Even in the reign of creativity, it is hard to find some breathing space these days. When not politicized or meant as cheap shocks, art production increasingly seems less interested in long-lasting effect and more intent on eliciting a sharp, quick form of anger or brainwash. The reaction lasts long enough to be shared, before quickly disappearing like content on Snapchat. All the time now, we constantly react, express, point, oppose, attack and, above all, share. Instead of an escape, art is not letting us forget the world outside.
That is why we should welcome Celebrating Boaz Vaadia with arms wide open.
A series of figurative sculptures made of stacked stones the Israeli-born artist grabbed from New York sidewalks and construction sites is now on display at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens through April 29. They are spread out through the gallery rooms and outdoors.
Modeled after human figures and named after biblical characters, the sculptures bear the neutral color of slate and bluestone, with as many tonal variations as a city’s infrastructure allows. Even the color here is a respite from the daily black-or-white options imposed on us to pick a stance and declare through it whether we are good or bad.
Not here. Vaadia’s rock-solid humans adopt a passive pose. In a way, they are softer, more flexible than us. When not standing or sitting with arms crossed, as is the case with Asa & Yehoshafat with Dog, his contemplative figures recline on the grass – see Natan – and rest on one knee – see Haza’el. They don’t point, threaten or punch. They don’t judge. They don’t even have eyes – except for Tai, a gigantic head made of bluestone and placed by the entrance.
The Israeli-born artist, who died of pancreatic cancer just last February at age 65, discovered and began collecting the new material outside his Brooklyn studio after moving from Israel in 1975. He went on to study at the Pratt Institute and today, his works can be found in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bass Museum of Art, among other institutions. Growing up on a farm working the land cultivated Vaadia’s deep love of the earth and nature, which he considered “an equal partner.”
He never pushes his figures too hard. The artist’s understanding and acceptance of the material’s limitations is evident in the range of gentle poses. A piece from 2001 titled Yo’ah with Dog depicts a figure resting one foot on a boulder while his arms are drawn to the back. His right leg is positioned at a right angle. Even a riskier pose, as the one given to Ah’av, lets the sitting figure bring the right knee close to the chest but not too much.
Compared to our highly stimulating reality, Vaadia’s quiet world of carefully arranged layers of carved stone may appear underwhelming. But it is this restraint in color, gesture and size that lends Celebrating Boaz Vaadia a certain serenity and gifts us a break, for there is much noise indeed.
The noble causes are canceling one another out. Gender inequality, racism, corruption, fraud, rape, police brutality, hunger – not one stands out for long. It is true that art has always drawn from reality and some believe an artist’s first responsibility is to reflect the current times. It is therefore understandable to find today’s fruits of self-expression echoing the states of depression, impatience, and hostility.
Except we used to keep reality at a healthy distance. We never used to carry it in our pockets. It never vibrated with news alerts. Coming face to face with reality, seeing it framed and hanging from a public wall, used to be a big moment. It forced us to acknowledge a truth we had denied or hadn’t heard of. It didn’t sound repetitious. It wasn’t fake solidarity.
When art portrayed the ugliness we were removed from, it interrupted our ignorance and numbness in a big way; sometimes the shock moved us to act. Now we need art, like Boaz Vaadia’s, that interrupts us from playing at being full-time activists, and fewer artists screaming I’m with you and How ’bout that?
CELEBRATING BOAZ VAADIA (1951-2017) runs through April 29 at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach. Main gardens are open Wednesday to Sunday 10 am to 4 pm. Admission: $10, $8 for students. Call 561-832-5328 or visit www.ansg.org.