Beauty in the Abandoned

Leonardo Drew hand-built each of the 880 boxes in his sculpture Number 43 (1994). They are packed tightly together, stacked into an imperfect grid against the wall. Grubby, rust-dusted scraps of fabric are jammed inside them; twisted fragments trail out of some; others have fabric stretched over the top, sealing them closed. Cutting wood and nailing together simple wooden boxes is the kind of tedious, labor-intensive task most successful artists would delegate to a studio assistant. Drew is an extremely successful artist, but he's not the kind of guy who relies on others to do grunt work. Manual labor — his own — is at the core of Drew's work. "Existed: Leonardo Drew," on view at the Blaffer Gallery and curated by director Claudia Schmuckli, pre­sents a mid-career survey of the artist's work.

The same kind of focus, determination and work ethic that drive Drew to nail together 880 boxes helped the artist propel himself out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which is synonymous for urban blight. Drew grew up in public housing in Bridgeport and played with debris in junk-filled vacant lots while, as Schmuckli writes in her catalog essay, "rearranging it for aesthetic effect."

Drew was one of those kids who could really draw, and his talent began to open doors for him. When he was a teenager, talent scouts from the likes of DC and Marvel comics were after him, and he easily could have had commercial success as an illustrator. But he studied fine art, a major most often pursued by middle-class kids with financially supportive families. If you come out of poverty and get a shot at a college education, only the gutsy or the foolhardy will choose a field in which making any kind of a living is a long shot. Drew is gutsy.

Drew's aesthetic is influenced by the junk he played with as a kid. Even when he builds things new, he artificially ages them — rusting metal, shredding fabric, gouging wood. He scavenges for many of his objects and materials, taking a shopping cart out onto the streets of New York. It's the easiest way to collect and transport stuff in the city, but, of course, anybody pushing a shopping cart is pretty much assumed to be homeless. No doubt this amuses Drew, who seems secure enough not to care what people think. His work has a feeling of making do, of finding beauty in the abandoned. Drew has a BFA from Cooper Union and all the art-historical grounding that entails, but he collects and obsessively combines cast-off and decayed items in the manner of untutored "folk" or "outsider" artists — those artists, usually poor and often black, whose work is invariably treated as separate and unequal by the art world.

In 1992 Drew was invited to participate in the Senegal biennial, an experience that would deeply affect his work. While there, the African-American artist visited Gorée Island, a trading post for millions of Africans sold into slavery. They would be held for up to a year in horrific and claustrophobic conditions. The House of Slaves had tiny separate rooms for women, men, children and young girls, where the captives would be densely packed. It doesn't take much to imagine the awfulness. Only the strong would survive. Drew was deeply moved by these confined spaces that had contained so much suffering.

The hundreds of boxes of Number 43 had to have grown out of that experience. In that context it reads like rows of internment niches, and the labor Drew puts into his work makes even more sense. Each one is a little wonky, and the nails look hand-hammered. Crafting each box with his own hands is a meditation on, and a memorial to, the suffering at Gorée Island. Those who survived it and made the excruciating journey to America were greeted with a life of brutal labor whose only escape was death. Paying an art grad student to wield a nail gun and knock a few hundred boxes together would undermine the work visually, conceptually and morally. The artist's labor is an integral part of the piece.

Drew moves through ideas and materials, but keeps his work visually consistent. He's incorporated raw cotton into some works, which the artist acknowledges is an especially loaded choice of material for an African-American artist. Number 14 (1990) uses panels of rusted, flaking metal to create a hard-won Rothko of urban decay. That patina of reddish rust permeates many of Drew's works. It alludes to the decay of the man-made, but that reddish dust reminds me of the red-dirt cotton fields of the South, which marks anyone and anything that comes into contact with it.

Art like Drew's freaks out museum conservators who generally want to keep a work from deteriorating and as close to its original condition as possible. But decay is an essential part of Drew's aesthetic. Number 8 (1988) is a darkly evocative tangled black mass of dangling rope and debris. It includes stuff like dead birds. Drew salts and preserves them — he's not into maggots or anything — but they're still animal carcasses. And the rust, the staining, the flaking, the general rattiness of the stuff, is exactly what Drew wants. His work is crafted with care, but anything but pristine or exact. You can picture conservators pulling their hair out trying to figure out what to do if chunks of rust flake off, or feathers fall off of a bird carcass. Do they try to reattach it? I asked Drew how he deals with these kinds of questions.

"I don't pick up the phone," he replied.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer