Menzies Art Brands



Besides a brief period at the National Gallery School, Melbourne, Joel Elenberg was a self-taught artist. It was his numerous visits to Italy and to the city of Carrara from 1976 that fortified his skills and stimulated his acclaimed, mature output of work. Known for its quarries of white marble, Carrara had been the source for Italian sculpture and architecture since the Roman age. It was here that Elenberg sought the tutelage of its local artisans. Splitting his time between Naples and Arthur Boyd's Italian residence, Casa Paletaio, in Pisa, the artist chose Italy as the place where many of his marble and bronze creations would be initially brought to life. Prior to this pilgrimage, he worked mainly in painting and drawing. After their initial encounter in 1970, Elenberg and Brett Whiteley forged a valuable friendship that led to Elenberg sharing his studio space at Lavender Bay in 1979.

Vestiges of the human body were Elenbergs grammar. Avoiding the portrayal of the whole body, the artist consistently fragmented it into its distinct appendages: heads, torsos, masks, hands. His sculpture was also clearly Modernist; nomadic and autogenic a break from the lineages of history, with a futuristic impulse. Totem 1979 (Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane) and Head III 1978 (private collection) are notable examples of this new-age aesthetic. Conversely, Elenberg also appropriated the primitivist trope of the mask (see Mask A 1979-80, Monash University Collection, Melbourne) and totem, which the Fauves and Cubists adopted in a crucial shift for Western art during the early 20th century.

Elenbergs practice reflected on the more intimate domains of the psychological and the subconscious, which at the time was a clear deviation from contemporary sculpture of the 1960s and 70s. These sculptures were industrial, severe, welded, and linear; preferencing space and phenomenological experience over internal and unconscious impulses. Elenbergs sculptures by contrast, were unpainted, decadently materialised, and domestically scaled, their subject matter too vulnerable, spiritual, and psychological in comparison. The generous use of marble stemmed from the fact he gravitated toward the stone because [he] liked the tactility.1 His first complete suite of sculpture  exhibited at Australian Galleries, Melbourne in 1975 resembled the work of Auguste Rodin, with its thrusting volumes and unfinished forms. From there they became more confidently abstract. Elenberg embraced the creation of biomorphic and surrealist shapes that echoed the style of Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Jean Arp, and Constantin Brancusi, and no doubt the distorted, sensual bodies of his counterpart Whiteley.

Family I c1973 is totemic in both form and function, an outstanding example of Elenberg's early sculptural work. It is assembled in a series of four vertical segments that cycle between restraint and energy, black and white, elegant and jagged. The sawtooth-shaped base zips upwards, its momentum continued by two smoothly cylindrical pedestals of marble from which an abstract element is pinioned. Created in the same year as the birth of Elenberg's daughter, Zahava, the work intimately celebrates the creation of life and a family. The non-objective apex teases the beholder to seek out its symbolic meaning or figurative content. Elenberg here is interested in combining the ethnological and spiritual aspects of the totem that have long influenced its importance across many cultures. By using marble as his medium, the artist transforms ethereal sensations into tangible matter, and in return, he materialises them back into the spiritual realm. Brett Whiteley sums this up perfectly: Joel loved pure, totemic, phallic forms that reached up to some kind
of Jungian mandala, some kind of abstract absolute based on nature.2

1. Joel Elenberg, quoted in McGrath, S., Obituary: Joel Elenberg, The Australian, 15 July 1980
2. Pearce, B., Brett Whiteley: Art & Life, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1995, p.40

Tim Marvin
Tim Marvin is an emerging curator and art historian based in Sydney. He has a Bachelor of Art Theory (Honours, First Class) from the University of New South Wales, and currently holds the position of gallery registrar at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney.

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