L.A. Designer: Josh Abarbanel on “Seeing Life”

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What do you do if you yearn for nature in our digital age?

In the case of artist and digital media professor Joshua Abarbanel you find a way to unite the two, most recently in See Life, an exhibition of bas-reliefs at Hinge Parallel Gallery in Culver City that are inspired by “biological, botanical, and geological structures,” conceived in the computer and cut by a CNC milling machine. Abarbanel, who studied psychology and fine art, first caught DnA’s attention several years ago with the publication of a book, co-written with documentary filmmaker Jeff Swimmer, called A Field Guide to Household Bugs.

In a city that prefers to keep aging and death at a distance, not to mention household bugs, Abarbanel has an artistic and intellectual fascination with both. He spoke to DnA about his interest in the cycle of life, finding a way to harmonize his passion for nature and the digital, and the inspiration he takes from “fractal patterns, accretive structures, and the Fibonacci sequence.”

A Field Guide to Household Bugs. Now your latest art exhibit explores biological forms. Is there a connection?

Josh Abarbanel: The current body is really a new iteration of a lifelong poem or ode; in many ways we all have one story we continually tell and mine is the relationship of the things that are almost unseeable and the interconnection of all life forms.

The show consists of nine wall sculptures, and they are all mounted so as to appear as if they are growing in the gallery, there is this kind of spore thing going on.

I have a friend who is an artist who is also an art historian. We were talking about how someone once said, “all art is political,” and I said, mine isn’t. She chuckled and said, but yours is romantic landscape and it is about this idea that there is beauty that we should be in awe of.

DnA: Tell us where the computer comes in.

JA: I can create initial shapes and design them on the computer and then by hand put them all together in way that feels organic but really came about through having access to that new tool.

The larger pieces on the large wall were cut with a CNC machine.

DnA: What woods do you use?

JA: The smaller pieces are made of bintangor plywood, that’s a composite that is used in cabinet making. I wanted to have variety of woods from lower to higher grade, and they are all sourced from a supplier in LA, there’s maple and birch and walnut and the large pieces are all birch plywood that are stained.

Teri_See_ThroughDnA: Do you have a background in biology or botany?

JA: No, but I have had lifelong fascination with it.

My memory of being interested in science dates back to 8th grade chemistry. I remember our teacher rapped on a granite table and said these were atoms in motion and I didn’t really hear another word he said for about two weeks. It’s those kinds of mysteries that have driven the work; those mysteries all around you that are waiting to be seen (in the title of the exhibition “see” and “sea” are a play on the marine idiom.)

Then as a kid we had an Encyclopedia Britannica with probably 20 plates of the human body with layers of acetate sheets over them and you would first see the image of a naked man and you would see the skin and then you’d peel away that acetate and then you’d see the muscles and then you’d peel another layer of acetate and see the organs and then you’d dive deeper and deeper.

I’ve been transfixed with the idea of trying to see the unseen. In terms of formal training in science I don’t have that so in a way it’s like looking it as poetry instead of as formulas.

A Field GuideDnA: But you teach digital media and make art using digital tools. How do you reconcile that with your passion for nature?

JA: That’s been a huge struggle for me; in my soul I’m a Luddite.

I graduated high school in 1983 and that Apple commercial came out in 1984 (the Superbowl Ad introducing the Macintosh personal computer for the first time) and so I really stand on both sides of the digital age. When I went off to college my parents gave me a typewriter. A year later they might have given me a computer.

Initially I really didn’t think computers were going to bring anything to me and have a tangible impact on my work.

What was interesting is when I got out of school in 1993 the world was becoming hyper-digital and though I’d studied ceramics the teaching jobs were all about teaching digital. Now I teach digital media all day long (at LA Harbor College); it’s something I’d said I wouldn’t do.

This is a long circle to come back to now making sculpture but doing it with a hybrid process; I finally feel I’m breathing some level of humanity or organic kind of quality into it so the digital isn’t overwhelming the end result. In and of itself that becomes so powerful. What’s nice is that as I’m putting these things together I’m okay with them not being aligned; I’m very interested in the Japanese concept of wabi sabi, of beauty in imperfection.

If you think of humanity is a field of wild flowers, we all want to be perfect but when you go up and look close each one has a couple petals that are out of order and I think that’s an important quality to bring into the work, finding the wabi sabi.

DnA: Let’s go back to A Field Guide For Household Bugs, which was about the insects that inhabit our homes. Tell us about that.

JA: That book was driven by the fascination with electron microscopic images of ants and other bugs and this recognition that they looked like dinosaurs and that you didn’t have to go on safari to Africa to see exotic creatures; you could study the eyelash mites on your face.

We were struck by the tension of how they are really gross and at same time really beautiful. The ugly and the beautiful of nature.

JSA_Reef04_detail DnA: Do you study the timber in your home?

JA: Yes, of course. We love to garden and I find it to be a metaphor for the larger scope of nature. You see the whole cycle of life and I find a solace there because it’s all inevitable and there is something comforting and I think the work is trying to do that too.

DnA: Do you think about death?

JA: Oh, yes, constantly, and the work is about that cycle too, about things that grow by accretion and that inevitably decay and die.

I particularly find accretive forms to be really intriguing, like cellular growth, also stalagtites, stalagmites, and then shells and horns; and I even think of the Fibonacci sequence in leaf patterns as being accretive.

DnA: Your current exhibition opened on the Summer Solstice, which seems appropriate to your interest in the cycles of nature? Was that intentional?

JA: No, it was a fantastic coincidence; since I was about 10 years old the Summer Solstice has been my favorite day of the year; but as I reached my mid-40s I realized that I had it backwards because the day is the longest day of the year and after that the days get shorter. So then my favorite day became the Winter Solstice.

DnA: Where were you born to have such a connection to the earth?

JA: I was born in Manchester, England, but then went to Israel for a few years and my dad did a dissertation on the Moshavim; that’s a collective group similar to Kibbutzim. The difference is the Moshav people were given equal portions of land and could cultivate it as they wanted but then would sell collectively.

So I long for a tractor that I can drive around in a field.

I’m connected to nature in a very primal way.


See Life: New Works by Joshua Abarbanel, is currently on display at Hinge Parallel Gallery at 8545 Washington Blvd. Culver City, CA 90232, through July 26, 2014.

Images, from top: Reef 05, See Through, Reef 04 (detail), Reef 04