Mr. Inside, Mr. Outside

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Everyone says it when they see Izzy Sher’s backyard for the first time: “Oh my God!” The scene is bizarre. There are hundreds of metal and assemblage-type things rusting back there: abstract sculptures big and small, rocking chairs that lean back way beyond the comfort zone, bird cages, an Eiffel Tower, couches, angels, crucifixes, menorahs, the list goes on.

Then there is the three-story metal platform that plays host to all this sculpture. It looks like it was built in stages and takes up nearly the whole yard. Looking like an alien launch pad just outside the kitchen window, it annihilates any sense of domestic normalcy that may have survived the sculpture pile. I keep looking back to make sure it’s not a dream.

It seems like an open and shut case. The artist fought in World War II and saw horrible things. He was known to hide when curious people came around to look at his work. Many of his sculptures deal with religious icons. Crazy house. Eccentric work. Religious nut. Watts Towers? Salvation mountain? Conclusion: Outsider artist.

But things are not what they seem. Izzy Sher wasn’t na├»ve, he’d gone to school for philosophy. He led a normal life, raised three kids, maintained a business. He exhibited occasionally at mainstream institutions like the Richmond Art Center. One of his best friends was Alan Temko, art and architectural critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. He hung a sign in his workshop that said “Take Your Measure.” It was for him a reminder not to forget his measuring tape measure but I read it as proof that he had a sense of his own talent and how it squared with those around him.

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Izzy Sher’s work exposes the problem with trying to classify art as either insider or outsider at a time when the line between the two has been blurred. He was both in the way that you can sulk in the corner at a party and simultaneously feel inferior and superior to those laughing and talking around you.

Izzy’s work reflects that duality. Decaying in the yard, obscured by four-foot weeds, the sculptures look romantic, the product of an agitated mind. Inside the gallery their rawness falls away. They seem thoughtful, well-managed, sometimes elegant. The fact that they are both these things isn’t even the most interesting thing about them. It’s just the dry brush we have to clear away before we can appraise the sly, muscular, dainty, raw wild, silly somber handiwork of Izzy Sher.

 

-Steven Wolf

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