Sculpture Invasion

Koehnline Museum of Art, July 12 – August 30, 2007

by Victor Cassidy

When Sam Spiczka was growing up on his parents’ farm in Minnesota, he liked to walk the fields, especially in winter. One day, as he tells it, he found the skeleton of a boar “weathered and whitened by the sun,” dug it out of a bramble patch, and stored it in a cardboard box. He treasured these bones, which were like “beautiful jewels —natural, physical memories of what was.” Today, Spiczka makes sculpture on the family farm and says that he got the most useful part of his education there, looking at the ground, collecting what he found, and helping in his father’s metal shop, where he learned how to weld young and absorbed the family work ethic.

Spiczka’s constructed steel and wood sculptures marry organic form to geometric structure. Animal bone shapes at a variety of scales comprise the core of each sculpture. Spiczka often combines bone forms with the dodecahedron, a twelve-sided polygon whose every side is a pentagon. Ancient Greece equated the dodecahedron with the stuff of which the constellations and heavens are made. It’s one of the five Platonic solids—and the Greeks called it the most beautiful of forms.

Daedalus (2005) is a 7-foot-high, vertical wall-mounted construction in Cor-Ten steel, stainless steel, and wood. At its top is a shoulder blade form with the center cut out. The middle, which projects 18 inches from the wall, is a dodecahedron. A tail-like string of bone forms points downward at the bottom end.

Spiczka designed Daedalus on paper, then constructed the dodecahedron from lengths of wood, flat metal sheet for the connecting brackets, and stainless steel bolts whose presence suggests how it was assembled. He fabricated the bone forms by bending and welding an outline framework of half-inch steel rod, then filled this in with shorter lengths of rod until the spaces between the rods were small enough so he could cover them with steel plates.

Cutting pieces of plate to fit, he pressed and welded them onto the framework, welded the plate edges together, and ground down the seams. This gave him a metal surface whose irregularities reveal the armature of rods beneath. Weathering rusts the sculpture such that people think it’s carved from wood. Agamemnon is a powerful,torch-like form that Spiczka based on a fractured cow femur. The tilted, irregularly dimpled top looks like a heavy bone, but also a rock formation. The center portion is slim and the rod armature that shows beneath its metal skin suggests wood grain. Joined to the sculpture at the bottom is a pod form that is based on the dodecahedron. Inside is a seed shape, which Spiczka associates with cells or DNA. According to Spiczka, Agamemnon and the seed shape it contains suggest an undeveloped person who grows up to be radically different from where he started. He calls Agamemnon a breakthrough piece and states that he could not have built a sculpture like this a few years ago.

Farm fields are rectangular. When a tractor makes a round, it leaves the corners untouched. Farmers often collect rocks that the plow has turned up and throw them in the corners of their fields, making a pile called a cairn. Rock piles are often made in remote areas to mark trails and portages. At one point, Spiczka discovered cairns and the bones of small creatures that live and die in tunnels beneath them.

Eventually, he built five (the photograph above shows only four) cairns, impaled them with wooden posts, mounted bone-form sculptures atop the posts, and called his piece Cairn Field. On the ground in the center of Cairn Field is a steel construction that suggests leg traps that the artist employed in youth to catch rabbits. Cairn Field looks like it was once used for ancient rites and then abandoned. The sculptures are curiously angular in form with menacing points and a strong hint of instability. According to Spiczka, his sculptures recall how the heads of executed men were once mounted on poles—and they refer to artists who are often considered freaks and socially ostracized. He adds that it’s also a reaction to 9/11.

When art is truly new, it unsettles us and may seem ugly because we have little to connect it to. So it is with the work of Sam Spiczka. Drawing upon nature, his personal history, and the place where he lives, he has created a powerful, fresh visual language that is completely his own.