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Seymour Locks


The Claw

Nails, costume jewelry, and redwood root
14.5 x 30 x 38 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation

The Claw, fashioned from the branch of a redwood tree, is wrapped in copper sheet metal, encrusted with hundreds of nails, and obsessively embellished with jewelry, marbles, and other simple found objects. This is one of a series of nail sculptures that Locks began in 1948 and exhibited widely, the first time at the San Francisco Museum of Art’s annual exhibition in 1950.

As one of the earliest to create such nontraditional assemblage sculpture, Locks played the role of godfather and groundbreaker to San Francisco artists. He exerted a considerable influence on the Bay Area alternative art scene during the 1950s and 1960s, which included the beats and some of the major proponents of California funk.

The Claw shows the influence of Bay Area abstract expressionism in its use of raw, unfinished materials, and primitivism. The surface texture of exposed nail heads is an animated series of dots and whorls. The obsessively finished, armorlike metal design maps an internal environment or landscape that proposes a journey of the mind. In this way the work is related to the Bay Area Dynaton movement, a meditative art that integrated interests in nature, primitive cultures, Eastern philosophy, physics, and extraterrestrial travel. Locks saw the nail sculptures as fetish pieces with a power of their own and, in this, he identified with the role of the shaman. The obsessive surface of the pieces was meant to create a state of being in the viewer akin to vertigo.

By the time The Claw was included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s seminal Art of Assemblage exhibition in 1961, Locks had stopped making nail sculptures. Always ahead of the game, he had already moved on to irreverent and flamboyant mixed-media tableaux—precursors to the funk movement of the next generation.

Susan M. Anderson

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