Last week I went with some friends to see an exhibition at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. On the drive over I sat in the back seat and tried to come up with a topic for this week’s blog. My blogging colleague had just completed two posts about art and materials and I was contemplating an addition to that thread. The show I was going to see didn’t seem like an appropriate topic and so I was at a loss.
After viewing an exhibition about the Summer of Love on the lower floor of the museum I walked up to the entry level where I was confronted with an immense installation that covered three walls surrounding an atrium.
To say the piece took my breath away is an understatement. The scale and material presence of the installation overwhelmed me. Here was my answer, a perfect topic for today’s post.
The above photographs don’t do justice to the installation, Number 197, by the artist Leonardo Drew. Lost is the physical sensation of interacting with the art – the body in relationship to the scale of the space, the feeling of looking up to see a large and complex cantilevered wood construction protruding from a corner forty feet in the air, the surprise in discovering the complexity and detail hidden in the larger forms.
The most striking aspect of Leonardo Drew’s work is the inventiveness found in his use of materials. His art pieces appear to be composed of the detritus of a crumbling civilization. Rotting, rusted, burned, jumbled, torn, splintered. Wood, rope, metal, cotton, tree roots, lost (and found) objects. A history of the world found in seemingly discarded materials.
In the case of Drew’s work, what you see is not entirely what you get. The aged and charred lengths of wood were purchased new, the “history” added in the studio by Drew who builds up layers of washes to create a patina of age. If the materials carry a history it is a more personal one. Drew adds vestiges of his own life into the work, tearing apart old projects for reuse in later pieces, discovering hidden art in the discarded scraps on his studio floor. Much of the meaning in his work arises from the interaction between material and process.
In attempting to interpret Drew’s work much has been made of his early life living in a public housing project next door to a large municipal dump. As a child he played with the discards from other people’s lives. Of this time Drew has said, “I remember all of it, the seagulls, the summer smells, the underground fires that could not be put out… and over time I came to realize this place as ‘God’s mouth’…the beginning and the end…and the beginning again [sic]…what has remained from my early explorations are the echoes of evolution…life, death, regeneration.”
Life. Death. Regeneration. Those three words are at the core of Drew’s work. Cities grow and then decay. Organic life sprouts and then dies. It’s all part of a cyclical process that unites opposing forces. This pull between opposites is found in the form of Drew’s work. The apparent chaos in the layered surfaces is tamed by an underlying grid. Method and madness. Form and meaning cannot be separated. “The grid is my basis of sanity. Otherwise it would just be noise. I mean, these things are loud, but if you know what to listen for, they’ll speak to you.”
The metaphorical time implied in the work is underscored by the real time involved in the making of the work. When I saw the piece at the DeYoung I was struck by the density and intricacy of the surfaces, by the repetitive motions involved in their creation. I imagined the hours of labor that the work recorded, and it is this real time that lends the work it’s authority.
“…I think that’s the cyclical nature of just being, like birth, like death, and regeneration. It’s a very simple map of life. I think that I follow that naturally and organically, without actually ever claiming it, it was just there. I started making work, and it’s like, yes you are calling out all of these things that are part of your memory, your body’s memory, things that have gone through your pores, what you’ve seen, what you’ve experienced, and you spill them out without thinking. I don’t think so much about, “Okay, I’m going to make work, and it’s going to be about this. It’s just going to come out.”