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Existed: Leonardo Drew

by Claudia Schmuckli

208 pgs, full color
D. Giles Ltd., June 2009
12.1 x 9.4 x 1 in.
ISBN: 190483258X
Hardcover, $59.95

Artist Leonardo Drew, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is featured in this retrospective monograph covering work from 1988 to 2007. Existed: Leonardo Drew is produced in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name on view at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, from May 16 through August 1, 2009. It serves equally well as a standalone volume on the artist. The book features 70 artworks, mainly sculptures but including works on paper. From the tangled cliff-face of Drew's assertive debut Number 8 (1988) to the quietly intense melding of rust, wood and paper in Number 129T (2007), Existed tracks not only the evolution of Drew's aggregations of rust, iron ore, rags and bone, but their uncompromising presentation of the decay and dissolution of the material world.

Introductory essays by Claudia Schmuckli, Blaffer Director and chief curator, and Allen S. Weiss, Associate Adjunct Professor of Performance and Cinema Studies at New York University, open the book with background information and analysis. Beyond that, words step aside and let Drew's works operate on a visceral level, their punch unencumbered by text. Drew's sculptural work consists of monumentally-sized constructions made of discarded objects, incorporating boxes and rags, cotton and steel, in various states of deterioration or oxidation. Behind that abrupt and direct appearance of disorder is an underlying grid of orderliness which, joined by a mass aggregation of elements, gives his sculptures an assertive physical presence. Bone, feather, tarred twine, wood, and scraps of cloth, in some of his initial works; boxes and aggregations of objects past their use; and pervasively, through all his work, rust. Rusted iron and its alloys, rust smeared across cotton or tightly compressed rags, the bubbling and surface-pitting of corrosion into iron oxides, rusty boxes or their crumbling edges. Drew's sculptures radiate discard, decay, the dissolution of the material. The impressions they leave are intensified by the large scale of his installations, and by the aggregative power of seeing unit after unit after unit, piled row upon row in a sheer wall of intense, deteriorating matter.

Born in 1961, the artist grew up in the projects of Bridgeport, Conn. He was freed by a talent for draftsmanship, his drive to make art then honed by a powerful interest in modern art that led him to tour Europe and follow the original impulses that had driven it, not merely the American interpretations of same. At a certain point he moved from drawing to making abstract sculpture from found objects, some castoffs gleaned exhaustively from the streets, others store-bought materials weathered to match his vision. Unlike many artists intrigued by found objects, Drew does not simply respond to the random. An underlying structure of two-foot-square panels imposes discipline on these works, a resonant element of what makes them reward repeated looking.

Made overwhelmingly of detritus, Drew's sculptures confront with an assertive and potent sense of mortality. It is the mortality of materials, and by association, hints at the mortality of the flesh. These masses of discarded object, reassembled on an underlying grid of order while at the same time retaining their wild seed of decay, can be difficult to look at if only for their strong flavor of the deterioration of things. The rust and pitted surfaces are so derelict, the twisted and crammed bits of cloth stained like blood with reddish oxide. Bits of objects retain discernible identity while being swallowed into the mass of abandoned item. At the same time one keeps coming back to these works, compelled by the honesty of their inner truth. The overwhelming impression is of many derelict objects formed into a discarded mass, long past its usefulness, echoing its former harmony of being but on its way to the dissolution that comes to all things.

Facing the difficult task of capturing works so large, so detailed, and so dependent on a close appreciation of their aggregation and texture, Existed comes through with flying colors. The sensibility of these works is well-expressed in photography that catches not only a general delineation of the sculptures but a sense of their inner intensity. Seventy works are detailed across 170 pages, with long shots interspersed by tight close-ups. The full-scale views stand back from the work, establishing the size and proportion of each sculpture in relation to itself and the space in which it stands, showing these often room-sized works in their wholeness. Interleaved with these are close, uncompromising views across two-page spreads, isolating sections of the works, catching their suede-like textures of rust, the frayed edges of wool or cloth, and pressing them insistently into the viewer's space.

Existed also highlights Drew's transition through a body of lighter work between 2000-2003, inspired, as Schmuckli notes, by a 1997 residency in Japan and experiences with Zen Buddhism, where white is the color of death. The works in this period are characterized by found objects drenched in paint of a uniform white, or pale walls of bunched cast paper. Drew's works on paper are on a smaller scale but also of interest, here shown in works from 1999-2007, beginning with gouache renderings but moving into media as visceral and diverse as asphaltum, mud and beeswax, and once again, rust. Number 129T forms an eloquent coda to the works shown here, with the kinship of iron oxide to paint and pigment expressed most freely in this work of 'compressed rust' caked on a sheet of pristine eggshell white. Iron's corrosion is captured as an element of beauty, even as it expresses an ultimate dissolution into entropy.

Drew's work has been described as rejuvenative, concerned with the natural cycles of things. If so concerned, it is with the end of the cycle, rather than the beginning. All things corrode, rust, decay; they come to an end; they are bound by death. It is an honest vision, strong-steeped for those of us in a society so drenched with the illusion of eternal youth. Drew's works are an arresting expression of inevitability. In no wise are things immortal. As he well seems to know. A chronology, exhibition history, bibliography and details on the illustrated works complete Existed: Leonardo Drew as a choice reference on the artist and his work.

--Katherine R. Lieber

Katherine R. Lieber has edited ArtScope.net's Visual Arts reviews since 1998. Ms. Lieber is Editor and Associate Producer for ArtScope.net.

Editorial Note: Existed: Leonardo Drew and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.

Existed: Leonardo Drew is produced in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, on view at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston from May 16 - August 1, 2009. From there the exhibition will travel to the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, N.C., February 7 - May 9, 2010.

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