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Press & Reviews: January 1999 - Edward Lucie-Smith on Thomas Ostenberg

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The first thing that strikes one about Thomas Ostenberg's sculptures is that they are so joyful. Joy is not an emotion I normally associate with contemporary art, however worthy its other qualities. Ostenberg's animals (usually but not always horses) and his human personages have an exuberance which immediately lifts the spectator's own spirits. One reason for this may be that Ostenberg himself feels liberated by what he does. He used to be a banker, and his switch to art was made at a time which most people would think of as mid-career. However, it seems clear that he also wants to please and entertain us, the audience. He is a natural communicator. Which means, of course, that his sculpture really doesn't call for a great deal of explanation. In most, but not quite all respects, what you see is what you get.

It is nevertheless worth trying to situate his sculpture within a context. Much 20th century sculpture has been indebted to the art of ancient and/or non-European cultures. This is a result of the much broader knowledge of these cultures which the century has brought with it. A relevant case in point is the art of Giacometti, which makes direct references to early Etruscan and Italic bronzes. Similar references can be found here. The figures whose bases are wheeled platforms look back to ancient Celtic art; the acrobat on the back of a deer can be seen as an allusion to a famous Minoan bronze of a bull-leaper which was once in the collection of Captain George Spencer-Churchill, and which is now in the British Museum.

Another realm which clearly entrances Ostenberg is that of the circus. This, too, has a complex history in 20th century art and also in 20th century literature. One example which will spring immediately to mind is Picasso's work of the Blue and Rose periods. Ostenberg's piece 'A Question of Perspective' is perhaps the sculpture of his that comes closest to the spirit of these early Picassos, though it is much less melancholy.

In some ways, a closer comparison can be made with some recent works of literature - for instance with Angela Carter's wonderful novel 'Nights at the Circus'. This tells of chimpanzees who win their freedom by devoting their spare time to learning, and of tigers who continue to dance only because of their trainers' musical skills. I don't know if Thomas Ostenberg has ever read this book, but, whether by coincidence on not, its imaginative world is very close to his own - surrealist, but only in a loose undogmatic sense, inviting the reader (or in this case the spectator) to collaborate in the creation of a magical universe.

'Magical' is a dangerous word to use in art criticism, or indeed in any kind of criticism. It tends to imply that the writer can't quite locate the qualities within the work which he or she ought to be describing. I hope that is not the case on the present occasion. What I mean by the adjective, when applying it to his sculptures, is that they seem to embody a sensibility which is closely attuned to fruitful coincidences of idea and form which have nothing to do with the world of reason.

Ostenberg's sculpture is transformative - which is one reason why he uses a traditional material, cast bronze. He needs to take his ideas and fantasies and reshape them into what are, for him, absolutely definitive forms. The provisional nature of the supposedly 'new' art which has now displaced painting and sculpture in so many international survey exhibitions is not for him because they do not allow the transformation to complete itself as fully as he wants - or as he finds satisfying to him. Each of these sculptures represents a catharsis: something sensed, dreamed about, brooded over - and finally made.

Edward Lucie-Smith
LONDON, 1999

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