James A Michener Art Museum

by Brian H. Peterson, Senior Curator
James A. Michener Art Museum

There's a simple question that's often the starting point when one looks at a work of art, especially if the work is leaning toward abstraction: What is it? For sculptor Jonathan Hertzel, the answer to the question is never entirely clear. Is it a tree? Is it a tornado? Is it a convoluted strand of random DNA? Is it a woman, arms outstretched, dancing with the wind? Is it real at all, or could it be a creature from a Tolkien novel, or perhaps one of those mythical figures from the mind of the Roman writer Ovid, who loved to turn people into tree trunks and animals?

For Hertzel, the answer is yes--all of the above. And maybe that's the message of his work, to the extent that art ever has a message. Hertzel's sculptures tell us that all those names, labels, and categories that we use to codify and classify the world are misleading. If we could see the universe for what it really is, we would see more unity than division. We would see a gathering of dynamic forces rather than a static collection of unrelated ideas. The universe is above all alive, growing--in a constant state of flux. But like Hertzel's sculptures, that growth is focused, centered--emerging from a single point, the hub around which everything revolves. As he says, "I want my figures to evoke a sense of perpetual change, expressing the energy that propels and guides us--an essence of an underlying hidden order."

April 2nd through June 26th, 2005

critical essay

by Victoria Donohue
Philadelphia Inquirer Art Critic

Seldom are we privy to a less earthbound vision of bronze sculpture that with Jonathan Hertzel's eight free-standing pieces in the Michener Art Museum sculpture garden. Yet each of these gnarled and twisting sinewy shapes insists on its physical uniqueness.

Each has something like a physique, a physical tone, by which we can remember it. Their fluid movements make them seem like expressions of the human figure rather than mere objects.

Such works by this Chalfont [Pennsylvania] sculptor grow on one slowly, and the outdoors is the ideal environment in which to see them. In their favor, too, they have no optimum viewing distance. With Hertzel's pieces, the distant view and the near surface are equally interesting because his sculptures were fashioned for complex interaction, not for impact.

Building and modeling these "whirling dervishes" gives the work an uncommon texture and the minuscule incidents of such textures are a microcosm of larger pictorial events.

If there's something gothic about Hertzel's sculptures, perhaps it's because, by their seeming vitality, they won't let us forget we live in an increasingly automated society.

Jonathan Hertzel brings it all together in bronze

by Geoff Gehman
The Morning Call

"The Gathering" is the name of the Michener Museum's outdoor exhibition of Jonathan Hertzel's spiraling, molten, reef-like bronzes. It's a congregation of pieces that co-exist naturally as humans, aliens and elements. It's a mythic sculpture garden, a lawn party of mortality and immortality, a cosmic weather station.

"Pipal Tree" is one of the most paradoxical pieces. Named for the site of Buddha's burst of enlightenment, it resembles a bonsai bursting from a California cliff. It's rooted and uprooted, unruly and ruly, a serene tornado.

Hertzel, it turns out, is an earthy philosopher. "I like to sculpt things that are constantly moving, but not moving at all," says the 51-year-old from the home in Chalfont, Bucks County, he shares with his wife, painter Linda Guenste, and their sons, Elias and Ezra. "Some people might think that enlightenment means something in stone, like a seated buddha. I'm more of the sort of whirling dervish enlightenment type."

For four decades Hertzel has been sculpting aliens. In the early '80s he created distorted figures that clarified his interests in history, social realism and the Cold War. Artificially beefed up characters and short-circuited pieces made of electrical wires and computer parts allowed him to protest the threat of nuclear war and diplomatic Russian roulette.

Hertzel then moved to his best-known series: android faces, cyborg mummies, astronauts and terranauts with skinny bodies swimming in huge costumes. Placed on everything from urns to Christmas-tree ornaments, they represent "the essential self with armor built around it," says Hertzel, a former teacher at the Baum School of Art in Allentown. "A life support to sustain us in an increasingly contaminated environment."

In the early '90s Hertzel enshrined the Holocaust, where millions lost not only their life support but their lives. "Kristallnacht: Night of Broken Glass," which was exhibited in the 1992 Mayfair juried show, is a terra-cotta tower with illuminated glass-plate negatives of ghostly people, a roof of plastic shards and one of Hertzel's familiar sleeping heads with a cauliflower creature instead of a left ear.

A chapel bursts through the figure's brain, and a Statue of Liberty substitute rises from the church.

Twelve years ago, at the age of 39, Hertzel discovered that his own temple, his body, had been invaded by Type 1 diabetes, an affliction of children and young adults. Worried about making a living as an artist, he now had to worry about taking insulin and monitoring blood sugar, preventing heart disease and blindness. His collapsed life led him to make sculpture that was more collapsed. Working more abstractly, more viscerally, he turned the alien inward.

"After diabetes my work became more about my own mortality," says Hertzel, who excused himself during a telephone interview to drink a glass of juice to raise his blood sugar. "It became less and less about biology and more about the energy within. The element of what I felt I am as opposed to the container I felt was failing me."

In the late '90s Hertzel began creating the sort of biomorphic, telepathic bronzes displayed at the Michener. "Narrator," for example, has a ribboning body with a jaw that becomes a three-fingered, jester-hatted hand. "Observer" has legs like seaweed-wrapped roots and a helmet/cove for a head. Both works have the skeletal, craggy DNA of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti, one of Hertzel's heroes. He discovered Giacometti's work as an undergraduate on the cover of "The Irrational Man," William Barrett's classic study of existentialism.

Hertzel admits that his bronzes attract and distract. He enjoys watching viewers contemplate what is front and what is back, where physical ends and metaphysical begins. He wishes they paid less attention to definitions and more attention to feelings. He hopes the Michener show, the first solo exhibit of these bronzes, will improve understanding and sales.

Maybe, says Hertzel, it takes a mathematician to get the hang of it all. "One came to my studio and he was going on and on about chaos and order," says the sculptor, who for 25 years has worked adjacent to his wife's studio. "I didn't know what the hell he was talking about. But it sounded great. I wish I could quote him."

April 28, 2005


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