Menzies Art Brands

JOEL ELENBERG Profile 1978


Profile 1, 1978, is one of Joel Elenbergs most accomplished and elegant works. Slender, elongated and acquiescent, this work featured prominently in Elenbergs breakout exhibition held at the prestigious Robin Gibson Gallery, Sydney, in October 1978. It has become part of a select group of works for which he is now best known.

Elenbergs mature period as an artist was only five years as his career was tragically cut short with his death in 1980, aged just 32. In this short time Elenberg proved immensely productive and adaptable. Painting gave way to a concentration on sculpture: from 1972 he ranged freely carving blocks of marble through to casting in bronze.

Marble was undoubtedly the artists favourite medium the one that seems to have offered the greatest challenge. Materials for works such as Profile 1 were sourced from the famous marble quarries at Carrara, Italy, black Belgian marble and the incredibly hard marbles found throughout Australia, including a rare white stone originally composed of compressed sea shells that had only recently been discovered in the Ashburton district in Western Australia. Elenberg admired marble for its timelessness and its use by artists from pre-historic times through to the present day.

At the time of the first exhibition of Profile 1 in 1978, Elenberg commented that he had gravitated toward the stone because [he] liked the tactility. It was difficult and in Australia it was unexplored.1 This propensity to seek out challenges and to literally break new ground is matched by Elenbergs affinity with the inherent qualities of his preferred material. This was to be a hard-won contest between the hardness of the stone, its toughness, and his ability to refashion it into something new, vital, and tender yet strong.

Profile 1 represents the transformation of a heavy, earthbound rectangular block of marble into an upright, lithe, light and free-standing representation of an amorphous and ultimately indeterminate shape. Is it a bird, a reptile, a human or something else entirely? The curves and edges have been beautifully refined and the polished surface creates a sense of lyricism and reflection. Lines etched into the neck and columnar base add personality and detail to the overall form.

During the summer of 1977 Joel Elenberg stayed with painter Brett Whiteley at Arthur Boyds Italian house, Casa Peretaio, in Pisa. The two artists had become great friends and one detects something of Whiteleys signature style in the free-flowing curves and sensual form of works such as this. In the predominant use of black and white marble Elenberg was also referencing the sculpture of modernist sculptors including Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957) and Jean Arp (1896-1966). Famous works such as Brancusis white marble sculpture Bird in Space, 1923, now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, have continued to inspire contemporary artists including Elenberg. In Bird in Space the representation of grace and movement through pared down form is the focus rather than the physical attributes of Brancusis bird. Along with its uplifting sensibility, this potent visual idea provided a fertile source and is a possible model for Elenbergs ambiguous form.

Reviewing his 1978 exhibition The Australian newspaper critic, Sandra McGrath, wrote of Elenbergs stone carvings: All his works have a frontal emphasis. There is no desire to walk around them... [however] there is certainly a desire to stroke and touch them. This velvety black Belgian marble and white translucent Carrara stone is polished to sensuous perfection.2 This is certainly the case with Profile 1. In contrast to Brancusis unfettered upward thrust, Elenberg makes use of an elegant u-turn to create the experience of coming back down to earth and the attendant sense of an unbroken harmonious whole. The highly reflective surface ripples in the light while the alternation between black and white marble was seen by the artist as representative of the twin poles of life.

1. Quoted in McGrath, S., Obituary, 15 July 1980. See also Joel Elenberg: Stone Carving 1977-78, Robin Gibson Gallery, October 1978, unpag.
2. McGrath, S., The Australian, 14 October 1978

Rodney James
BA (Hons.), MA

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