- Liz Publika
Master Jeweler, Metalsmith, Sculptor: Mechanical savant Ira Sherman on his "Chastity Couture"
“Aesthetics are the mechanics and the mechanics are the aesthetic.” — Ira Sherman
“I can make what I can imagine,” states Ira Sherman in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. The artist’s work — which includes fine jewelry, kinetic sculpture, liturgical pieces, and mechanical haute couture — chronicles his 50-year, ever-increasing mastery of metalworking and fabrication techniques that get “the metal to do what [he] wants it to do,” though “it takes a long time to get the aesthetics right.”
Some of his most popular works, referred to as “mechanical prostheses,” embrace the line of the human body. “I am an artist who uses mechanical technology and biomorphic aesthetics to invent devices that blur the definition of useful achievement, making daydreams into plausible realities,” reads his artist statement. When asked if there are other sculptors that do what he does, “I am the only one in the world,” he replies.
“The human body is curvilinear,” explains Sherman, so “to make [sculptures] fit around the human body — and still have this incredibly beautiful elegance, form, and mechanical function — is mind-blowingly difficult.” When making his wearable art, “most of the forged elements that you see are hammered out — formed around a mannequin, assembled, and double checked to be anatomically accurate.”
Sherman’s works are now part of permanent collections housed at numerous notable institutions, including Renwick Gallery, a branch of the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Metal Museum; and the Denver RTD Public Art Collection. He’s earned an extensive list of awards, and his sculptures and traveling exhibitions have been displayed in the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, England, Scotland and Japan.
Raised in a Jewish neighborhood in North Chicago, Sherman spent time hanging around the metal fabrication equipment at his family’s used machinery business. "At an early age, I found myself wanting to manipulate mechanical architectural lines into lyrical beautiful forms,” writes Sherman in his biography. Soon, he would get his chance to do so.
As a student, the young man showed an aptitude for mechanics, art, and science. So, his parents encouraged all three. Growing bored with biology and chemistry in college, Sherman began taking art classes as a way to escape the “rigidity of science.” While learning jewelry making, he started designing and creating unique wedding rings, and then began adding mechanized components to his artwork not too long after that.
One of his works, the “Arbitrator,” is both a kinetic sculpture and a performance centerpiece. It features three components — a "controller," a two person harness, and a stand — which, after a preset duration, begin to work together to literally lock people engaged in a dispute or disagreement. “As more time slips away, more photoelectric circuits are tripped off and higher pressure is added to the negotiations.”
The artist’s design process is rooted in four specific steps. The first two involve focusing on paradoxical societal issues and defining otherwise unsolvable problems that may be resolved by plausible mechanical solutions. The “Arbitrator” was inspired by “failed negotiations.” Logically, Sherman debuted his device in a courtroom and, for dramatic effect, invited the press to witness a demonstration.
The last two steps involve designing sculptural mechanical aesthetics using refined craftsmanship and crafting kinetic mechanical systems to animate his sculptures. True to form, the “Arbitrator” has a distinct aesthetic and functions as a dual exoskeleton that forces the two negotiators to find a resolution or risk having their heads compressed together by the device’s built-in mechanisms that rely on high-pressure gas.
The “Arbitrator,” along with the “Gas-Powered Tick Plucker” (yes, a tick plucker) and the “Pavlovian Trainer” (a device that effectively muzzles overly chatty people and disrupts their vocalizations by ringing a bell) are part of his 30-piece traveling exhibit called The Panacea of Persistent Problems, which features “absurd” but highly imaginative works of art.
Although his devices are often humorous solutions to a range of societal problems, he also addresses serious issues. One controversial piece in the aforementioned exhibit is Sherman’s “Pneumatic Anti Rape Device,” a chastity belt featuring an internally activated "trip" mechanism that releases two pneumatically propelled darts that effectively perforate an attacker, which “came out as a beautiful kinetic piece of jewelry.”
The response to the work, particularly from victims of sexual abuse, led Sherman to create his Impenetrable Devices exhibition, with the first installment of fully functioning works featuring 16 wildly imaginative, stainless steel “prostheses.” Dubbed Chastity Couture, titles of sculptures like “Intimate Electric Fence,” “Bear Trap Corset,” and “The Injector” hint at their intent.
Sherman went on to create a second installment for the series “built around the mythical symbolic framework of the medieval steel chastity belt” focusing on pleasure and permission. He exhibited the jewel-adorned, mechanical, wearable sculptures at different fashion shows, which were — by all accounts — hypersexual yet empowering events that often incorporate performance.
One of these features male and female identifying models demonstrating a mating dance. “The woman has a veil that opens up, but the consummation of the act is only realized when she touches herself in her erotic zone with a jeweled device,” explains Sherman. “In order for the female to let the male in, she must give him permission.” Unsurprisingly, this installment of works is regarded as Safe but Sexy.
Model Daphne Mosko, who calls the exoskeleton prosthetics “wears,” says that the sculptures “are heavy and can be difficult to get in and out of” even though “they hold immense power.” Wearing them “felt sensual and empowered, even regal,” she explains to ARTpublika. “There is a sense of strength I embodied when wearing them, or a tempered ferociousness that carried a measured calculating presence to it.”
Speaking to victims of sexual abuse, Ira Sherman realized that his sculptures can be more than just preventative devices. That’s when the artist started thinking about the concepts of redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth. “If you forgive, you don’t need a lock, you are free,” he reasoned. And so he dedicated the third installment of the series to exploring that, using the human organs as symbols for certain emotional processes.
Normally, Sherman’s creative process starts with a sketch. “Heartfelt” — a sculpture embodying the theme of forgiveness — is based on a drawing of the human vascular system. The anatomically-correct heart is bejeweled on the inside and has veins and arteries — made of pneumatic tubes that open and close the muscular organ — form the exoskeletal structure around the human body.
Similarly, Sherman’s sculpture “E. Detox'' features exterior kidneys that pneumatically open up to reveal a butterfly on the inside. It serves as a “metaphor for ridding the body of emotional toxins,” explains Sherman, and the “metamorphosis of ugly emotions into beauty and flight.” The “air muscles” are operated by the stylized air tanks that are strategically located on the exoskeleton.
The artist is now working on “Hope,” a fashionable, mechanized piece or armor designed to offer protection for pregnant women from the front, while sporting lyrical delicate details from the back. The armored shell opens up with mechanized birthing contractions to reveal a baby growing inside. It is Ira Sherman’s favorite piece in the third installment of his Chastity Couture series.
Note* All images are the creative and intellectual property of Ira Sherman, used with permission.