17 February 2012 Kathryn Havelock
I don’t buy into this whole concept of ‘what is modern art.’ Art represents us on a cultural level, and it also represents us on a personal level. I have always aspired to rise to the occasion on all levels, physical and mental. I find that the path I create for myself is my path, and the Greco-Roman tradition is very close to me because my family lineage came out of Italy. On a cultural level, the art is a portal into what can be, not about what is.
London Calling talked to sculptor Sabin Howard and his wife, author Traci L. Slatton, about their collaborative book, The Art of Life, a collection of essays and visually stunning photography detailing Sabin's equally stunning sculptural work.
London Calling: What was the original genesis for the book project and how long did it take to complete?
Traci L. Satton: Sabin claims that he was talking about his work one morning, as he does obsessively, and I said, “We have to write a book. People need to know what you’re doing and why it matters.”
Sabin Howard: The whole idea was to reach a broader audience and to educate them. People have lost the concept that they can have an opinion about art that is contrary to the established academic status quo. The art world is run by critics and academicians who are not trained in the visual, but who are more trained as writers writing a manual explaining art. I see the title “visual art” as self explanatory. Art is visual first and foremost. The book returns to the idea that you need to look at the piece and be with it. Then you can write or talk about it. It’s not the other way around, as current “concept art” espouses.
LC: The book is very personal, almost a love letter in places. Was it a challenge making a book so close to home?
TLS: Yes! Sometimes our discussions grew rousing. Names might have been called, objects might have been hurled.
SH: Making the type of art that I do is already extremely personal. I understand that any choices I make in my art expose how I think. If you look at my sculptures, they are completely out in the open because they are nude. Explaining the human and personal process of making my art was not uncomfortable. Without Traci, I wouldn’t have been able to put this in writing that was accessible to the general public. I would write something that was more esoteric. It was really important that I follow Traci’s lead in how the narrative was assembled.
LC: Much of Sabin’s work has echoes of the antique, for instance in the use of fragments of the human form and also, for instance, by depicting images of gods. Is there a creative tension here in terms of keeping work relevant to modern audiences or is sculpture perhaps a more ‘timeless’ art form than many others?
TLS: In my mind, because Sabin lives now and is immersed in this time, his work is absolutely of this moment. The rigor and quality of his work may be at the level of a Renaissance or Hellenistic masterpiece, but the faces and physiques of his figures could belong to no other era than ours. Take a look at Aphrodite’s core. The model for the core is an Aikido master, and the strength of that belly bespeaks the modern woman: strong and feminine together. This is an Aphrodite for our time: graceful, gorgeous, and sweet, but also powerful.
SH: I don’t buy into this whole concept of ‘what is modern art.’ Art represents us on a cultural level, and it also represents us on a personal level. I have always aspired to rise to the occasion on all levels, physical and mental. I find that the path I create for myself is my path, and the Greco-Roman tradition is very close to me because my family lineage came out of Italy. On a cultural level, the art is a portal into what can be, not about what is.
I do not follow the popular trend of depicting man in a lower light than he can be. I follow a higher culture that understands that our tradition is relevant, that it’s a source. It’s not archaeological, it’s a recreation and reinvention using a timeless form: the human body.
LC: It seems Sabin draws a great deal of inspiration from the old masters, especially perhaps Michaelangelo. Many art & museum attendees can often be intimidated by viewing a masterwork in case perhaps they miss something that’s ‘obvious’ to everyone else. How would you recommend viewing a sculptural work through fresh eyes rather than the weighted opinions of history?
SH: There have been many times that people who are not in the art world enter into my studio, such as electricians, the UPS guy, firemen inspecting the building, etc.—their first reaction is, “Wow! You did all this? This is real art!” I think our reaction to looking at a piece of art is clouded by the idea that “concept” or “the manual” rules the actual visuals right in front of you. This is a widespread fallacy in modern art.
The very fact that you are making a figure, and that you might be working in the same type of form that the Renaissance or Greco-Roman masters used, is only the tip of the iceberg. As an artist, when you create your art, you translate reality or the life model into sculptural form. In so doing, there is a filter that the artist has that is his vision; this is his perception of reality. That perception of reality comes from his experience in present day, eg 2012.
TLS: Isn’t that one of the definitions of great art: that it makes you look with fresh eyes? It wakes you up to look at the piece, the world, and your own life in a new way?
