by Jonathan Shahn


Jonathan Shahn's work treats one of art's oldest subjects, the human form. A sculptor whose work resists categorization under a specific school or tradition, he looks at and draws inspiration from the entire history of art. He embraces pre-modern, ancient, medieval, renaissance, tribal, and modern art, synthesizing their contributions in order to reexamine that omnipresent object of human social and reflective life, the human head. In so doing, he offers new ways of seeing the head. With a deft awareness of the importance of how the conditions under which the head appears to us constitute our mundane perception of it, Shahn plays with spatial limitations and lighting to help abstract the head from our everyday experience of it. His sculptures unveil the many manifestations of facial expression to reveal our humanity, but without strict adherence to any single artistic tradition, making his work representative of a kind of cosmopolitan humanism. Yet, by abstracting from normative experience, Shahn's work is singularly a product of modern artistic questions.

Jonathan Shahn is represented by New York's Jonathan O'Hara Gallery and teaches at The Art Students League of New York. Included below are quotes by Mr. Shahn extracted from an interview that was conducted by Logos Journal.


The artist at work in his studio




In art, there is always a difference between what you see and what you know, which is actually what you think you know. You make so many assumptions about things that you look at, whether it is people, animals, trees, or anything. You make assumptions, but the more arcane something is to you, the more likely you are to look at it, rather than to know it. With the human head there is the opposite extreme. You have got so many preconceived ideas about it. However, you are constantly substituting what you think you know for what you see. Or, obliterating what you see with what you think you know. Sometimes when I teach, I have models pose for a portrait with their head lying on a table, so you are looking at the head from an unusual position right away. All of a sudden it becomes odd and strange-looking, meaning that you have to look at it much more carefully. When you are working, you try to create a lot of situations of strangeness for yourself like that. You want to see things like you have never seen them before. There is more pleasure in it that way.  


There is an obsession that a lot of people have with modern sculpture and bases. About how the elimination of the pedestal was really a great moment. Itís interesting when they put things on the ground. They do not need a pedestal anymore. But, big deal. It's fine to make a pedestal too, but now you do not have to. Big deal again.  Itís just one of those simple-minded things that people overdo referring to. Some of these pieces are a lot about pedestals and bases. There is a piece that I always liked when I was going to school in the Boston Museum, an Egyptian piece. It was the head of a scribe. I always drew it. I liked that relation of that block to the head... One of the reasons I started making [my pieces] in boxes was because I was not satisfied with the way they looked. They could have been on pedestals, but that did not look interesting. I also hated the light, the spotlights. So, I decided to make the limits of its space and make the lighting as well.


The more familiar things are, the harder it is to see them. Itís about looking at something familiar as if it were something you did not know very well. You have to look at it more intensely to try to understand it. Sculpture is complicated by a spatial proponent. It has dimension and thickness. When you are looking at most faces or heads, you see them as images, or pictures. In images, the vertical and horizontal placement of every part is  critical, but the depth has no existence, except as an illusion. That is why it is very difficult for people who are very skilled in two-dimensional drawing, to learn how to do sculpture. They have developed such a high degree of skill in this vertical and horizontal concept of things, and have not particularly given thought to depth. In other words, if I make the side of somebodyís head and then their ear, I can do things in drawing like make the ear look as if it was behind the line of the cheek. I do not care how much behind, just so that it looks as if it is behind. Whereas when I am making a sculpture, I have to really think about the whole space, as if my eyes were everywhere around.



I am interested in what the pieces in the boxes look like, what kind of heads they are. I want them to get as much consideration from the format as they can. It is not like a conceptual work where you have an idea of a head and any head you do will do. Thatís not the important part. What Iím trying to do is make an intense head, one that has emotional qualities. People make too much of an opposition between expressionism with form that carries beyond their representation of form versus representational art as being more rational. I do not believe in that particular opposition. I am trying to put the qualities of expression or emotion in things that have the appearance of very ordinary proportion.




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Logos 6.1-2 - Winter/Spring 2007
© Logosonline 2007