Monday, July 22, 2013

Of Phoenix Rising: Leonardo Drew at the Columbus College of Art and Design

By the time I left the show of sculpture and drawing by Leonardo Drew—just opened at the Canzani Gallery of Columbus College of Art and Design—I understood why its title is Exhumation. Going in, I didn't pay much attention to the title, for I was immediately taken up with the look of these mighty things—at once looming and harsh, suave and warm—that fill the gallery. 
Leonard Drew, detail from 155, 2012.
Wood. Author photo.

Nearly everything is brown and constructed of wood, and the forms—undulating, rocketing, rough and disciplined at once—sometimes sing out with beauty. But the closer you come to any piece, the more you understand that you spend your life shunning exactly the materials that Drew favors: decayed, splintered bits of wood, street detritus, scraps of filthy fabric, rusted shards of metal. And while there's no offal that I detected, my body instinctively reacted to the threat that I'd encounter it in just such collections of over-used, superannuated, abandoned, then salvaged junk.

But I have already misled you, for there is no junk here despite the fact that Drew's materials have been exhumed from urban shallow graves. Like an Enlightenment anatomist, a medieval alchemist, or a twenty-first century recycler, he's used his rude pickings for his own ingenious researches. His transformations, though, never alter the original materials. Every mark of history remains in every component in the work. Nothing is gussied up, painted over or hidden behind a decorative aesthetic curtain. If the phrase, "building on the past," has ever been given material form, it's in Drew's work.
Leonardo Drew, 14, 1990. Rust on wood. 103 x 83 x 1.25." Photo
courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

Rather than naming his works, Drew numbers them. The higher the number, the more recent the work. I like that this leaves entirely open the interpretation of any piece, which immediately brings the viewer back to square one: the materials and their arrangement. He has made what he can of them. Now we make what we can of the work. 

Drew deals in a wide variety of sizes. He presents in this show works as small as drawings of 24 x 24," and as large as a wall-consuming 156 x 216," which juts 72" forward. Yet every piece is constructed similarly, of many multiples of small components: sticks, fabric scraps, or, as in 14, rust and earth. His works are fascinating wholes that irresistibly pull us in to examine the beat up, burnt, and dirty microcosms they arise from.  
Leonardo Drew, 14, 1990. Rust on wood. Detail. Author photo.

A friend of mine once shared her poetic memory of looking out a high window in New York City down to a drilling site in the street below. She recounted how shocked and heartened she was by the sight of dirt—of earth—exposed by the sewer workers: She had forgotten that the city had anything to do with the natural world.

I'm reminded of that story by Drew's work. Number 14, a great, chocolatey slab composed of found wood with strips of rusting metal, manages despite its humble materials to communicate something vernal in its deep variegated dispersal of rich reddish browns. It doesn't make me ill-at-ease; it doesn't feel "city," despite the elements of its composition. Wood didn't come from the city, even if it became part of the artistic process there. The wood and its history are more ancient than whatever structures gave it up to Drew. Is it an accident that it appears to be a door? A threshold into the memories of another time and place, locked into the essence of the material?

Thatching. Ben W, Bell photo.

Leonardo Drew, 155, 2012. Wood. 55 x 58 x 61." (Left view).
Image courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

I was particularly interested in 155, a wall sculpture that called to my mind, above all else, a sense of place. Drew uses his charred, broken, and worn pieces of wood to create elegant forms and surfaces. These reminded me of walls made not from discarded, but from choice natural materials. I see the structures of terraced shale walls, of trimmed thatch; even of the wood pile and the forests that surround country homes with these features. The work suggests architecture in forested landscape. The precision with which Drew sees and handles surfaces create a unified environment of highly differentiated materials, comparable to woodland dwellings that seek to achieve the same goal of introducing the cultivated hand comfortably into a natural setting.
Forest House, A. Michael Flowers, Architect.
Leonardo Drew, 155, 2012. 55 x 58 x61."" (Right view).
Image courtesy of Siikkema Jenkins.

