“Sanity,” a title shared by Rachel Rotenberg’s recent exhibitions at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, and at Gershman Gallery in Philadelphia, not only suggests the role that making art plays for her, but also argues for the necessity of art in a world where countless forces, from technology to climate change to war, threaten to overwhelm us. Rotenberg finds sanity in reshaping wood and vines to create dynamic, organic, and heroic sculptures that address not only spirituality in nature, but also the connectedness of humans to nature and to each other.
Her vision builds on a foundation of sculptural precedent laid by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Wendell Castle, and more recently, Martin Puryear, all of whom deal with similar concerns in their work. Rotenberg sees her abstract sculptures, which consist of sensually curving surfaces, intriguing negative spaces, and forceful volumes, as “metaphors for relationships.” Some are whimsical, while others appear sternly present, proudly claiming their space and transporting viewers into an amorphous world somewhere between the intellectual and the physical. Yet all of her forms can be characterized as, she says, “muscular movements that are mysterious, provocative, and humorous.”
Looking at Rotenberg’s works, we sense an intimate conversation between artist and sculpture, which encourages us, as viewers, to develop the same kind of bond with them. They demand our time, just as they demanded Rotenberg’s time when she was making them—there is no quick walk past one of her objects. Her concern for materials, expressed through a labor-intensive process, reinforces a return to the foundation of organic structure.
Rotenberg’s process emphasizes the handmade. She cuts, clamps, and glues together pieces of wood (usually cedar), which she then grinds and sands to refine the forms, finally applying a patina of stains and pigments (often oil paint). Like faint memories, these subtle color variations overlay her finished surfaces, emphasizing particular elements within the whole and reinforcing the qualities of the wood. For Rotenberg, materials are paramount. Her attention to details of surface and texture matches her desire to create conversations between solid and void.
Though her sculptures appear as intuitive expressions, they emerge out of pencil drawings and careful planning. Her sketches depend on an internal and personal vision, which she translates to wood and sometimes to metal and cement. She works on one piece at a time, returning to her sketchbook to solve problems. That Rotenberg can maintain the expressive and intuitive quality of her drawings in the final sculptures, some of which are quite large, is remarkable. The instinctual, almost improvisatory quality of the finished works belies the complexity of their construction and the amount of preparation involved in their making.
Rotenberg has been making consistently significant work since the early 1980s. She moved to Williamsburg (Brooklyn) in 1984, after receiving her BFA from York University in Toronto in 1981, and then to Baltimore in 1994. In 2014, she began sculpting for extended periods of time in Israel. Though the spirituality and connections to nature in her work are not specifically religious, she draws from Judaism and its admonition to care for the earth—the Torah is a Tree of Life, and trees play a fundamental role in both historical and contemporary Judaism.
For Rotenberg, the studio is a place of formal and spiritual meditation. In Spiral (2008), cedar elements, with the addition of oil paint, conjoin in a shape that often appears in her sketchbooks. The spiral suggests many things: womb, water swirl, tree hollow, even a cell. While the overall dynamic is one of a unified, circular form, it becomes apparent that many, much smaller sections of wood make up the whole. Dream (2011) and Togather (2013) move in a different direction, with heavy forms that make us feel their weight and the pull of gravity. They are fanciful, but powerful, embracing while also displacing space. Dream, which stands on a base of two ball- or pod-like forms, leans upright against the wall, simultaneously using it for support and acting as support. The protective Togather, which hugs the ground like a huge wooden toy or oversize creature, shelters a wooden sphere in its embrace. Together, these works present an allegory of procreation, birth, and childhood. Fusing conscious and subconscious thought, Rotenberg avoids the literal, gently suggesting but never forcing interpretation.
The intricate composition of Timeline (2014), which appears almost flexible, demonstrates Rotenberg’s carving skills. It also emphasizes a contrast between interior and exterior—another recurring motif that can also be seen in Rayne (2013), which suggests an abstract shelter, and Untitled 152 (2013), which resembles a large basket. The deceptively simple Breathe (2013), an abstracted torso, floats on the wall, and as our eyes travel downward, the articulated ribs seem to move and flow as rigid structure (almost like a corset) gives way to free, animate form, with irregular spaces and undulating shapes. To breathe is to give and sustain life—God breathed into Adam—and resuscitation is a combination of tight compressions and open breaths.
Rotenberg’s interest in conjoining disparate ideas and forms finds physical expression in her woven structures. In Untitled 157 (2015), she encases poplar within woven aluminum and yarn to form a vessel, which often symbolizes the female body. Here, the figure emerges and even breaks out from the fencing. Welcome (2015) consists of two main forms, joined together by horizontal bands of wood. The undulating warp and weft structure references cloth. The title of the work and its joyous movement lead to a wealth of possible interpretations, including references to a braided challah bread covered by a decorative cloth on the Sabbath table.
Seasons (2015), Shelter (2016), Sarro (2017), and Winward (2017) return to the circular organic compositions that Rotenberg has explored throughout her career. Negative space is essential to these structures in which solid and void interact. The colorful patina of the cellular Seasons, with its greens, golds, and oranges, conjures the palette of autumn and spring. The form brings together the macro and the micro, life forms that make up and sustain the universe.
In Shelter (2016), which resembles a slice of a cell under the microscope or a seedpod cut in half, a wooden shell holds small cement “seeds.” Many of Rotenberg’s recent works combine cement, an inert substance that will not decompose, with organic wood. Putting them together to describe a living seedpod represents the whimsy in many of Rotenberg’s sculptures. Untitled 173 (2016), a smaller sculpture, also combines these materials and fancifully references pods and seeds, as does Nested (2017).
Eggs, seeds, birth, cells, and basic life forms appear frequently in Rotenberg’s work, often with humorous undertones. Her sketchbooks reveal the depth of her explorations into organic abstraction. Even when working with geometric shapes, as in Untitled 184 (2017), she makes cement echo wood constructed in a stair-like composition, which results in a dynamic, seemingly living object. The more obviously biomorphic Veer Left also addresses direction. Life presents many paths and choices: take the stairs here, veer left there.
Rotenberg employs a limited number of specific materials and forms in order to explore personal and universal themes: the relationship between the mental sphere and the physical world, our place in nature, war and peace, and ultimately, how we interact with each other. Manipulating her materials in unconventional ways, she addresses these issues through abstraction, working within an intuitive and introspective framework defined by a personal sense of spirituality, as well as a belief in the strength and beauty of the human spirit, and the ability of art to transmit these ideas.
This article appears in the March/April issue of Sculpture.