The sculptures of Renata Manasse Schwebel

Photo: Renata Manasse as a senior at Antioch College, proudly standing beside her clay sculpture portrait of her beloved professor, Amos Mazzolini. Circa 1952-53

By Ashley Jonas

Renata Manasse Schwebel’s exhibition Sculptures at the Herndon Gallery at Antioch College is an expansive collection of the artist’s mixed media sculptures that opened July 13, 2017 as part of the college’s Reunion 2017. 

Walking into the gallery feels like walking onto a game board, with each piece resembling a player involved in a long saga of strategy. In the center of the gallery stand two sculptures, “Around #2” and “Variations on Familiar Themes III,” that play with and off of one another. “Around #2” is made entirely of aluminum, brushed to a soft sheen that reads atmospheric, like a sky of cirrus clouds. The aluminum sheet takes the form of three open circles, each one bending just before its closure in order to create the next. Behind it “Variations on Familiar Themes III” made of painted wood repeats the circle motif, this time with more bold and graphic lines, color, and optical illusion. While both works employ repetition of the same shape, “Variations on Familiar Themes III” gives a sense of closure and containment whereas “Around #2” is more about continuity and connectivity. The show is full of these playful nuances.

Schwebel’s career has spanned (and is still spanning) nearly half a century. She began that career at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1953. Schwebel went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia, with an emphasis on portrait sculpture. After two years at the Art Student League’s welding workshop in the late ’60s, and a summer course at Hobart Welding School in Troy, Ohio, she began to pursue welded metal sculpture as the basis for her artistic practice. She has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Sculpture Gallery at Columbia University, the Carriage Barn (New Canaan, Connecticut), and in numerous group and traveling exhibitions throughout America and in Japan. Her work is included in prominent collections including Columbia University and the Museum of Foreign Art in Sofia, Bulgaria. 

While a student at Antioch, she studied under the late Amos E. Mazzolini. Schwebel writes of him, “In his superb foundry, the sculptures of such artists as Carl Milles were cast. Mazzolini himself worked in the classical mode, and his portraits and fountains gave me a deep appreciation for craftsmanship.” That appreciation for craftsmanship has carried into her work and is superb. I hesitate to use the word “meticulous” because that gives a sense that there is some kind of fussiness. Schwebel does not seem to fuss with the materials she uses; she seems to respect them. Painted wood is not utterly transformed into some other material… We are still able to see traces of beautiful texture in a way that keeps us present in looking at the work. Her piece “Enigma,” for example, brings attention to the hard, sharp, reflective qualities of stainless steel so that we can leap from there into notions of what it means to be hard or sharp or reflective. 

“Most of my sculpture is in the hard-edge non-objective mode, but every so often the wish for humor evokes abstracted figurative work. With the exception of bronze casting, I have in the past preferred to do all the actual construction myself. I find that the feel of the material and the handling of tools is as much a part of the joy of sculpture as the originating of ideas,” she writes. While her process is an important part of her artistic practice, the sculptures surpass the craft of making them. We can begin to really investigate the material’s potential without getting hung up on trying to figure out “how did she make that?” 

Schwebel’s work is both monumental and intimate. Working with a non-objective (not representing any one thing) visual language, she is able to speak boldly and directly about abstraction. This is a feat. When we think about abstraction, we think about that which is not concrete, not automatically discernable. But Schwebel’s work takes us through abstraction to declaration. She declares that color, shape, line, and positive and negative space are ideas to hold onto and explore infinitely. Her most recent works seen alongside works made 40 years ago tell us that these ideas are a deep source of inspiration. This collection of works tells us of Schwebel’s capacity to stay curious and keep exploring. 

“Renata is a treasure and it has been such an honor for all of us who were present to hear her gallery talk, to learn more about her life, her unbreakable spirit, her no-nonsense determination and her humility,” says Jennifer Wenker, creative director of the Herndon Gallery. 

Renata Manasse Schwebel’s exhibition Sculptures is on view through Oct. 13, 2017 at the Herndon Gallery. The Herndon Gallery is located in South Hall on the campus of Antioch College in Yellow Springs. The gallery is open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 1-4 p.m.

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Ashley Jonas
Ashley Jonas is an artist, curator and writer. After completing her Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Florida, she went on to receive a Master of Fine Art from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Ashley currently lives and works in Dayton. Her artistic and curatorial practices are rooted in an everlasting search for moments of wonder. Reach Ashley at AshleyJonas@DaytonCityPaper.com

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