Mayer Spivack

Mario Diacono Gallery

Mayer Spivack’s quirky neo-Surrealist assemblages of found and fabricated objects track the development of this reclusive artist’s highly personal vision from 1954 to the present. The 14 sculptures presented here are divided for the purpose of this show into “Shrines” and “Golems.” The nine shrines physically and thematically resemble small altarpieces, while the five golems are totemic and idolized. All address issues of ritual and fetishism, and like the best works of H. C. Westermann, they play the anthropomorphic, the inanimate, and the organic off each other with a combination of wit and archetypal force. Working with refuse from tenement basements, abandoned shipyards, street gutters, and tide-washed beaches, Spivack reassembles abandoned vestiges of civilization in nostalgic, frequently apocalyptic vignettes.

Cracked Chest, 1990, is the most complex and meticulously constructed work in the exhibition. A meditation on the fragility of existence, this wooden icon encased in sheet lead was inspired by Spivack’s father’s recent open-heart surgery. Intended to be viewed closed as well as open, it contains a laminated chest x-ray of a woman wearing a crucifix visible through the Plexiglas and glass cabinet front. Framed in gold and adorned with medicine-cabinet pulls, the translucent doors open to reveal a Dalíesque dream assemblage enclosed in a bell-shaped niche, created by the joining of two antique industrial shipper’s molds. Lit by fluorescent bulbs, a wind-up metronome (powered by a key fit into an antique pistol) beats time before a giant cockroach caged in a wire light-bulb case. A tiny leather-bound German-English dictionary is opened to display the word “Jew,” a scale hook, and the skull of a rodent. This odd juxtaposition of imagery functions as a complex metaphor for justice, death, and cultural annihilation.

Where Are We? What Are We? What Have We Done?, 1991, is visually one of Spivack’s simplest, yet most engaging works. Its images are far less literally narrative than in earlier shrines, and the sculpture, of driftwood and rusted nails, is more loosely constructed. Joints have been wrapped with marlin twine and sweet grass, and the entire piece resembles a tower capped with a pitched roof. An incised, rusted hatchet head, aging nails, and a central pendulum all allude to the impermanence of man and his tools for living.

The golems are best represented by Primal Couple, 1987, a protohuman pair fabricated from more shipyard detritus. Here, the industrial wooden exteriors are softened by multiple leaf patterns stenciled in green acrylic paint.

Spivack’s distressed objects comment on our relationship to ourselves, the environment, and the metaphysical beyond. This retrospective exhibition—the first formal unveiling of nearly four decades of the artist’s production—addresses his concerns with permanence and impermanence via the graven image.

Francine A. Koslow