New York

Leonardo Drew

Thread Waxing Space

Many contemporary artists who attempt to articulate African-American experience rely on photo-based techniques (Lorna Simpson’s studies of racist/sexist stereotypes and Carrie Mae Weems’ intimate narratives take the form of cool, almost clinical images, while Pat Ward Williams and Danny Tisdale frequently re-present racial hate-crimes using found photographs of events long past). By contrast, Leonardo Drew’s recent sculptures evoke African-American history using the actual materials of plantation agriculture: unprocessed cotton and cotton fabric, rusted metal, and rotting wood.

Drew’s abstract forms refer to the harvesting of cotton but also to the darker aspects of Southern (in)justice—ghostlike sacks suspended from hooks might be Ku Klux Klan shrouds or the black bodies hanging from tree branches in Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” 1939. And while Drew restricts himself to rigid minimalist compositions, particularly grids, those tight structures seem always to be eroding, on the verge of collapse, as though the world they stand for were caving in. Tongues of rusted metal and wisps of loose cotton escape from the irregular grid of Untitled #24 (all works 1992). In Untitled #23 two-by-fours covered with cotton cloth protrude at odd lengths from an approximate picture-plane, while in Untitled #28, cotton sacks anarchically tumble down the wall and spill out over the floor. The rust-stained cotton in Drew’s entropic composition suggests that blacks and whites are bleeding on each other—and going down together.

Though Drew uses natural materials and organic processes, he often forces his materials to do what they cannot (he makes cotton bales stand in rigid columns) or he aggressively accelerates what they can and must do over time—rust, burn/bake, oxidize, and decay. This distortion of the natural, and the artist’s extraordinarily time-consuming labors, speak both to the process of cultivating cotton (one of the most labor-intensive cash crops) and to the way slaves were often worked to death.

Drew relies on a potent ambience of heat, dust, sweat, and blood to evoke a tragic past, retelling Southern history in gargantuan works that, like William Faulkner’s novels, monumentalize a fallen world. Of course, Faulkner was seduced by the romance of the sagging front porch of the abandoned “big house,” and Drew is drawn in by the poignant tangle of farm equipment rusting behind the slave quarters. Both have their terrible beauty, and the danger of Drew’s lapse into the romantic is that it enables us to evade the hideous realities the artist begins to address.

Lois Nesbitt