On ViewGalerie Lelong & Co.
September 9 – October 23, 2021
Leonardo Drew’s exhibition at Galerie Lelong & Co. pairs a monumental site-specific installation with nine recent sculptures, creating a magical, immersive environment. The works on view reflect Drew’s various approaches to his materials, including wood, cotton fabric, and aluminum, which he cuts, distresses, and paints, giving them the quality of found objects. Drew is known for repurposing previous sculptures to create new ones, mirroring natural cycles of decay and transformation. The central installation, Number 305 (2021), which encompasses the entire main gallery, contains references to previous site-specific works created for the Mickey Leland Federal Building in Houston, Texas and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
The three walls of the main gallery that comprise Number 305 each contain distinct imagery and together trace a cycle of breaking apart, coming together, and dissolving again. At the corner of the right wall is a monochrome black version of what the artist calls an “explosion” piece. A cluster of jagged, weathered and painted wood fragments of varying sizes and shapes bursts outward, evoking a cosmic event or a human act of destruction. These shards soften into more playful organic shapes, some decorated with small, brightly colored polka-dots. On the back wall, forms return to order, with wood constructions that evoke a fleet of boats, a school of fish, or an assortment of archeological objects, arranged in a linear formation. At the top of the wall, however, larger elements, such as a piece of draped white fabric, which Drew handmade from corded cotton, dramatically interrupt this organization. On the left-hand wall, the palette shifts back to black and white. Drew creates an almost topographic image that resembles land masses eroded by bodies of water. The textured boxes, and jagged horizontal strips layered on top, suggest urban infrastructure seen from above.
The sense of a delicate balance between natural and industrial forces is present throughout Drew’s sculpture, which he began creating in the late 1980s. Growing up in a housing project in Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was next to the city dump, he often played in the landfill, salvaging objects to make things and witnessing a cycle of destruction and renewal as the bulldozers crushed refuse. Although he was an accomplished illustrator by age 13, he decided to stop drawing and painting to develop creative expression in other media. While studying at Cooper Union he experimented with woodworking, paper-making, and photography. His first major sculpture in 1988 featured a tangled mass of ropes, wood, and animal hides. Following a visit to Senegal in 1992, Drew began working with grids of wood boxes coated with rust and filled with rags, a reference to the horrific living conditions slaves suffered when held in trading posts such as the Island of Gorée. Always wary of getting too comfortable with his practice, by the 2000s he moved on from this subject matter and began disrupting the grid with layers of small pieces of wood or found objects.
In interviews, Drew cites Piet Mondrian and Jackson Pollock as major influences, illuminating his attraction to the grid and his simultaneous desire to explode it. Like Pollock, he works on the floor, moving in and out of his sculptures. He builds them up carefully and spontaneously, affixing prepared scraps. In 2019, he incorporated movement more explicitly into his first public art commission, City in the Grass for Madison Square Park. The installation paired miniature wooden skyscrapers, illuminated with brightly colored dots, with metal wave forms painted in the colorful patterns of a Persian rug, creating a rippled magic carpet that the viewers were invited to move through, climb, and recline on.
This interest in motion carries over into the recent works installed in the first smaller gallery, several of which seem ready to lift off the walls. Number 306 (2021), combines a piece of the “carpet” from City in the Grass with a burst of patterned wood so that the right corner of the rug dematerializes into fragments. Number 294 and Number 307 both incorporate large spindly branches forming compositions that seem to hover, birdlike, ready to take flight. The gallery almost feels too small for these energetic and encompassing works, but the advantage is that the visitor is enveloped and ushered into the special world being created for us. The delicate, deliberate, almost obsessive devotion needed to make these objects is highlighted by a series of three small altar-shaped sculptures, Number 293, Number 298, and Number 308, composed of hundreds of chopstick-sized pieces of wood.
The artistic process is also alluded to in the massive Number 304, which takes over the entrance wall of the gallery. Aside from two central wooden forms, the composition consists largely of squares of paper. Although Drew does not work from studies, the papers, which include previous sketches, small sculptures, and reflections on different Persian rug patterns, bring to mind reference images tacked to the studio wall. We see his almost frenetic compilation of sources and relentless experimentation and wonder what is coming next. This exhibition is filled to the brim and Drew isn’t standing still.