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Martha Banyas/Deborah Horrell - in Exhibition

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    THE Roether Review: 


    Valley and Shadow: Another Life


    If, in some dystopic future, we were forced to flee our current civilization to begin anew, Martha Banyas’ sculptures would be the perfect icons to zip into our space suits on the way out.  Not just because they are the perfect size for a home altar; or because their enameled surfaces shine with such a jeweled richness, and not just because the figures are so alive with spirit and symbol, which they are, but because the concentration of manual skill and cultural knowledge distilled into each piece is so potent. These are seed objects we could place on the altars of our new civilization, in order to remind us of what we knew in the last one; like those mother trees, when left standing on a clear cut hillside, that help the whole forest network grow up again.

    Regeneration is fundamental theme of this series which explores a metamorphosis that began with the artist’s breast cancer diagnosis, and progressed through treatment and ultimate recovery. Each piece reflects a particular point in her journey, from the Demon of Dread where a naked female torso is squeezed in the giant claws of a wrathful Buddhist deity, onto Winter’s Water: Rite of Passage, in which we see a golden figure swimming around a stone, with arms outstretched, reaching toward open waters. The artist draws on a rich lexicon of symbols and techniques, including many from her years working in Southeast Asia. Puppets play a number of roles, sometimes brave and sometimes broken.

    Banyas is an artist who has built her life from the skill of her hands, and this power, the power of making, or techne as the Greeks would say, is the regenerative force in evidence here. We build our lives and in building we live. In this context, the intense layering of motifs, the exacting attention to detail, the wide-ranging references to figures divine and familial, describes the life Banyas will recreate. It seems she is building her self back into health by binding, or more accurately fusing, her life to the whole historic stream of the made world.

    She is the woodcarver, the metal smith, the forger of forms and volume, the engineer. She is the scientist of pigments, the enamellist forging luminous transparencies of color from the dust of earthly minerals. She is the renderer, recreating the flowers and birds from waxen patterns of intricate batik. She is the mistress of the kiln, the weaver of baskets, and the cloth of the ikat loom. She is the painter of Persian tapestries, creator of Roman mosaics, historian of Java, Balinese puppet master or dalang.  She is the historian of Mayan mythology, Tibetan Buddhism, prehistoric Ohio; she is a collector of snail shells, a biologist of breast tissue, dissector of cellular structures, She layers bodies, colors, patterns, dreams.

    There is interplay between the materials and motifs incorporated into each piece. Wood provides the base element, often carved with a pattern of it’s own, then multiple enamel elements build up the scenes.  The figures near the top are often three dimensional, as if rising from the flat plane into a life of their own. In Minangkabua: Resonant Memory a puppet figure, complete with jointed arms, seems to almost dance out of the sculpture. In the Clouded Mirror, a Blue Jaguar, looks into a mirror and sees his own reflection, we see him see it. It’s an almost playful gesture, the curiosity of a young animal or child, saying See there I am! But this look also reminds us that jaguar is the powerful Maya spirit that travels from the underworld and back. In another glance the mirror becomes a window, looking out onto a dark world we’ve decided not to enter.

    Sculptural layers also suggest levels of awareness. In the piece entitled Edith’s Hands, we peer down on the body of a woman clothed around the waist in a batiked sarong, she is also lying on a sarong of a similar pattern, as if her own body has emerged from the design. A cascade of ripples flows down toward her; above the ripples are two outstretched hands of mica, (after ancient artifacts from Ohio the artists birthplace) that seem to reach out from a starry sky. The hands are made of the same material as the stars. We sense her awareness of the waves coming toward her which the artist describes as the waves of radiation treatment, but above those, in a deeper consciousness are the protective hands of her mother, reaching out of eternity toward her.

    We live to make, and in our making we live. In this work the construction of intricate and complex symbolic objects counteracts the destructive forces of disease, and perhaps even of mortality itself. Enamel, fired glass fused to metal surface is said to last forever.


                                                                                                    — Barbara Roether