Martha Casanave

Martha Casanave’s Hebrew Letters (Exhibit review by Charles Poncé)

There is a tradition in the Jewish religion that the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) was in its original form an incoherent jumble of letters. It was only with the advent of the events described in the Torah that the letters assembled themselves into the stories that compose the books. In other words, historical events were not predetermined by God—only the number of letters contained in the Torah necessary to describe such events. The letters of the Hebrew alphabet are therefore active modes of consciousness comprising the true mystery of Creation. Kabbalism, the mystical branch of Judaism, would in time enlarge upon this theme. Martha Casanave’s “Table of Elements” is a product and continuation of that intent.

We should always allow that the creative moment is without plan, immediate and risky. All creators stand before such moments as divers, prior preparations subject to the chance moment between cliff and ocean, the chink in phenomenal reality where the creative spirit from time to time manifests. The Kabbalists, whose mystical doctrines have their roots in the Merkabah mysticism of the 6th century BC, were such divers, the only difference being that they leapt upwards towards a Godhead which stood above the Creator spoken of in Genesis. This original Godhead, the Ein-Sof, was the entity which created the letters of the alphabet. It was with this creative activity that the Kabbalists concerned themselves. All of their works were in one manner or another attempts to describe not just the act of creation, but the creation of the act itself. This is in essence the goal of every artist.

It is fitting that Casanave’s images are produced in darkness, that they are a product of an artist intuiting the patterns she casts onto blankness, every gesture producing images that can never be repeated. One could say that every artist reflects a Genesis, is in some type of archetypal accord with all religious and philosophical ruminations regarding beginnings, and is even forced by the meditative demands of their medium into a visionary mode that allows them to see the world anew. Casanave’s “Table of Elements” takes us one step further in that they are visual apprehensions of a world few have access to. Her images are a product of a visionary mode; they are, as she puts it, products of the shadow side of her heart, a place where things are usually felt but rarely seen.

I once stood in the darkroom where these images are created. It is simple and without special note, a birthplace where, tacked to the walls, sketches of this body of work prepared to become. Casanave said nothing. There was nothing to say. Something was creating itself. What more can one ask of art?

Charles Poncé is the Director of Labyrinthos: The Institute for the Study of Myth and Symbol. He has written several books on psychology and comparative religion. His work on the Kabbalah has been called “a valuable work for both public and academic libraries,” by the Library Journal, and has received acclaim by scholars in the field. In addition to extensive lecturing throughout the US and Europe, he is a training- therapist and has a private practice in San Francisco.

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