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Contemporary Art

Material Philosophies, Public Art and the Installations of Leonardo Drew

By Christine Pungong
S|2 London's exhibition, Where Were You at Night, features a selection of works by contemporary sculptor Leonardo Drew, whose public art project City in the Grass is currently on show in New York's Madison Square Park.
“You can make art from anything. This is what it’s all about. In the end, I learned that, for a fact, art exists in you. Just do it!" – Leonardo Drew

Indeed, Leonardo Drew does make art from literally anything. Working largely with a combination of natural and found objects, he choreographs his findings into dynamic, monumental sculptures. Using the processes of oxidation, decay, burning, and breaking, Drew works these pieces through his own material language to transform raw materials into objects that are entirely different from their original state. The materials he typically uses – cotton, timber, rope, rust and more – are symbolic of the Civil Rights struggle that foregrounded Drew’s childhood, as well as America’s industrial past. The social message inherent in Drew’s work and process is more important than ever in today’s political climate. With climate change as an ever-looming threat to our existence, Drew's work urges us to think about our role in creating waste, as well as nature's capacity for regeneration despite our impact.

Drew was born in 1961 in Tallahassee, Florida but grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where the city dump – which he could see from every which way from his family home – occupied a large part of his childhood imagination. He mined through the junk and discarded scraps to create makeshift works of art – a process that still informs his practice. As well as the influence of his childhood, evident in Drew’s work is a tribute to groundbreaking mid-twentieth century artists such as Jackson Pollock and Eva Hesse. Indeed, much of Drew’s approach to his art is reminiscent of the avant-garde philosophies that defined abstraction and post-minimalism – experimentation, rejection of mechanical uniformity and an emphasis on material and process.

Although his work tends to be extremely large and evocative, Drew makes a point to never name his pieces, instead opting to give each one a number. He claims “numbering the works allows the viewer to have a full-on experience. The work becomes a mirror.” His pieces are indeed phenomenologically present; they not only challenge the architecture of space, but they create a realm of what critical theorist Merleau-Ponty would perhaps refer to as ‘intersubjectivity' – whereby the viewer is made aware of their body in space through its engagement in dialogue with the work itself. This intersubjectivity created by the spatial presence of his work once again encourages us to think about how we, as individuals, contribute to industrial-scale environmental waste and other social injustices.

Drew’s works have been shown internationally and are included in numerous public collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; and Tate, London. Currently some of Drew’s pieces are included in Sꟾ2 London’s group exhibition Where Were You at Night. The show, which features the Leonardo Drew works 126L, 172T, and 16X, is titled after a collection of fourteen short stories written by Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, which also form a conceptual framework for the exhibition. Drew’s works in the show typify the eccentricity and diversity within his artistic practice. The pieces are all entirely different; while 126L is an imposing geometric wall piece made up of hundreds of man-made wooden scrap pieces, 172T is composed of delicate paper casts of household objects, rope and twine which tumbles like a waterfall onto the floor, and 16X is a sculpture combining a network of rusting wooden boxes that protrudes sideways from a wall near the ground.

“Leonardo is restlessly innovative - always pushing in new directions, dismantling and reintegrating elements, giving the works their own inherent history whilst constantly re-inventing his own language, taking on new influences and pushing the viewer and himself to react.”
Toby Clarke from Vigo Gallery, a "Where Were You at Night" exhibition collaborator

Drew’s recent commission by Madison Square Park Conservancy is one of his most exciting projects yet. Open since June 3rd, 2019 (until December 15th) in Madison Square Park, the piece is the artist’s first major public art project. The 100ft long installation, titled City in the Grass, depicts a topographical view of New York City made in aluminium, punctuated by three large wooden stacked towers, which are reminiscent of the famous skyscrapers for which the city is known. The towers rest on a colourful undulating mosaic made of sand and paint, that is designed to resemble a magic carpet. The inspiration for the piece came from some of the children who sometimes visit Drew’s Brooklyn studio, who likened some of his more geometric wooden forms to an aerial view of New York City – a comparison which could indeed apply to 126L. He decided to design the Madison Square Park project "as if I was Gulliver and this was Lilliput." The piece is lively and tactile, and Drew hopes that people will feel like they can "sit on it, move around, have an experience with it." The inevitable wear that will occur as more people touch, sit and play with the work will only add to the nature and charm of the piece.

After years of making monochromatic works (depending on how much he chooses to alter or manipulate the material), this bright and vividly coloured installation is a risk that paid off. As an artist that rejects the notion of a signature artistic style or tradition, it fits perfectly within his oeuvre. Drew is an exciting, boundary-pushing artist, and it will be interesting to see how he will continue to create work that is critical, thought-provoking and larger-than-life.

Where Were You at Night is on at S|2 London until 19 September.

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