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Ace Gallery – Herb Alpert’s Black Totem Series

February 5, 2010 Art, Contemporary, Events, Living, Sculpture No Comments

Sooj and I attended the Opening Reception for Herb Alpert’s Black Totem Series at Ace Gallery Beverly Hills. Lots of people dressed in black (myself included), free booze, news camera, sculptures. It was fun.

..amazed.

Copy + Paste from Ace Gallery:

Totems have pan-cultural associations throughout diverse cultures around the world, and these vertical forms have been used over the course of history as tribal talismans representative of genealogies, ancestors and documenting societies. Herb Alpert, in his Black Totem series, has focused on this totemic language of sculpture for the past 20 years.

Alpert’s process for creating these sculptures is very hands on. He works with wet clay first molding it into vertical forms ranging from 8 to 36 inches tall. From these he selects the ones he will make into larger sculptures, that will range from 12 to 20 feet in height. These larger works are also hand formed with the wet clay. When completed, molds are made and then the sculptures are cast in bronze and patinaed black. Alpert’s totems read abstractly yet suggestions of recognizable forms appear; an eagle form seemly emerging from the top of one, or human shapes surfacing. That their forms evolved naturally, organically, and are formed by the artist without carving tools that further convey their biomorphic qualities.

Alpert was, for the most part, inspired by the totems unique to the Pacific Northwest of North America such as those of the Haida, Tlingit and Kwakiutl tribes, whose totem poles were made of single pieces of cedar, some up to forty feet in height. For the Haida tribe, these ancestral totems are, and have been for hundreds of years, the essence of family and tribal identity and sometimes were used to mark entranceways to their lodgings. The totems of the Pacific Northwest function as crests of families or chiefs commemorating major events or occasions, represented by hierarchies of different creatures, animals or various supernatural beings (each signifying different human attributes). In Native American tradition, a totem is an entity or symbol that watches over or ‘assists’ a family, clan or tribe. Totemism, derived from the Ojibwe language, refers to that which is kinship-related, and it is also a belief system that is frequently associated with shamanistic religions. Totems act as ‘familiars’ or guides accompanying one through life, both in the physical and spiritual worlds. Alpert’s totems subliminally engage these theories and histories.

Alpert’s attraction to this sculptural form is understandable as it contains an enormous history. The black patina of his totems is evocative of ancient primal forms and the contemporary material belies an ancient prehistory. The pan-cultural consciousness invested into these dark sculptural forms also relate back in time to Egyptian obelisks as much as they evoke the Modernist sculpture of Constantin Brancusi – specifically Brancusi’s Endless Column (1937), Alberto Giacometti’s extended figures and early Louise Bourgeois sculpture. Alpert’s work shares with Bourgeois’ sculpture an affinity to Animistic entities or guardians. Bourgeois’ first major body of sculpture were slender wooden sculptures – reminiscent of pillars or tribal effigies (she travelled to Africa in the late 1940s), which later developed into totemic constructions – a fusion of architecture with the body, its substitution for the body, or phallic surrogates. Alpert’s biomorphic totems are composed within the gallery space, yet while each is singular, they gain intensity as a group, amplified with Alpert’s use of black for the totems.

Totemism was also a key element of study in the development of 19th and early 20th century theories of religions, especially for philosophers such as Émile Durkheim, who concentrated his studies on indigenous societies. Drawing on the identification of social groups with spiritual totems in Australian aboriginal tribes, Durkheim theorized how human religious expression was intrinsically founded in the relationship to a group. Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo first published in 1913, employed the application of psychoanalysis to the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and the study of religion. Given a revisionist post-Colonial perception of tribal and indigenous cultures these perspectives now seem curiously Eurocentric. Author Edward Saïd’s Orientalism has been one of the most influential texts readdressing Eurocentric perspectives which has further generated a globalized dialectic. The structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss posited in his text Le Totémisme aujourd’hui (Totemism Today), that totems are chosen arbitrarily for the purpose of making the physical world a comprehensive and coherent classificatory system, but also recognized that the concept of totemism is an artifact of western thinking imposed by anthropology.

For Alpert, these towering spires are like frozen smoke, or akin to the ineffable notes of music captured and held still as interminable forms. These abstract, yet formal structures and their process of creation are fluid in a way that jazz is, making intangible compositions physical. Alpert who is also a musician and composer, would not deny that there is a focused fluidity in the making of these sculptures consistent with the intuitive, harmonious and spontaneous moves and swings embodied in his approach to his music.

Herb Alpert was born in 1935 and lives and works in Los Angeles.

Link:
Ace Gallery
Herb Alpert

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