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Going Public : Ventura artist Szaja Gottlieb makes a big statement with his sculptures while voicing an interest in community culture.

February 27, 1992|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For more than two years, artist Szaja Gottlieb has moved through Ventura with stealth and without fanfare collecting rocks on the river bottom and buying nails by the thousand at Terry Lumber. Sharing downtown warehouse space with Rainbow Movers, he has quietly assembled his sculptures and rebuffed his friends' suggestions that he play a more public role in the city's cultural scene.

But now, Gottlieb is making inquiries about out-of-town exhibitions. In January, he was the host of an informal performance-party in his work space. And just a few weeks ago, the trim 44-year-old with unruly hair and eyeglasses often askew rose to publicly warn city officials that adding the constraints of a municipal bureaucracy will not necessarily help the arts.

"In my mind," he told the city's Cultural Plan Steering Committee, "what is being created here is a cultural affairs commission. And what I want to create is culture."

Committee members pledged that they would consider his thinking and urged him to put his ideas on paper for them. Gottlieb sank to his seat, muttering, "Geez, I feel like I'm running for office."

Voters loyal to conventional thinking will be relieved to hear that he is not. But Szaja Gottlieb, son of Holocaust survivors, student of European intellectual history, meticulous arranger of rocks, nails, mirrors and hair, is going at least a little bit public.

"I kind of feel the timing is right for me to do some participating in community stuff," he said recently, puttering around his airy work space in Ventura's old Strong Steel building. "The idea is to leave things better than when you found them."

Gottlieb was born in Paris to parents who left Poland after World War II. He did most of his growing up in Boston, took on the name Charles for simplicity's sake, earned a master's degree in European intellectual history at the University of Massachusetts and worked for five years as a journalist at several small East Coast newspapers.

Then at 28, he moved to Santa Barbara, reclaimed his given name (which is pronounced "SHY-ah") and changed careers.

Reclamation of his name was "a way of remembering what I was." Being Jewish, he said, "is a strong part of my identity, though it probably doesn't show in the usual way. . . . So the only people who don't call me Szaja now are my parents, who gave me the name."

The career question was more complicated.

"I thought for sure I was going to be a writer," Gottlieb said. "I don't know what happened. This is something I never thought that I would do. It's a kick."

After enrolling in an adult-school drawing course, Gottlieb moved quickly into sculpture. He supported himself by co-founding a moving company-- Rainbow Movers--for which he still works regularly. He has exhibited and sold work, but has done virtually none of that since moving to Ventura in 1989 when he resolved not to worry about selling or showing.

"One of the main attributes of Ventura is that I'm not going to 'get ahead' here. That's a good thing," he said. "There's no contemporary art scene here, and there are no collectors. So if you're doing it, you're doing it for love. And I like the blue-collar atmosphere."

Gottlieb works big. One of his pieces in progress is a tower of stones with no visible means of support, wider at the top than the bottom, probably weighing close to a ton. The work, untitled so far, is held together by a wooden beam that is unseen behind the stones.

"You just have this feeling that these boulders are piled up, and you can't figure out how they're there," said artist Kim Loucks, a friend and admirer of Gottlieb. "You can't help but be bowled over by their sheer mass."

Another Gottlieb work, this one finished and titled "Abraxas," includes a full-size, three-dimensional man's suit made of stray tresses from a local hairstylist's shop. Behind the jacket and trousers stands a full-length mirror pierced with nails. A smooth, head-sized stone is suspended where the jacket-wearer's head would be.

The attraction of sculpture is "the physicality of it," Gottlieb said. "For me, it's more demanding than anything else. It demands all the components--mind, body, soul, everything."

And if stepping out of his small exile takes him too far from the work at hand, Gottlieb said, he'll back in.

But for now, there seems to be plenty more work on the way. On Gottlieb's studio floor lay a full plastic bag from the hairstylist's shop and a note: "Please save this hair." Not far away rested a boulder riddled with so many nails that it appears to need a shave. How many nails are there?

"I have no idea," the artist said. "I can tell you that Terry Lumber loves me, though."

UP CLOSES / ZAJA GOTTLIEB

Age: 44

Locale: Ventura, by way of Paris, Boston and Santa Barbara.

Vocation: Artist

Ambitions: To grow in his work, and to see a more arts-friendly atmosphere develop in Ventura.

Materials: Stones, mirrors, nails and hair, among others.

A few words: "I thought for sure I was going to be a writer. I don't know what happened."

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