Published in the FOCUS/SANTA FE April/May edition 2004.
Touch-Stones, Unique and Universal
Through layers of exploration, Tamar Kander seeks out essences beyond time and place.
By Susan Hallsten McGarry
Like ancient walls that bear witness to natural and manmade passages, the surfaces of Tamar Kander's canvases are testaments to both the subjective and objective. Working with a variety of materials, including powdered gesso, cold wax, dry-wall compound, acrylic medium, and marble dust, she builds her surfaces so they "breathe and have elasticity," she says. "Then I begin the process of realizing my idea - my subjective response- by collaging my photos or etchings, troweling on colors, then sanding them down and drawing with oil sticks or graphite. Sometimes bits of the sandpaper are embedded on the canvas-used sandpaper is very beautiful to me."
All of this takes place in her studio in Bloomington, Indiana, which once served as an auto paint shop before Kander bought it 15 years ago, after four years in Manhattan. Although the area is rural, she thrives in the atmosphere of Indiana University, notably its renowned music department. "We get to hear all types of music, including the best jazz. Bloomington is a liberal oasis that is close enough to Indianapolis and Chicago to feel cosmopolitan."
If anyone understands the meaning of cosmopolitan, it is Kander. Born in Israel, she and her parents moved to Johannesburg, South Africa, at age eight. "As a child, I was bilingual, learning both my father's Hebrew and my South African mother's English," she recalls. That mind-expanding dynamic continued into her undergraduate work at the University of Wiwatersrand, which was rigorous and traditional but moderated by explorations into abstract expressionism.
"South Africa was oppressed at the time, with many films and books banned. Nevertheless, we were encouraged to branch out. By my second year, I was working nonobjectively and admiring the minimalist paintings of Eva Hesse and the dynamic contrast between surface and depth in Wim Blom's mysterious intersecting planes of color and light."
From South Africa, Kander studied on scholarship in Italy for six months. "I was already focused on textures," she reports. "While everyone else viewed the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I made tracings of the floor, where hundreds of thousands of feet have passed over the centuries."
From Italy, Kander moved into a double master's degree in fine art and art therapy at the University of London, Goldsmiths, England. Once again her art took not a linear progression but rather a spiraling growth of building on abstraction, while experimenting with symbolism.
"My work is neither figurative nor abstract," she points out. "Rather I see it as a metaphor for experience. We all have collective memory, as well as highly individual thoughts and associations. I try to envision the common symbolic heritage that spans time and cultures."
The painting as process and object, as flat surface and illusion are central tenets in Kander's painting ritual. "As I work, I become that I am painting, and I leave evidence of my hand on the surface. I make sure the viewer remembers that this is a flat object through color and surface texture. But eventually, the tension between the painting's surface and the illusion of space and atmosphere should 'knit' together, resolving into a resonating whole."
Kander's "Bridge Series," which she has explored for years, is a good example. "I love the order and logic of constructing something," she observes, adding that architecture was her second choice for a profession. "As with houses, bridges have formalized support systems, making order out of chaos and linking two formerly unconnected points. I've admired the variety of historic bridges around the world, and at present a truss bridge is being built not far from my home. I take photos, make drawings and diagrams and post them on the notice board in my studio."
WIth a specific bridge in mind, Kander begins distilling its essence. "My process is very much like the dots of Braille or dashes-and-dots of Morse code. I've developed my own shorthand of colors and symbols to represent the archetypal nature of a bridge. I don't expect people to understand my language. But I do want the painting to be alive, stimulating different responses at different times in everyone who views them."
Kander has also done a series in which American jazz is the underlying theme. "I listen to music or interviews on National Public Radio while I work. You cannot get away from life and from everything that is happening in this world. But my work is not about these events. Rather it is about the experiences in between the events- the pauses are s important. While I do a diptych or triptych, the space in between the paintings is critical. It serves as punctuation-the comma that allows you to make sense out of non-sense."
Kander continues to exercise her mind, eye and hand coordination in weekly life-drawing sessions and in creating hand-built raku pottery. My life and art are like tree rings," she notes. "There is the pith or core, around which layers of exposure to the world represent growth and evolution."