By Rosemary Chandler
BROOKLINE, MA— The promise of “Israeli Encounters” drew me in to Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery this week. Inspired by the renowned public artist’s year abroad in Jerusalem, “Israeli Encounters” is advertised as the headline collection of Nancy Schön’s sculpture exhibition. Familiar only with her public sculpture — namely one bronze mother duck and the trail of cheerful baby ducklings waddling along behind her in Boston Public Garden — I was intrigued by the radically different offering on view at Kolbo.
The diminutive sculptures that make up “Israeli Encounters” are a definite departure from the life-size scale of “Make Way for Ducklings.” Dozens of tiny brass figures, no more than seven inches in height, are on display in the central room of the gallery. Their size had to be limited, I was told, in order for them to fit into the small centrifugal capsule of the casting machine.
The figures wear ankle-length robes that make them look as if they are from biblical times — they are depictions of the “Black Hatters,” the “ultra-Orthodox” Jews that live much in the same way that the earliest Jews did. Depicted in the ordinary moments of their lives—one man carrying overflowing bags of groceries, another woman beating a rug clean with a tennis racket—the figures seem unaware that their everyday routine had been immortalized as art. The titles of the works — “Shopping for the Sabbath” and “Ritual Cleaning for the Sabbath” — provide necessary context. These figures are not just carrying out mundane chores. They are preparing for the observation of religious tradition, for a day of rest meant to bring them closer to their family and to their god. Suddenly the simple tasks of these miniature people take on greater meaning.
But the real treasures of the exhibition are not on display in the central room of the gallery. It is the works in the two side rooms that captivate. Seven bronze figures throng together in “A Capella.” Here, Schön does away with unnecessary detail. The abstracted figures have been cast without faces, and the hands without fingers. Their long, clinging robes reveal impossibly thin bodies underneath. Although they’re two feet in height, the figures cannot be more than an inch or two thick. Yet despite their waiflike appearance, they seem as if they’re about to take a deep breath and fill their lungs full with air. At any moment, I expect them to expel a loud and beautiful song from the mouths, unseen, that we must imagine on their long, cylindrical heads.
Less is more for Schön. While the detailed figures that make up “Israeli Encounters” are nice, it’s her more abstract works that truly enchant. In “Mother and Child (Bending)” a small bronze child extends her hands upwards, seeking the comfort of her mother. These hands, cast without fingers, resemble wooden cooking spoons. The figures are just sketchy bronze forms. Yet the viewer does not suffer from this loss of extraneous detail. The way in which the mother stoops down and opens her body up to receive her child is incredibly poignant. You feel the mother’s love for this little figure, and her desire to embrace her, to press her against her body, and protect her from the world by taking her inside the cavernous depths of her robe’s folds. It is a powerful conveyance of the love between a mother and her child.
We live in a detail-oriented world, where facts and figures and times down to the second all matter. When Schön moves away from particulars in her art, she arrives at something simpler, more beautiful, and all the more powerful because of it.
(Schön’s work will be on view through August 17 at Kolbo Fine Judaica Gallery, 437 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA. For more information, call (617) 731-8743. )