Leonardo Drew, 155, detail. Courtesy of
Sikkema Jenkins
Even without an 
interpretative fantasy like mine, the elegant contrasts of smooth, napped, and rough, ragged surfaces is fascinating. So is the way the improbable descending serpentine wall divides the work into two sections that also reflect each other, with refined and raw elements. The work is precarious; disciplined; dynamic, and stable all at once. And it is extremely beautiful, risen from the ashes and returned to the woods.

153 makes abundant use of the "thatching" technique to mysterious, poetic effect. The kind of surface contrasts he exploits in 155 are simpler and balder, and the shapes are  extraordinarily clean—as clean as a topiary garden recently trimmed. 

Drew's sculptures are apparently moved from place to place in units that local installers then reassemble. In 153, this practice is evident in the hard distinctions between the soft mounds and the cut-away edges that expose the grayed-out, grimy wood surfaces or "floors." They remind me too of the surfaces of anvils.

These surfaces had the effect on me of confusing my responses to the scale of the work. Standing apart and taking in the whole, I have the sense of seeing a topiary garden or exotic landscape marked by deep contrasts of hills and valleys. Yet when I'm close enough to encounter one of these surfaces, they have no aspect of illusion: They are just the size they are. They are literal and do not participate in any metaphorical or imaginary scheme.
Leonard Drew, 153, left angle. 2012. Wood, 50 x 71.5 x 28."
Photo courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

Complicating the question of scale yet again is the long comparative flat tongue that extends from the right side of 153. This is constructed of tiny scraps of wood insinuated into slots that run in parallel in horizontal lines like the buildings of different heights along avenues of a city seen from the air. Indeed, the similar scraps that ring the flat extension form a distant urban horizon.

Leonardo Drew, 153, "skyline and avenues,"
 detail. Author photo.
Again, I find myself discussing the work in terms of environments, which may or may not have occurred to Drew. But the larger point is that he creates poignant contrasts within highly unified compositions. He does this through brilliant manipulation of a single set of materials—materials that become elevated in the process. 

Exhumation includes a few of Drew's drawings. A drawing is, simply stated, a work of marks on paper. It's not made in multiples or by photographic process; it's unique. Few argue anymore that it has to be made of pencil, charcoal, or ink; but how far the definition stretches is a question raised on many occasions for marginal analysis. Like Drew's 137D.
Leonardo Drew, 137D, 2012. Wood, aluminum, paint, and graphite on paper. 37.5 x 43 x 25.5." Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins.

Leonardo Jenkins, 137D,  detail. Wood, aluminum , and graphite
on paper, 2012. Author photo.

It's paper mounted on wood, and it incorporates graphite marks as well as wood, aluminum, and paint. While the contrast of the the sheet metal next to the used scrap lumber is arresting at first glance, it only sets the stage for more and more poignant contrasts deeper within the work. If this is where the trash can overflows outside the promise of the future, it's an ironic story at the least. The aluminum side, with shapes very like those in 153, rather than looking suave, appears ill-constructed. It's sloppy construction is held together by far too  many screws, yet it still gapes imprecisely. On the wooden side, the junk wood resembles lightening bolts or an army of arrows and spears launched in vengeance—an uprising that will not be suppressed. The vitality seems not even to be "built into" the discarded and reclaimed wood: It's inherent. Drew constructs 137D to emphasize the life of the material itself, its vigor, durability—the spring in its soul. When one examines the wooden side close-up, one finds nothing like the conspicuous riveting that holds the pliable sheet metal together. Aside from a few rusty nails that came as part of some two-by-fours, there are no traces of the mechanisms that hold the wood in position. You know that it's joined by its own will and force.
155, 153, and 137D were all made in 2012 and share a similar aesthetic of elegance and power that arise not only despite the nature of the materials, but even because of it. In two much larger, earlier works, Drew handles his found materials in grittier ways—ways in which I feel no pull of the forest as I found even in 1990's wood and rust 14.

