Israeli rabbi and kabbalah teacher Ilan Ashkenazi can intellectually explain the workings of faith and religious practice, but it is in his role as artist and sculptor that he unravels spiritual mysteries through physical form. He emigrated to America in 2005 to focus solely on his sculpture, large pieces where shapes embody symbolism and spirituality.
As a young man, Ashkenazi studied sculpture in Tel Aviv, then he chose a new career path. “At age 20, after exploring LSD and other assorted drugs, I turned to religion. For the next 18 years the only work my fingers did was to turn the pages of religious books,” he told Green Prophet.
“One day, a friend reminded me of the art I did when I was young. He invited me to his studio where he had all the materials and facilities. On that day, I returned to sculpting and decided to combine the spiritual world with the material world. Since then, I’ve been working hard to create sculptures that both please the eye and capture the magnificence of God,” he explained.
His unique pieces were well-received by the Israeli art community, but he was eager to find a wider audience. A Hollywood filmmaker friend suggested that he go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, suggesting that the southwestern art scene would be receptive to Askenazi’s style. He emigrated to America, never looking back. He now divides his time between Santa Fe and Tel Aviv.
“Through the years, I explored a lot of styles and mediums in my art, searching for the ‘secret of the Shape’,” said the artist. “About seven years ago, I was exposed to a wonderful collection of art from the Neolithic Period, the first human art created. I was amazed by the simplicity and energy of these figures. I studied them first as a scholar, eventually unveiling the secrets of their creation, seeking the secret of the Shape. This is where I am now, still searching, but I feel more sure of myself because of the inspiration I received from these ancient figures.”
One of his largest projects to date is permanently installed at the Ellsworth Gallery in Santa Fe; a magnificent copper dragon perched on the gallery roof. Commissioned by gallery owner Barry Ellsworth, and installed in 2013, it was inspired by an articulated okimono, a three-foot-long armored dragon housed in the Tokyo National Museum.
After completing the 55-foot copper dragon, the artist pondered where to go next. Ashkenazi said, “I realized that doing the skeleton of the dragon, I felt very alive. I am after the shape; all my art is after the shape. So I decided on working with metal for shapes. Welding is like drawing in 3-D. The shape is the spirit. The question is, how do I fill it with matter? So I fill it with light. The next question is, how to contain it? Paper seemed to me the best solution to contain that light.”
Working with Japanese kozo (mulberry) paper he was able to tackle curved shapes that would otherwise be difficult to realize. His collaboration with a new material inspired new shapes. He added light to the forms, creating a suite of sculptures entitled Emanations. Now also on show at the Ellsworth Gallery, the lighted sculptures loom like ghostly samurai behind the gallery’s glass windows.
“As a sculptor and kabbalist I have worked for decades to embody spirit in material form. In these new works I’ve chosen to engage with the most delicate form of matter and with the form closest in spirit itself: light,” said Ashkenazi.
He added, “Simplicity and symbolism in my own work is the most effective way to convey the ideas of spirituality through visual art to all humanity.”
Images from Ellsworth Gallery Facebook page