Los Angeles

Martin Puryear

Margo Leavin Gallery

One of the contemporary sculptors included in the recent “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Martin Puryear is unique in his ability to transcend merely morphological primitivism and to achieve the power of those works that beckon to us from beyond the boundaries of Modernism and our ethnocentrism. For Puryear natural materials, natural forms, and abstraction still have meaning which he explores, invents, and endlessly embellishes. Without relying on anthropological appropriations, his objects, which connote ritual function but of course have none, communicate through the very intensity of their making; they exist as authentic Modern art, demonstrating a mastery that has outdistanced the artist’s training in Stock-holm as a wood-carver, and his experience in Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps.

The geographic polarity of these two points of artistic formation is echoed in other oppositions that Puryear still investigates, the most obvious in this exhibition being that between male and female forms. For this show Puryear designed an unusually joyful installation of small pieces, which could be read across the 40-foot-long wall as variations on phallic themes expressed through objects. similar to plungers, oilcans, and other instruments. Freestanding pieces were also displayed, and the whole set was aptly and ironically titled “Boy’s Toys.” Puryear has “drawn” linear forms against the ground of the wall before, but in this installation each part of the whole was distinct and self-sufficient; the installation gave up a sense of closure or of narrative connections in favor of a looser song requiring no libretto.

The pleasure of making was evident in this work, but Puryear’s authority as a sculptor is now so secure that he can afford to play with, tease, and celebrate his own tradition, his own ideas and materials—for example, by painting a 4-foot-tall column, carved in red cedar, with aluminum paint. One of the most unorthodox hybrids of the “Boy’s Toys” is a long slender rod of yellow cedar springing from a pendulous gourd with wire stitching. Two dissimilar materials mate again in a work of copper tubing sprouting from or penetrating a calabash. A remarkable craftsman whose joinery technique is so accomplished that it almost disappears, Puryear uses his materials not just in poetic juxtapositions or esthetic combinations but to subvert or at least question their material identity.

Less playful and more mysterious, the larger constructions here were enclosures, female containers like the billowing wire mesh in Keeper, 1984, pinned to the wall by a wooden bead the size and shape of a football. Puryear is a romantic Modernist, one whose belief in the powers of transformation or transcendence are still in place. What keeps the work from veering off to become a naturalist refuge is his incorporation of elements of tension, even suggestions of cruelty. Puryear lops off the ends of some of the works, closes their doors, just at the moment of their blooming and consummation.

Above and beyond the romance of materials in themselves, for Puryear carving and refining are always essential and embedded in the gestalt of the piece. In a complex process of self-cancellation, he works obsessively on a carefully chosen piece of wood that looks somehow more natural when he is finished than when he began. The only minimalist allegiance Puryear still exhibits is to solitary forms, nor will he give up the zero-degree transformations that constitute this process of naturalization. Without representing nature, his work sometimes evokes the sense of awe usually associated with nature. Two works are exceptional: open and closed, natural and unnatural, both are cryptic, stubborn, truncated arcs of carved and painted pine. One is called Lurk, 1984; the other, Rogue Bull, 1985, the aging loner of an animal pack, looks like two prehensile elephant trunks blended and patched together. Although you can look through the openings or orifices at the ends, you cannot see through to the other side. The piece is like a still-living trophy prematurely mounted to the wall. With great singlemindedness and confidence in his own maverick program, and working from the premise that there is little distinction anymore between nature and culture, Puryear carves his success from the ultimate fiction—that culture can create the aura of nature.

Judith Russi Kirshner