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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Life + Arts

Artist transforms trash into artwork

Anyone visiting Blaffer Gallery this summer will be walking into a junkyard, and that’s not a pompous aesthetic criticism. To clarify, they will be walking into Existed: Leonardo Drew, the mid-career retrospective exhibition of work by sculptor Leonardo Drew.

Drew, alternately based in Brooklyn and San Antonio, creates complex installations out of what is ostensibly garbage.

Working with rust, bits of cotton, tattered sheets of canvas, blocks of wood, nails, frayed bits of rope and an array of discarded objects and assorted debris too vast to document, Drew weaves refuse into elaborate wall-mounted sculptures, working with castoffs the way some work with oil or watercolor.

In the tradition of American abstract artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Drew is in the business of repurposing found objects into art and exploring what those terms truly mean.
Existed: Leonardo Drew brings together a series of pieces he created during the last 20 years, beginning with his early work from the mid ’80s and culminating in the monumental installation ‘Number 123,’ completed in 2007. Each work is numerically labeled which, combined with the exhibition’s seldom-shifting color palette and non-representational aesthetic, can alienate some viewers.

The easiest criticism to make about Existed is that it might be ‘too abstract’ for the casual art viewer. Many people will look at Drew’s installations and see them as frustrating collections of objects, offering no concrete depictions.

Those who do make the interpretational leap will be stunned by the evocative power of Drew’s best work, pieces such as ‘Number 8’ and ‘Number 43.’ These works hang their significance on the tension between order and disarray and its creator’s attention to detail.
The particulars of this aesthetic are hard to pin down, and each piece is highly varied. Certain motifs show through in almost every sculpture, however. Most of these pieces are irregular, rectangular tableaux compartmentalized into smaller units arranged in a grid pattern. A multitude of found objects, widely ranging from household items and loose debris to paper casts of dead animals, are meticulously arranged within each compartment.

From a distance, Drew’s sculptures look like an orderly arrangement, but this couldn’t be more deceptive. Each piece is a riot of detail, seething below the calm surface of an organized grid. This is art that rewards multiple viewings and forces its audience to think long and hard about what it is they’re looking at. The artwork is often ugly and even unsettling, but that’s part of the point.

If nothing else, this collection of Drew’s work does much to prove the viability of rust itself as an artistic medium; the audience is led to savor the unsightly evidence of decay and destruction as the decomposing junk of the American landscape becomes the genesis for imaginative rebirth.

The viewer is allowed to follow along as Drew pursues a new definition of finality. When he stares directly into the ugly truth of rot and rust, he doesn’t flinch. He finds a way to hang it on a wall.

Existed: Leonardo Drew is on display at Blaffer Gallery through Aug. 1.’ Admission is free.

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