer’s sense of hearing. The sense of smell is also engaged because the natural oils within the wood, protecting it from rot and vermin, produce a musty perfume.
Ode to Nature
He works with only hand tools and has an unusual selection of special tools, some that he has made, some that have been made for him by friends. He can spend many months on a large piece. Sometimes people ask: did you find the wood like this? It is a popular but no doubt frustrating question and one that even I could not resist asking. His response is an emphatic “definitely not” and to clarify the point, he refers to the work “Homage” as an example. Excluding the base, this work has had 35 kgs of material removed from it. “After having removed all that material, after having spent many months doing it, yes it is all there within the material which had to be released”.
“I go and collect the wood myself, and select every piece that I feel has got something special to emerge, to reveal, and that’s how it starts. They are very hard to come by, expensive, and in short supply. But over the years I have built up a reserve that really, regrettably, I just won’t be able to use it all”.
I saw what he considers to be his most important work. It is a powerful bronze sculpture made using the ancient lost wax process, called “Zachor Hashoa” (Remember the Holocaust). It is a work that should be snapped up by the Adelaide Jewish Museum – if only we had the funds for such an acquisition. As a child survivor of the Holocaust, he says it is a subject that is with him everyday. This work was produced to recall and honour the Jewish victims of the Shoa. Six emaciated skeletons, indistinguishable as either male or female, in total anguish and hopelessness, stand on top of the world. Each figure represents one million innocent victims that perished while the world looked the other way. This work is going to the Melbourne Holocaust Museum for permanent exhibition.
The artist is inspired by nature. The organic, enlivened contours of his carvings suggest an affinity and bond with the natural world. For me, his work exudes a sense of the spiritual, even the secular work with no overt references to the Torah or its teachings. The sculptures are evocative: at times the abstract-like shapes and contours suggest figurative forms, and sometimes simultaneously, they also seem anthropomorphic.
We can easily engage with the sculptures formal qualities, their shape, texture, negative and positive spaces and sense of movement. Mostly, the viewer is left to come to his or her own conclusions about the content of the works, guided by the suggestive titles. Each viewer brings to the works a unique interpretation. Explanations of content by the maker often tend to produce a finite reading of a work. Contemplating his sculptures in a meditative manner is perhaps the key to unlocking the mysteries of its meaning.
If I were back in my former post as curator of an art gallery, I would have signed up a retrospective exhibition with Andrew Steiner without question.
Roslyn Sugarman, Curator Adelaide Jewish Museum