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Some Thougths on Yael Erlichman's Sculptures

By Varda Steinlauf - A curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Her essays on modern and contemporary art have appeared in numerous books and catalogues, 2011

Hanging at the entrance to the artist Yael Erlichman's home is a bronze mask of a medusa with puffed cheeks. Another medusa with a wide-open mouth and protruding tongue hangs elsewhere within the house. In ancient times, images of the medusa's head, with coiled snakes for hair and a tongue protruding out between sharp fangs, was stamped onto doors, walls, coins, and suits of armor in the hope of dispelling evil and keeping it out of arm's reach.


Another female figure sculpted in bronze is immersed in a pool of water in the garden surrounding the artist's house. Only her upper body and legs peer out of the water, whose surface is covered with water lilies and green leaves. Clumps of grapes hang off the large ribbon tied around her hair. This full-bodied, succulent, partially undressed figure is highly sensuous. 

As I attempted to study Yael Erlichman's works in depth, and to analyze her motives and the messages embedded in her sculptures, I discovered the joy of life and the pleasure of creation that imbue her works and endow them with their sensuous and at times impulsive character, alongside the evident desire to give expression to the uglier aspects of existence. An observation of Erlichman's works gives rise to the sensation that one is encountering a familiar yet not entirely identifiable past – a sensation that is somewhat akin to leafing through an album belonging to a family of strangers.


The bronze reliefs lined up against the walls of her studio feature large-scale women represented frontally or from behind. When they are arranged frontally – their hair tangled and curly, their eyes shut, their breasts fallen, and their bellies swollen – they call to mind women emerging from their bath, or archaic fertility goddesses. The artist enables us to catch a glimpse of the cultural legacy she has embraced, as well as of her memories and dreams. She presents us with something that appears at once concrete and revelatory, while remaining un-deciphered and enigmatic.


Alongside these large-scale figures, which dialogue with ancient culture and mythology, Erlichman also sculpts small-scale, roughly textured figures that bare the imprint of sweeping hand gestures, and which crowd her home and studio. A pregnant woman, a reclining woman, a seated woman – they are all naked, their breasts lying on a similarly fallen belly. Their humorous poses endow them with an unrealistic quality, and are shaped by a degree of exaggeration and distortion that transforms them into grotesques. Some of these works, such as On One Foot (2004), are at once terrifying and amusing, while others, such as Untitled (2004) and Head of Charlotte (2009), provoke a sense of fear and horror. Some of her other small-scale sculptures have titles such as Bella, Vera Billa, Tony, and Luba -- names based, at least in part, on various sources or on personal acquaintances. In some cases, such as André (2005) or Josephine (2006), these names are strange or imaginary, and endow the figures with a humoristic dimension that borders on the grotesque and that is unrelated to psychological attributes or motivations.


The artist clearly builds on various "types" characteristic of foreign cultures, while preserving certain period details such as a hair or dress style. In some instances, she represents these figures in enigmatic, sometimes even impossible situations. Her compositions are based on imaginary images that are immediately given expression in the soft clay she uses to sculpt her models. Most of the small sculptures have a figurative, surreal character; despite their small scale, they have the powerful quality of large-scale compositions. Erlichman's ability to distill such visual images out of contemporary situations amounts to a summary of some of the essential qualities underlying human existence.

These representations of the body belong to an aesthetic category that has acquired growing prominence in contemporary art as part of a recent emphasis on self-expression and protest. The grotesque body is exaggerated, distorted, and ridiculous in a manner that exceeds the limits of the self, while its individual parts may appear at times incompatible with one another; this is the case, for instance, in the outdoor sculptures Hugo and George Victor, whose bodies are cloaked in a substance reminiscent of pebbles. These works are characterized by varying measures of ridicule, cynicism, identification and compassion. Their dark, morbid humor gives expression to the absurdity of life, and to the paradoxical, cruel nature of the modern world. Recently, Yael Erlichman has begun sculpting figures whose facial features are merely alluded to. These figures are enclosed within structures reminiscent of wide dresses or tents, whose presence underscores the absence of their owners. They appear as vessels used to capture ritual, sublime qualities alongside a sense of neglect and anxiety. The folds in this heavy substance may be associated with the concept of anti-form. These tents, however, are by no means human habitations or clothes. Man is (no longer) present in these works; he is merely alluded to by means of a series of traces, of signs imbued with memories. The gap between this surviving form of evidence and life itself, which opens up at a given point in time, creates a greater space of observation between the viewer and the objects being viewed, and gives rise to an experience of wonder.


Yael Erlichman's sculptural works call to mind the following observation by Marcel Proust: "That which we have not been forced to decipher, to clarify by our own personal effort, that which was made clear before, is not ours. Only that issues from ourselves which we ourselves extract from the darkness within ourselves and which is unknown to others."

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