Charred Order: Leonardo Drew at Sikkema Jenkins

Number 185 Leonardo Drew

Number 185, 2016, Wood, paint, pastel, screws, 121 x 134 x 30 ins

Gorgeous surfaces of charred wood draw you into Sikkema Jenkins Gallery in Chelsea, where Brooklyn-based artist Leonardo Drew has an exhibition of new work. Each sculptural relief hanging on the wall boasts an intricacy of material and surface that invites a closer look. Drew tends to work with new materials that he batters into a weathered submission, so that the final appearance is of found materials. The orderly nature of his compositions and aesthetic aspect of rich black textures belies the catastrophe implied by the burnt wood, as if by some kind of post-apocalyptic magic each charred remain fell into a grid pattern.

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Detail, Number 185, 2016

Although the materials, which seems to drive the works, recall referents in the world, as images they are resolutely abstract. I feel comfortable talking about these three-dimensional works as images, because they hang on the wall and play with the idea of breaking through the picture plane. Number 185 comes forward slightly into the viewer’s space. More prominently, large wood pieces jut off at a vertical tilt in the top left corner of the square composition, anchored by a protruding bottom weight. The force of these divergences lies in the break that it makes from the stalwart square of the picture plane.

Number 190 Leonardo Drew

Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

As you enter the second room of the gallery and turn the corner, an arresting composition of weathered and beaten, black or colorful, composite objects runs across the two white walls like so much Morse code. Many of the same tensions of the discrete works are present here in Number 190: tensions between the roughness and variety of the material and the meticulous order of their arrangement, between the clean white gallery wall and the seemingly dirty scraps that have been applied to it, and between the suggestion of meaning and resistance to interpretation. I felt a sheer visual pleasure running my eyes over the miraculously coherent installation. It is equally intricate up close and when viewed as a whole. While it reminds me of Cold Dark Matter by Cornelia Parker, Number 190 seems more decorative or typographical than that work because it is laid out on the walls in a linear fashion. Parker’s suggestion of entropy has no corollary here. Drew has cited the influence of growing up near a dump on his aesthetic; in this manifestation of that influence, he corrals the debris of the world into order.

On view at Sikkema Jenkins & Co through October 8, 2016.

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

Detail, Number 190, 2016, Wood, paint, and mixed media

The Monuments of Skopje 2014: Constructing Macedonian National Identity

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It’s been a busy time lately as I’ve been preparing to give a talk at a conference, “The Rhetoric and Aesthetics of Memory,” at the Meadows Museum in Dallas this weekend. I’ll be presenting a portion of my thesis research on Skopje 2014, a building project in Skopje, Macedonia.

Cultural memory and memorialization is often a contested issue in the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, despite (and because of) the fact that government-mandated art policies designed to support a regime’s power have disappeared from the region with the fall of Socialism. However, this current building project recalls the authoritarian monuments of those ideologically controlled policies. “Skopje 2014” is a current urban renovation project in Macedonia’s capital designed to emphasize a strained connection to a classical past through extensive new building and over forty new monuments in the city center.

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A striking example is Warrior on a Horse, a sculpture of Alexander the Great on a rearing house atop a triumphal column that towers over Macedonia Square. ‘Alexander,’ as it is generally called, is 48 feet tall on its own, and it sits on top of a cylindrical column that is 33 feet tall. Three large ivory battle friezes wrap up the column. At the base of the column are eight bronze soldiers, each ten feet tall. The enormous structure is underscored by the fountain it stands in. Eight bronze lions surround the pool of the fountain and four of the lions spray water from their mouths. The fountain periodically shoots water in choreographed streams, tinged by multi-colored lights, in time with classical music blasting from enormous megaphones raised on poles around the square, channeling ancient Rome via Las Vegas.

Unlimited Metaphor: Robert Gober at MoMA

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At least one person I know hates the way American artist Robert Gober’s work is displayed at his current retrospective at MoMA (up through January 18). Granted, she knows his work far better than I do, but I beg to differ. Perhaps because this exhibition was my first introduction to Gober’s strange sculptures, I appreciated the installations in themselves, not least because they often mimicked the highly specific way that works were originally displayed. The visitor gets a hint of this dynamic in MoMA’s atrium, taken over by a plywood enclosure, resembling a house’s unfinished walls, whose interior is only accessible from inside the exhibition.

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Inside the show, careful facsimiles of sinks, impossible cribs, and anonymous limbs are the order of the day. It’s no wonder that Jerry Saltz describes how critics often have no idea what it means. The show’s title–“The Heart is a Metaphor”–speaks to the logic of dreams by which Gober seems to operate. Although it is difficult to nail down any specific meaning, certainly notions of home are evoked by his utilitarian constructions, and of the body by those limbs, often sprouting out of walls seemingly at random. A gay artist in the 80s, his works (such as the non-working sinks or Untitled (1989) featuring an empty wedding dress) are often seen as responding to issues such as the AIDS crisis or gay marriage, and certainly pieces like the chapel interior (Untitled, 2003-2005) in wake of September 11 attacks would also support a socially engaged reading. At the same time, his tubs and sinks suggest a more general cleansing just as his candles might suggest spirituality or hope. Such metaphors are multivalent, and it is hard to limit the possible significances.

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What I found most moving about both sinks and limbs is the care with which the artist replicated both. On close inspection, they are clearly handmade, imperfect, but great care was taken with them. It produces an uncanny resemblance to the real, as if the artist was trying to create some Platonic ideal of a sink. At the same time, returning to this mundane object again and again in his work suggests some kind of idée fixe. Like a murderer who revisits the scene of a crime, I wonder what obsession brings Gober back to these things–what sort of totemic status must they have? Humble. Clean. Functionless. Yet there lurks some darker implication and some deeper function. But like in a dream after one wakes, it is unclear what that function is. Rat bait suggests something ugly but unseen. Bars on windows suggest home might be a prison, or a prison a home.

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Some of the more complex works, such as an open briefcase on the floor through which flowing water, moss, rocks, and a tiny bit of bare feet can be seen, suggest the elaborate visual pun of Duchamp in Etant Donnes. What is evoked is the Surrealist language of Magritte et al. in contemporary and mundane guise. The domestic objects of sinks and cribs that formed the beginning of Gober’s career are circled back around to at the end of the roughly chronological exhibition, where a dollhouse sits in the middle of the room, a token from Gober’s initial livelihood in New York. The painting below, the final work in the exhibition, continues to focus on houses and interiority, echoed on a larger scale for the viewer, who is inside an exhibition space painted the pale blue of a baby’s nursery. Throughout, the contained spaces suggest a continued interiority of the mind rather than actual space, and these general symbols, rather than feeling like tropes, seem both personal and poetic, if not immediately fixed in specific meaning.

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