Sabin talks about the fallacy of modern art, that is, the notion that the heady babble about a piece comes before, and takes precedence over, the piece itself. Once we dispense with this bit of silliness, we stop being intimidated, because we can validate our own authentic human responses to art. That is, if it’s a joke, we can say that. If it’s beautiful, we can say that, too. Most of current art is a big scam perpetrated on the viewing public for purposes of ripping off wealthy art buyers.
LC: One of the strongest themes in the book is the artistic representation of people as humans, humanity itself and the human condition. In your experience how much does an artist ponder on the big questions of the universe while working on a new piece and how much focus is in the detail and then audience reaction?
SH: I never think about audience reaction. I never think about what people are going to think. The big questions of the universe are secondary to the artist using his personal visual intuition. In fact, the “big questions” are cerebral, part of the manual. They can not be avoided when a piece has depth, but they are a result of the artist’s choices, based on intuition and how educated and knowledgeable he is, which has great bearing on how he translates what he sees.
Everything is an illusion which the brain translates. The brain becomes the filter, deciding what is important and what is not.
TLS: I can address this question as a wife watching her husband. Sabin has a meticulous integrity toward his work. He works from a balance of his intuitive, subconscious self and his educated, experienced, self. In every moment, he seeks the ultimate and finest expression of his vision. It’s a little daunting. I do respect it.
LC: Another big theme in the book is the balance of opposites inherent in art, and especially sculpture – light and shadow, solid mass and movement and so forth. Has Sabin ever explored other mediums that touch on these opposites in different creative ways, for example film?
SH: The first ten years of my artistic training were spent establishing my ability to draw. Drawing goes way beyond rendering what is in front of you. Drawing is two dimensional construction of three dimensional form; you deal with proportion, design and composition. You also deal with the absolute foundation of visual art, because drawing is based on two elements: conceptual and perceptual. The conceptual deals with deduction and organization of the visual. Perceptual deals with how to perceive what is actually in front of you. The two work together indivisibly in art.
Learning how to put the body together, and using the grammar of anatomy, comes out of a foundation in drawing.
I used sanguine pencils, black pencils, and the white of paper in my drawing. I did a lot of long-term figure drawings. I did compositions with multiple figures and objects like vases, urns, hands, and feet. I drew horses and often my drawings had a surrealist flavor because I was exploring how light falls over form.
TLS: Sabin has done some beautiful drawings! I just pray he doesn’t sell them off the walls of our apartment. I always say he has the sweet sensibility of Raphael and the architectural sense of Michelangelo.
LC: Where can people go to see Sabin’s work at the moment, and what exhibitions and/or artists happening now would you recommend?
SH: On March 2, 2012, at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, we are doing a book launch and manifesto reading. The ICAA and the Italian Academy Foundation will present an evening with myself and a panel of critics: Comm. Stefano Acunto, Hon. Vice Consul, Republic of Italy; James F. Cooper, Director, Newington-Cropsey Foundation Cultural Studies Center and Editor, American Arts Quarterly; Peter Trippi, Editor, Fine Arts Connoisseur; and my wife, internationally acclaimed and award-winning author Traci L. Slatton. I will have an exhibit there lasting three weeks. That evening will feature a presentation and reception celebrating the publication of THE ART OF LIFE, with the panel discussing the classical art of sculpture.
The ICAA is located at 20 w. 44th and the reception will begin at 6:00 PM.
I have tremendous respect for the painter Odd Nerdrum. I also recommend looking at the work of my former teacher Martha Erlebacher.
TLS: Sabin regularly opens his studio to visitors, with advance notice. He doesn’t work very often with galleries because few galleries know how to sell sculpture, and those that do want too big a percentage of the sale. Making sculpture is an expensive proposition: the life models, mold maker, foundry, and finisher have to be paid. It’s far more expensive than making a painting, and galleries must take that into consideration. They are usually too short-sighted to do so.
I like the work of Jacob Collins and John Morra. Collins is a skilled artist—his paint brush knows its way around a human body. John Morra’s work is sublime. Especially his still lifes. What he is doing with light is ravishingly beautiful. I also love Mary Sipp Green’s landscapes; her technique of multiple layers yields an end result that is simply beautiful.
LC: And finally, where would you go first on a trip to London?
SH: The V&A. I am so impressed on how well presented and curated the art is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as at the National Gallery. Such meticulous care elevates the art to its rightful stature.
TLS: Is it pedestrian to say Harrod’s to look at clothes? Or to a pub for a good ale? Alas, there are fewer great pubs in London.… My second stop would be to the V&A. That museum just makes Sabin so happy.
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