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Press & Reviews: May 2004 - Thomas Ostenberg aka Magister Ludi

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Play is the exultation of the possible.
Martin Buber Pointing the Way 1957

“I discovered that thought, when acted upon, is transformative and very powerful”, the sculptor Thomas Ostenberg has said; “an increasing number of people are searching for a more spiritual definition of achievement and a deeper meaning to life...a greater sense of equilibrium.”

If ever an artist’s statement offered someone a better insight into his enterprise than this, it is hard to imagine. “ A search for equilibrium” exquisitely sums up our sensations when walking around Ostenberg’s works (especially, perhaps, in his “No Time for Nonsense” or “Sometimes a Great Notion").

We are struck instantly, circling such tours de force, with the realization that Ostenberg’s “cast of characters”, of dancing, leaping, breathtakingly risk-taking figures, seeks to achieve the paradoxical, i.e. a representation of dynamic stasis.

In these nimble depictions of obscure shenanigans, Ostenberg makes thrillingly tangible that “equilibrium” he so admires. That he does this while conveying, nonetheless, a remarkable sensation of propulsion, captures his ambitions exactly.

Ostenberg, in a particularly earnest, “artist statement”, sees “art as a form of language in which there are two dialogs...there is the dialog of creation which takes place between the artist and the object [while] the second dialog takes place between object and the viewing audience.”

This perception of Ostenberg’s signalizes his clear fascination with play and interplay, from the joyous, though often physically demanding work in the studio, to the playful give-and-take between the work of art and its audience, both now and in years to come. (What artist has not had an eye to posterity?)

In works such as “but, I Feel Fine” or “A Question of Perspective I”, or “Mind over Matter”, for example, the traces of the artist’s hands and implements, preserved in the bronze, convey the keen pleasure this artist takes in coaxing clay or wax into a very intimate expressivity. (Looking at these remarkable exercises, we recollect what someone once said of the great French sculptor Carpeaux---that, if you cut his head off, his hands would continue modeling.)

When we focus, however, on Ostenberg’s “second dialog”, i.e. that crucial one, “between object and the viewing audience”, we arrive at the heart of the matter with this artist. Quite apart from the very telling choice of the word “audience” he uses to describe his viewers---positing the world of theatre, of performance, rather than the hushed world of the gallery---Ostenberg seems clearly convinced, as many great minds have thought and said, that the true object of life is play. (Moreover, in our play, we reveal what kind of people we are---although we must certainly expand our concept of play to include sport, theater and, alas, war.)

In works like “No Time for Nonsense” or “Ladder”, Ostenberg seeks to capture the joy of risk-taking---as opposed to complacency, or timidity, or inertia, for example---by depicting “peaks of performance”, fleeting moments of instant, delightful equilibrium, outward images of exhilarating inner balance.

We see in these and many other vaulting sculptures of this artist the embodiment of the idea that, as the proverb goes, “danger and delight grow on one stalk.” (Echoes of the ancient world are especially evoked with Ostenberg’s numerous images of lithe athletes leaping or pole-vaulting over the horns of bulls; the most enigmatic representations of “sport” in the ancient world are the famous “bull-leapers” of the Island of Minos.)

Martin Buber, the great Viennese/Jewish theologian and philosopher, wonderfully described play as “the exultation of the possible.” Who, at least as a child, has not, at some point, suddenly discovered the rush of pleasure that accompanies some challenging physical achievement---imagine the look of “exultation” on the face of the child who executes a somersault and lands smartly, proudly on point. It is that sort of “exultation of the possible” that Thomas Ostenberg often depicts in his sportive sculpture.

As an art historian, as well as a special enthusiast for the art of Greece, Rome and Egypt, this viewer is struck by the echoes of those formgiving traditions in Ostenberg’s sculpture. Without a doubt, Ostenberg has encircled and marveled at great works of the Greeks---especially the rambunctious Hellenistic---and the Romans or, more precisely, the Etruscans---, whose unforgettable figures pulse with life, and are often wreathed in big, broad smiles. One could say that, like the Etruscans’, Ostenberg’s works, at their best, make innocent laughter contagious.

Unfailingly, Ostenberg’s images seem to propose a world of people---figures of Everyman, mute mannequins---taking play deadly seriously. Just consider the death-defiant, precarious ”No Time for Nonsense” (small version), where his pole-vaulting protagonist ups the ante of his terrifying “sport” by performing his amazing feat on wheels!

As in sport, play often involves such instances of grappling with danger. It is the very spice of danger in sports, for example, that makes them doubly exhilarating, either to watch or to participate in. Paradoxically, however---and this is so very visible in America’s obsession with its gladiatorial, bone-crunching version of “football”---it is obvious that sport is often an imitation of fighting, in men, in children and in other animals, in all places and all times.

That this artist repeatedly assumes the archetypal role of ringmaster, the Jungian magister ludi, or master of the games, is manifest in his more complex, multiple-figure compositions. In “Don’t Look Back”, “O Caçador de Sonhos II” and “Infinite Balance”, Ostenberg puts his horses and players through their paces in settings reminiscent of the circus--- which, of course, represents still another realm of mankind’s purposeful play .

At other times, before a particularly spirited “performance” by one of Ostenberg’s acrobatic figures---in the balletic “but, I Feel Fine” or “Make Your Own Luck”---the viewer may be struck, suddenly, by the realization that dance is, after all, the only fine art form where our bodies are the very stuff of which it is made. Once again, Ostenberg’s true subject is inspired play and the joie de vivre we experience in the midst of our amusements.

The composer John Cage always maintained that “theater is everywhere” and it is the true role of the artist to make visible that “theatrum mundi.” Ostenberg, too, finds vivacious “theater” at every turn, especially when he uncovers, as he puts it, “moments of significant or radical change, brought about not by any modifications in material circumstances, but by a simple change in thought and the way circumstances are perceived.”

— Jan E. Adlmann Santa Fe, May 2004


Jan E. Adlmann, author of “Contemporary Art in New Mexico” (1996), “Moroles Granite Sculpture” and “The Art of Richard Segalman” (both, 2004), is a former art museum director (most recently, Assistant Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), lecturer and art advisor.

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