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|
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.