By COLTER RULAND, April 2019
To understand Isaac Manevitz’s sculpture you have to understand his jewelry, and to understand his jewelry you have to understand where he came from. Manevitz was born in Egypt. His father was a jeweler for the royal court. Manevitz recalls living there, fascinated by arabesque structures and intricate woodwork. He apprenticed under his father, learning the craft, learning the engineering often needed to make art, beginning what would become a longstanding conversation between materials and shape.
When he immigrated to the United States in his twenties, he went to art school and received a Fine Art degree in Sculpture from Brooklyn College. He had left everything behind in Egypt, but the textures, patterns, and images of his birthplace had seeped into his artistic sensibilities, finding fertile ground.
In the 1980s, Manevitz applied the techniques he had learned from his father and his own love of sculpture to jewelry design, founding the renowned Ben-Amun. “We created a whole new dimension in fashion jewelry,” says Manevitz. He treated jewelry as art, as sculptures meant for the body. He made “art to wear” as he puts it. “When you make jewelry or you make sculpture, it’s a vision,” he says. “You make jewelry with a vision of a time. You can choose Byzantine, for instance. You transport yourself to a period and you design from that feeling.”
These visions of lore and bygone times have led to multiple collections and monumental achievements in fashion. Legends from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to Rihanna have donned his jewelry. He has worked with Calvin Klein and Oscar de la Renta. His jewelry has been featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair. He has no shortage of accolades, and most people with even the smallest proclivity for high-end jewelry have heard of Ben-Amun.
But throughout the years of his very public jewelry enterprise, Manevitz has been creating sculptures from wood in his garage/studio. He sets aside a day out of every week in devotion to work that until now has remained behind closed doors. “I always worked in sculpture for years,” says Manevitz, “but I never offered to sell them or show them, usually I only had them hanging in the house. But lately, in the last two or three years, I went really wild, creating much more. It’s like an opening for me. Like I’ve wanted the whole world to see what I’ve been doing for twenty, twenty-five years but not sharing it. Now I’m ready.”
That “opening” leads to a body of work which, until now, Manevitz has been creating for himself alone. With little to no expectations as to what people might think of it, his work harnesses a fascinating vibrancy that is free of external pressures and compromises. His is work done for the sheer pleasure of it, that unquenchable need to contribute, like a tributary, to the great lake of art.
Heavily inspired by artists like Louise Nevelson, Manevitz’s work harkens back to sculptural reliefs or even friezes, styles of art he no doubt saw living in Egypt and continues to see whenever he visits museums (a common ritual of his). He likes working with wood, often using found objects, because “wood is a medium that has its own energy,” as he says. “You can cut it, you can glue it, it’s a good medium to work with.” Like the metals and precious stones he works with in his jewelry, Manevitz, for his sculptures, is always looking to bend (often quite literally) the materials to their maximum potential. If he cannot bend the wood, he will carve it into a curve. If he cannot melt the wood into each other like metal, he will glue and screw them together into smooth, arabesque shapes. “In sculpture,” says Manevitz, “again you transform yourself into a movement of connecting the pieces together to make a vision.”
When you look at his work, it is often like opening the drawer of a curiosity cabinet, little compartments full of intricacies, the curiosity of course being Manevitz’s own imagination. “It seems to be random but it’s not even though the pieces are found objects,” says Manevitz. “Myself is in it. Every piece has myself in it. Every artist has this energy.”
Manevitz describes the process of creation as a mixture of feeling and design, wrapped together in an intuition that he has been honing for decades. He will cut and arrange wooden shapes “until it feels right,” and if it doesn’t he recuts, rearranges until it becomes a sculpture. “A lot goes on to make a piece,” he says, referring to the fact that these shapes are not only glued, they have to be screwed together, the screws need to be hidden, it all needs to fit right, there is a whole engineering that goes on behind the scenes. The aim is to create sculpture that “works together harmoniously,” and while they are indeed harmonious, they are full of jolts and surprises, too.
In pieces like Keyboard and Guitar, you can see how the wood has been manipulated to the point of seeming curvaceous, a clean, serpentine movement not usually associated with such material. It is as if Manevitz is attempting to visualize sound, to show us what music would be like if it were transformed into sculpture. Another piece called Jazz attempts (like the very music of its name) to harmonize right before our eyes, teasing us with shapes and colors and a new take on asymmetry: things almost—almost!—fit in together but there is always that bit of surprise, a negative space, an odd number of circles, circles against straight lines, the complementary energy between blue-gray and amber. In other words, an intuitive rhythm.
“It’s soft and strong. Everything together,” says Manevitz. “It’s like having a bunch of people living together,” he continues, everyone attempting to harmonize with one another, to meet their individual needs amongst a whole, the many parts of a sum. That sum is harmony, a word Manevitz frequently brings up in conversation. Indeed harmony is the primary concern of his work: out of desperate parts comes a unified whole. Somehow things that might not have fit together suddenly become integral to each other. Rough shapes get softened, wood gets bent, colors magnetize. “Sometimes,” says Manevitz, “you pick up an idea that’s simple and it’s strong. Sometimes you pick up an idea where crowdedness is a beauty. It depends on the moment.” The moments might undulate from series to series, but they all come from the same source: a boldness that Manevitz has been celebrated for in his jewelry throughout his career. “I’m bold myself,” he says after suppressing a laugh. “I like to express my feelings into the piece. That’s a good expression of yourself, when you create something.”
I said in the beginning that you can “understand” Manevitz’s work. Maybe that is wrong. There is nothing to understand because art is not a formula. Maybe the better word is “pleasure.” Does it please you? I imagine it does. Manevitz imagines it, too. “In the beginning,” he says, “the work was just for me because I enjoyed it and I wanted to do it.” Now he wants to share that work. “This is a very important attitude,” he says, “to let the world know what I’m doing and to let them enjoy it, too.”
To look at Manevitz’s sculptures is to feel pleasure, to put on his jewelry is yet another kind of pleasure. To see metals and woods melted and bent and manipulated to their maximum potential, to see his colors compliment and pop along the dimensional textures—this is sheer jubilation. It is not rudimentary to suggest that his work makes you feel good. In fact, that is as nuanced and mysterious as it gets. Whether it is his jewelry or his sculptures, Manevitz treats them as if they are gifts. “The jewelry, when you wear it,” he says, “you feel good about yourself.” Maybe good art is as simple as that.
Manevitz’s work was recently part of the “Black & White” exhibition at the White Room Gallery. You can see more by visiting his website https://www.isaacmanevitz.com. WM
Colter Ruland lives and writes outside of Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Territory, Cosmonauts Avenue, Fiction Advocate, Goodnight Sweet Prince, The Thought Erotic, Switchback, and elsewhere. He is working on his first novel.view all articles from this author