Nunzio/Martin Puryear

What unified the works in this “duet” between the sculptors Martin Puryear and Nunzio was that the pieces on display were almost all made of wood. The different types that were deployed demonstrate varying degrees of resistance to handling, and particular formal qualities. Taking this into consideration, and retaining a certain amount of perceptual ambiguity, both sculptors took care to construct clear and expressive forms.

Nunzio presented three new pieces under the title “Passagi” (Passage). In the room dedicated to his work he arranged a pair of oak tables that he had blackened by burning. Though joined at the bottom, the tables tilted upward and away from each other. The sculpture’s concave form confirmed the work’s engagement with space and light: the wooden “wings” seemed almost to embrace the room, while a luminous hollow created a cleft in the dark material. In the remaining two works, Nunzio cut the scorched oak into slats or rib shapes, each curved into a slight arc. He arranged them horizontally on one wall in the shape of a tunnel, so that they resembled a whale skeleton or the bones of some prehistoric animal. While the work’s structure was very simple, the shadow that the ribs projected on the walls formed an intricate virtual structure. The third piece occupied an entire corner. This time, the wooden slats were arranged in the form of a sort of hanging or curtain that descended from the ceiling, stopping several feet above the floor. Here, too, the rhythmic placement of the elements contributed to one’s awareness of the form. It was interesting to note how the ribs, which were literally driven into the wall,seemed to emerge directly from the borders of the room, as if laminated extensions of the wall were probing the surrounding space.

The three works Puryear exhibited each involved a dynamic relationship between formal construction and life experience. In Some Lines for Jim Beckwourth, 1978, seven strips of untanned leather were hung on a long wall, almost as if to form a musical staff from which one might “read” or “sing” forgotten stories. This piece paid homage to a former slave who became a tribal chief. Some Tales, 1975–78, is a beautiful, graphic work consisting of six pieces of various natural woods (pine, oak, ash, and hickory) assembled on the wall like some kind of ancient writing. In this work, which also suggests a magical tool wielded by shamans, biomorphic curves predominate, highlighting the wood’s malleable and supple qualities. In the center of the room stood Vessel, 1997. The lower part of this large, skeletal wooden structure, which resembled at once a mysterious animal and the remains of a vessel, was sunk into a mound of earth, as if a ship had run aground. Looking closely, one discovered that depressions and protuberances in the soil formed an image—a face or a mask reminiscent of Easter Island idols.

All the works in the show contained a strong mythological element, but the manner of sculpting the wood varied widely. The two sculptors do have one important thing in common: both seem to be moving in a graphic or linear direction, as if they are trying to write or draw with wood. This explains the tendency to favor empty volumes rather than solids, but also what seems to be an appeal to the viewer to assume an active role. These works suggest a multiplicity of viewpoints that arc both visual and metaphorical.

Massimo Carboni

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.