African-American sculptor Leonardo Drew makes breakthrough in Hong Kong.
Featuring new works and introducing applied colours, the exhibition at Pearl Lam Galleries in Hong Kong’s Pedder Building reveals the connections tying Leonardo Drew to the suburban developments adjacent to the metropolis of New York City as well as the legacies of Duchamp’s readymade.
African-American contemporary sculptor Leonardo Drew’s first solo exhibition in Asia (PDF download) features 13 new works, including two on paper and one mixed media, and runs until 31 December 2015 at Pearl Lam Galleries Hong Kong.
At the exhibition’s opening reception on 12 November, Art Radar spoke with Leonardo Drew, who was very enthusiastic about Hong Kong’s emerging art scene:
I think that right now [this] is the place. Of course New York is still the place [his emphasis], but how art is happening here now, it’s like New York on steroids. There are a lot of galleries showing art that is not from here, and of course we are bringing art in and that’s a good thing, but the alternative spaces that are popping up, like Para/Site, I think is just fantastic. You know art will find a way. Hong Kong’s art has been a part of the world for a while, but now it’s like an international art market, an international creative base.
Repurposing rubbish into art
Drew grew up in the public housing projects of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a short distance from New York City. The Bridgeport landfill literally surrounded his childhood apartment building. Every day he witnessed a repetitious ecological process, as trucks dropped off their loads of refuse and, with seagulls circling overhead, the rubbish slowly rotted and dissolved. As a child Drew played in the landfill, scavenging and collecting discarded debris, developing an intense sensitivity to the transformations of raw material culture, aware of objects’ beginnings and endings. As Drew got older, he began repurposing the salvaged rubbish into artwork referencing the passing of time.
Drew imagined the dump near his childhood home as “God’s Mouth”, a place where the dead find rebirth. He transforms burnt, corroded, dying industrial objects into art that echoes the course of life and death. Though his creations are visceral and abstract, they have collective connotations and address universal concerns. Naturally decaying items, such as animal remains and discarded wood in various states of deterioration, relate to the natural cycle of life – birth, productivity and decline. Incorporating tarnished fasteners, like nails and screws, suggests the connectivity of all people and living things. Past his mid-career stage, Drew’s wall-mounted reliefs and assemblages now feature newly fabricated material with patinas from artificially sped up oxidation and weathering processes.
The legacy of the readymade
It is tempting to search for metaphoric significance in Drew’s evocative work. The artist came up during America’s late 20th century industrial decline and Bridgeport, Connecticut, was hard hit. He has searched dumps and alleyways for rusty scraps of sheet metal and construction materials that seem like ruins from America’s crumbling industrial empire, the disintegration of an older America. The artist won’t affirm or deny such an interpretation: “yeah, that can be said, but you have to remember the materials cause you to believe that, and my materials have changed”. He encourages a variety of interpretations by numbering, rather than naming, his objects.
Drew was not the first to appreciate the aesthetics of discards. New York native Joseph Cornell, for instance, crafted elegant shadowboxes from reused bric-a-brac, inspired by Dada guru Marcel Duchamp’s found-object readymade sculptures. However, Leonardo Drew’s objects and installations address deeper, more-complex themes. Still, he revers his artistic ancestors:
I’m standing on a lot of shoulders. I don’t think any of us can ever take full credit for anything we’re creating.
From process to pure expression
His work weaves into a strand of post-War process-based art, including the Abstract Expressionist pour painter Jackson Pollock. Like Pollock, Drew emphasises his process; like the abstract expressionists, who used canvas as “an arena in which to act”, Drew uses exhibition spaces as fields for expressive action, claiming his only real limit is running out of wall space.
Entering the gallery, a family of relief wall hangings greet visitors. Drew described them as his “seven screaming babies” whom he attended and “tried to respond to” during creation. They feature contrasting zones of slivered, darkened wood and sparse, syncopated coloured elements, arranged within loosely defined grids, echoing Piet Mondrian. Drew is known for his somber tones and the works in Hong Kong seem much more colourful; the artist explained that going over the history of his work “there are always these points where [he] breaks through [his] comfort zones.”
Drew came to Hong Kong last May to get a sense of the gallery’s dimensions. For an artist noted for monumental installations, the works in Hong Kong are relatively modest in scale; the artist says he found “a happy medium” with the seven “screaming babies” and a few medium sized pieces. The monumental mixed media Number 21C is the single exception, covering two enormous walls ceiling to floor, towering over the show literally and figuratively. Number 21C contains a calm black core that breaks and dissolves into geometric forms around the white edges.
When asked if these 2015 works signify his impressions of America’s current social turbulence, Leonardo Drew pauses, “maybe it comes out and you can talk about that, but I can’t say I think about that”. He continues:
You have to see that afterwards, we’ll see later on if that’s a fact. It’s like when I went to Senegal [in 1992 and visited an old slave trading post] and created work [hinting at slavery’s atrocities] it was only years later I’d say okay that’s what that was all about. When you’re ‘doing abstract’ these things start coming out. I don’t really make works about what I saw, it’s more reaction.
A subconscious familiarity lurks within Drew’s sculptures, which his New York gallery suggests “explore memory by employing a wide range of material to evoke common elements of the human experience”. A relentless physicality pervades his objects, but his deliberateness and meticulousness results in an oddly gentle, thoughtful abstraction. Drew’s assemblages draw you in then push you away, quietly pulsating with ebbing vitality. The irony is seeing Drew’s crusty creations on the pristine white walls of Pearl Lam Galleries, literally in the centre of Hong Kong’s spic-and-span financial center. His objects would seemingly be more at home near a distant landfill, at the sunset of another empire.
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