Just before heading into Quint Gallery in La Jolla, I take a moment to watch as locals and tourists walk by the space. I’m early for my interview with Sasha Koozel Reibstein, a local sculptor whose new show, “Are You Okay in the Dark?,” recently opened at the gallery.
To understand the work of Reibstein is to intimately know the place between discomfort and captivation. For over a decade, she has constructed startlingly colorful sculptures from her home and studio in La Mesa. Her work is beautiful and transfixing, bright and resplendent in use of glitter and drips. It can also be deeply unsettling, with its geologic textures, bases that seem to be liquifying under the weight, and, in some cases, spikes and shards jutting out like a protectant.
This is most clearly represented in “Devouring a Star,” the Reibstein piece that is currently displayed in the Quint Gallery window. It is one of her first pieces intended to be mounted on a wall, rather than displayed on a surface. It has an almost typographical quality to it, somewhat disconcerting in nature and not solely because of its protruding black spikes made from flock fabric.
While I’m visiting, I witness two people stop at the window to take it in, its 24 karat white gold drippings glistening in the afternoon sun. They marvel at it, scratch their chins and, in the case of one passerby, he shakes his head before walking away.
“I pulled that one off by the skin of my teeth,” Reibstein says once I’m inside the gallery. She adds that it had been over a decade since she’d done a sculptural piece meant to be mounted on the wall. “I want to make thousands more of them.”
When I point out the intimidating nature of the piece, Reibstein smiles mischievously and simply says “thank you.” And that’s just it, really. Reibstein creates highly reactive works, but what reactions they elicit are highly dependent on the person viewing the piece and where they’re at in their own lives. Ceramics, as a practice, can be frustrating and reactive in itself, but Reibstein fully embraces this chaos, experimenting with new materials and working almost scientifically to create her otherworldly pieces.
“My aesthetic has changed dramatically, mostly in the sense of tightening up,” says Reibstein, who grew up in Philadelphia. “Texture has always been very present for me, but it was always this messy, physical thing. And so, refining it and controlling it is the dramatic difference in my work now.”
Since moving to the San Diego area, Reibstein has displayed her work in dozens of group and solo exhibitions. She won an “Emerging Artist” San Diego Art Prize in 2016, has worked as a gallery director at the Boehm Gallery in San Marcos and is currently the head of the ceramics department at Palomar College. Even with all these things going on, Reibstein’s own work has evolved exponentially over the years. While some local artists will simply find a form and practice that suits them and stick with it, the works on display at “Are You Okay in the Dark?” are representative of an artist who is not only working at the top of their game, but also of one whose personal outlook has shifted to directly embrace her personal experiences with motherhood, trauma and mental health.
“There’s a clarity in my thought now that I wasn’t able to experience before and that has helped me refine some of the things that I’m doing,” Reibstein says. “Just tighter and probably more beautiful. I’m feeling less chaotic with myself and that’s probably reflected in the pieces.”
Even some of Reibstein’s signature elements, such as the use of drip forms she began using in 2018, have taken on a different feeling. She says that, at the time, the use of the drips was about “collapse” or “giving up,” but she now sees them as something more sanguine and representative of her overall outlook on life.
“It was this idea of, ‘at what point do you collapse,’” recalls Reibstein. “And that has evolved dramatically to where it became what if it’s about release or letting go of something. Maybe something alive and growing, and also embodying the transformation and making these objects look like they’re in movement.”
This idea of “letting go” is current throughout the pieces in “Are You Okay in the Dark?”. Reibstein uses broad scientific concepts such as astrophysics and astrobiology to address interpersonal issues, the concept of time-travel to address intergenerational trauma, interstellar portals to address existential dread. For Reibstein, who has dealt with issues such as miscarriages and infertility over the past decade, she began to examine her own family’s issues with similar traumas. She speaks of her great-grandmother fleeing from Russia and losing five children in the process while also being imprisoned. Only one of her children, Reibstein’s grandmother, made it to the United States.
“I’ve done research on intergenerational trauma, and I know how it can change your genes, so I was really thinking about that, and how space is a way to separate from the right now, of how time works as a construct,” Reibstein says. “The idea of stopping time and maybe coexisting with them, a way to connect with them and separate myself from the here and now.”
One thing that has informed this outlook is her 9-year-old son who, like most children, is beginning to explore these types of scientific concepts. For example, Reibstein points out how she learned from her son how astronauts have a thin layer of gold on their visors to protect them from UV rays. She says that her understanding of gold, especially within her work, was limited to its emitting of light, rather than using light as a protectant. In current pieces such as “Astral Crust” and “Crazed Heaven and Groaning Earth,” the viewer can see this shift in perspective, with Reibstein’s gold drips looking as if they’re growing on the piece to perhaps, one day, fully shield it from outside forces.
“Just making that literal connection, that this has resonance that I didn’t even know about,” Reibstein says. “Thinking of it as protective light that also references my thoughts about light from within coming out, as opposed to darkness absorbing and consuming you. It was a reiteration; it cued into some subconscious things and put more value on them.”
To call Reibstein’s current work “beautiful” is a distinction she still finds a bit dubious. It is, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful work currently being produced in San Diego, but it is also, to paraphrase Rodgers and Hart, bewitching, bothersome and bewildering in ways that make passersby in La Jolla stop, take notice and scratch their chins. Just as if she were an astronomer attempting to map the stars, Reibstein has learned to work within the unknown. She has embraced the disorder within the universe and the travails of life, creating mini monuments of her time on this astral plane.
“I didn’t find the work soothing before, but now in all aspects, I’m able to appreciate the need for soothingness and, particularly these past two years, the need for escape,” Reibstein says. “My work can do that and that has value. This idea of pure escapism, something that can be magical and unknown; to embrace that and want to be able to offer it to other people. I never want people to look at it and say, ‘I know what that is.’ I want them to look at it and be like, ‘ooh, what is that?’”
Sasha Koozel Reibstein: ‘Are You Okay in the Dark?’
When: Open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Exhibition runs through March 5. Artist talk will be held Saturday, Feb. 26, at 11 a.m.
Where: Quint Gallery, 7722 Girard Ave., La Jolla
Phone: (858) 454-3409
Combs is a freelance writer.