New York

Martin Puryear

McKee Gallery

For his latest exhibition Martin Puryear made four extraordinary sculptures. Sometimes painted black and sometimes tarred, these wooden vessels all had subliminal power, seeming like props from a mystery play while making uncanny allusions to the sacred and the profane.

Confessional, 1996–2000, for example, is composed partly of wire mesh, with the piece's billowing empty shape suggesting a place for a father figure within its structure, and a wooden platform providing a place upon which a confessor—implicitly, the viewer—may kneel. Holes in a wooden divider between the platform and the sculpture's interior would allow for conversation between the two, but neither speaker would see the other. The mesh, covered with tar—are both conjectural players tarred by guilt?—makes the form at once semitransparent and ominous and also gives the piece a painterly density. Structure and surface integrate—the tarred mesh defines the piece's outer contour, which is essentially an architectural framework—suggesting a self-contained work of art. Yet because the work offers places for performers, it suggests that some spiritual drama is unfolding.

The role of religion is less overt in Vessel, 1997–2002, but there is still a dark mystery to this skeletal structure. The sculpture is a light-colored abstract construction that contains a black figure—possibly a priest, since priests wear black, which set them apart (at least until black became fashionable and arty). Or does this standing object represent a conflicted Jonah in the belly of the whale, which the sculpture's bulging shape suggests? The visibilityof the figure does nothing to mitigate the piece's sense of enigma.

Unlike these other sculptures, Deadeye, 2002, is beautifully crafted from white pine. Yet, even here, Puryear seems to be taking aim at something (a “deadeye” is a very good shot), maybe at the morbid spirit of Vessel. The aura of demonic possession is explicit in The Nightmare, 2001–2002. This black jug threatens audiences not only because of what it might contain—perhaps something that resembles the evil creature in Henry Fuseli's famous painting of the same name—but with its womblike form. Clearly there is some sort of mystery (a heart of darkness, as it were) inside Puryear's vessels, and also in their shapes, which, however familiar, have something odd about them having to do with their appendages, holes, and lines.

Did the blackness that ran through this show refer to Puryear's racial background or, more generally, to black culture? The artist has previously acknowledged the African source of his forms and his construction methods. Or do the pieces have something to do with death, the black hues signifying suffering and the affliction of mortality? It is doubtful that Deadeye or The Nightmare could ever contain the water of life; the fatalistic Vessel and Confessional certainly don't. These speculations go beyond the formal dignity and drama of the works, but the sculptures are clearly complex. Puryear is reaching beyond his earlier refinement for a new emotional tension and directness, however mysterious its content. The vessels contain secrets, and Puryear seems to be suggesting that every secret is a sin to be confessed, with artful eloquence.

Donald Kuspit