New York

Martin Silverman

Hamilton Gallery

Martin Silverman’s sculpture is positioned at the cutting edge of a peculiarly American morality. His human figures, modeled in clay, cast in bronze with patinas, are always shown in action and have the earthbound, clubby look that our popular culture has deemed fit for prototypes of national innocence: the baggy-suited men in Frank Capra movies, Gene Kelly’s sailors, the figures in WPA bas-reliefs. But Silverman manages to subvert our expectations of public propriety without attempting to subvert the innocence of his subjects.

Eden is a little girl in pigtails and dress, sitting in a typically childlike “second position” and cradling a doll. She conforms to our idea of slightly old-fashioned playground monuments (like the 1958 Alice in Wonderland by Hideo Sasaki and Jose de Creeft, in Central Park) but for the fact that her chest is half-bared and that she is pretending to “nurse the baby.” This slight variation on the familiar makes a nearly lewd first impression, yet, in psychological as well as cultural terms, the behavior shown is at least as apple pie as playing doctor. Another piece, Guardian Angel, has one of New York’s para-finest mounted in running position on an outmoded turnstile, suggestive of folk-art weathervanes—only the latter do not normally bulge at the crotch.

Silverman’s adult subjects include men, whose business suits and horn-burgs remain constant, and women whose clothes change to suit the occasion. What appears to be the same couple is figured in Family and Passion, which together constitute a day and night in the lives of the “Joneses.” In Family, the couple, with child papoose-style on Daddy’s back, stroll locked arm-in-arm; Passion has them locked in an Arthur Murray tango position. Neither work comments or condescends; the subjects are but mildly vitiated by their resolute lack of glamour. Americans in particular have consistently needed to both debunk heroes (Elvis Presley) and exalt the ordinary (The Donna Reed Show). As Silverman does neither, he rather gently leaves us in the lurch, with our own conflicts and perversity to examine.

He is a pictorial sculptor. While fully modulated, his pieces look as though they’re meant to be seen from specific frontal angles. His restrained color patinas—principally shades of blue, from turquoise to navy, with dashes of red for the mens’ ties, and flesh tones where you least expect them—compound pictorialism and visual paradoxes. The little girl, for instance, has a blue body, but flesh-colored ribbons, doll, anklets, and panties. In four drawings Silverman recapitulates themes and styles of the Jazz Age. His female subjects are physiognomic composites of familiar “exotic” types—part African, part Asian. Here Silverman makes explicit the subliminal ferocity and erotic danger that were built into the public images of real-life prototypes like Josephine Baker and Anna May Wong. Male nightmares—a suggestion of the dread vagina dentata, a ritual sacrifice—are depicted, but though the drawings are violently, and accurately, expressionistic, the nightmares aren’t Silverman’s. Like the sculptures, they keep an even, steady distance from us and neither titillate nor repel.

Silverman’s work has grown stronger as he has gained access to more sophisticated materials and processes. At the moment he seems to be making public art on a private scale; playgrounds and plazas would be a next move worth watching.

Lisa Liebmann