Sculpting the Past, in the ‘Present Tense’


James Sondow’s life history is a long homecoming.

The sculptor grew up on the Upper West Side and now is back living just a few blocks from his childhood home, active in the local synagogue that he never attended. After studying art and teaching art in New York City, the great-grandson of Russian immigrants spent seven years studying at Russia’s premiere art academy, the Ilya Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg. There, he met a Jewish woman who is now his wife.

His figurative sculptures, based on biblical themes, are on exhibit at the Kate Oh Gallery in Manhattan. The show, “In the Present Tense,” includes paintings by Ilya Mirochnik, who also attended Repin. The title refers to both artists integrating their Russian training and American experience, at once looking back and looking ahead, living between worlds.

From the time he was about 12, Sondow took life drawing classes, and was comfortable around models and other artists. He often spent weekends at the Museum of Natural History, drawing dinosaur bone structures.

Sondow’s mother is a psychologist and his late father was a mathematician, and in the 1970s, when he was growing up, those fields were like religions for them, Sondow says. Given the choice of Hebrew school as a kid, he turned it down.

After college he taught math and art, always seeing the string between them. While teaching at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn and at the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue, he also took Judaica classes and, “recognizing the hole” in his sense of identity, became a bar mitzvah at age 31. He continued studying art and was drawn to a Russian-led school named Bridgeview School of Fine Arts in Queens, modeled after a Russian academy, where he first met the artist Mirochnik. There the emphasis was academic and figurative, not conceptual as in American programs; strict rules were emphasized rather than creativity.

For the first time, Sondow was told that his work was really terrible, “in no uncertain terms, with a thick Russian accent.” The teacher would take his pencil and erase and redraw on his work.

Sondow fell in love with the teaching methods, as he appreciated clear direction. His teacher arranged for him and others to spend a summer in St. Petersburg at Repin — founded 250 years ago by Catherine the Great — and says that he learned more in a month than in all his years before that. In 2007, he moved there to study full time.

He met his wife in a sketching class, where she was the model. While he says it’s not unusual to fall in love with all of the models while staring at them so intently for hours, he felt at home as soon as he saw her. They got to know each other in Russian — she didn’t speak English for the first four years — and they walked around with a dictionary. Mirochnik attended and painted their Jewish wedding.

Many of the pieces in the gallery show were done in St. Petersburg. Sondow’s biblical themes reflect midrashic interpretations as well as moments in his own life, like the trilogy of works featuring Tziporah, Rebecca and Rachel meeting their counterparts at the well. For Sandow, Russia is the desert, the academy is the well, and his wife is the strong, graceful woman to whom he comes home.

Some are made of bronze and others are resin and painted to resemble a bronze patina. His Joseph, posed on a throne, is regal. Lot’s striking wife, carrying a water vessel, looks back, despite the warning, not willing to let go of her home. This piece too is personal. He says, “The style I work in required looking back to preserve a living artistic tradition, despite the contemporary urge to look forward.”

His emphasis is on composition, as he purposefully creates visual focal points, whether the folds in Rachel’s dress, or Rashi’s beard, or the vase Rebecca pours. He captures his subjects’ emotion and character in three dimensions, shaped by his hands and the surrounding space and light.

Sondow, the first American to graduate with highest honors from the Repin Academy, now teaches at Princeton Academy of Art. He creates his sculptural work in a studio in the Port Morris section of the Bronx, in a refurbished furniture factory shared with other artists and businesses.

Complementing Sondow’s sculptures in the gallery are Mirochnik’s beautifully expressive paintings. Born in Odessa, Mirochnik moved to the U.S. with his family in the early 1990s as a child. Now, he lives in Sarasota, Fla., and teaches painting at Ringling College of Art and Design. His large canvases in this show are contemporary landscapes and portraits in a rich palette of color, layered with classical and biblical narratives. Like Sondow, he is attuned to composition (and also represents his wife in his work).

“In the Present Tense: James Sondow and Ilya Mirochnik” is on view at the Kate Oh Gallery, 50 E. 72nd St., #3A, through March 15, By appointment only.