Leonardo Drew, 64, 1998. Fabric and metal with rust on wood. 120 x 240 x 6."
Image courtesy of Sikkema and Jenkins.
The immense, wall-sized 64  is composed of hundreds of small square boxes, each of which is stuffed or covered with bits of fabric, batting, threads, and scraps of lace and what might once have been quilts or rugs. As the full-scale photograph represents, from across the room, it appears like a huge, compartmentalized drawer for classification of small things. It's in your grandfather's workshop; in the dusty shop of an ancient someone selling sewing notions, trims and buttons. Unlike the dynamic works we've seen above, this piece actively casts off a sense of age. It's flatness is part of it and the fact that the material that protrudes from its surface is without suspense. It's filthy; it droops and hangs.  
To approach 64 and inspect it close-up is discouraging. It puts you in a place you really do not want to be. Nearly every small element potentially conceals something else and every instinct warns that the secrets hidden in this work are not the sort one wishes to know. Where every work we've seen so far is built around multiple juxtapositions (form, texture, scale, etc.), this one is continual infinite repetition. It is so tall and so wide that at no point standing close enough to examine its surface can one's field of vision even take in the edges.
Leonardo Drew, 64, 1998, detail. Fabric, metal, and
 rust on wood. Author photos.
64 is one work in Exhumation in which there is no projection, nor any beauty revealed in the raw materials. Because of the repetitious form and the insistent filling or screening of each box, the work becomes a warren, a slum, favela. Public housing? A prison? Concentration or refugee camp? It's the only work in the show in which the artist assumes the guise of power by implying that all the components of the work are disgusting. In no other work does the artist seem to assume the role of master, even ironically.

Leonardo Drew is a Black. Because of that fact, race has to be a factor in his work, as an immigrant's identity will always dominant his identity in an adopted home. Blacks have reasons to be ill at ease with concepts many of us don't even think to explore: history or future; our movement through the built and natural environments; the hazards of interpretation by others; possession of property; one's sense of personal worth.  

Through his selection of materials and the extraordinary, surprising ways he uses them, Drew deals with race metaphorically, I believe, in every project. That's the significance and sorrow of 64's bleakness and enormous scale.

Leonardo Drew, 133, 1998. Wood and mixed media. 144 x 158 x 2." Courtesy
of Sikkema Jenkins.
From ten years later comes 133, laid out in a manner similar to 64, but, lacking boxes. Only the contents remain. The boxes have dissolved to leave a freshly-painted white wall to which the street gleanings are directly secured. As in 64, we see nothing project, but neither is anything dangling or dirty. From a distance, the forms are all horizontal, like a linear language—Morse code's dots and dashes. It's a paragraph charged with meaning.

Although this piece is unlike everything else in  Exhumation for being an unconnected assemblage of materials, I find it exciting for the implication of legibility. Read it from left to right or right to left; start at the top or the bottom, and read into each mark the significance you bring to it. Still, it remains whole: The language is unified in its vocabulary. 

Leonardo Drew, 133, details, 2009. Author photos.

As in all Drew's work, the view gives substantially different impressions at a distance and close up. The elegant calligraphy composed into a measured, balanced composition from across the room appears as distantly spaced microcosms when examined close-up. Each element stands out for its own rough, used character. 

Nothing is more normal than white print or script upon a white page. In most cultures, and most certainly in ours, that is how textual language is transmitted. In this work, though, by an eminent Black artist, there's an invitation to think again about the nature of black words on the simple white background. In 133, each black mark, each word, is a workhorse. It is a mark filled with history and the power of experience. We tend to forget the language when we use words. We use words as if they are light and disposable, not as if they have carried loads and have histories.

Perhaps that's how history feels to Black people who helped build a white world where there's a tradition of their doing conspicuous yet overlooked work. Each dark element of this beautiful piece is both used, accomplished, and isolated in dignity. They make a pattern, like black pearls on a satin bed, seen for what they are. These are words read for their root meanings, not scanned over to get to the punch line.

 Leonardo Drew, 133, detail, 2009. Author photo.

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