Leonardo Drew

Palazzo delle Papesse Contemporary Art Center

“Existing Everywhere,” Leonardo Drew’s first major European exhibition, proves the New York and San Antonio–based artist to be a force of nature. The show’s thirteen installations (one per room)—obsessively ordered compositions of industriously assembled unruly bits of crude materials submitted to an accelerated natural process of degradation—displayed an exquisite, often awe-inspiring magnificence, starting with Untitled, 1998, a wall covered with a vast expanse of small rusted boxes filled with pieces of fabric, wood, rope, straw, and even lace, stretched across quadrants to display its delicate patterns amid the decadence—all covered with a patina of rust. Reminiscent of a long neglected tchotchke cabinet, it aroused the feeling of sentimentalism stirred by once disdained familiar objects now valued for their varnish of memory, evoking the fascination of ruins. In Number 92, 2003, little cast-paper objects aged by a subtle coating of rust and confined in rows of glass cubes on a tabletop resembled the old bones in religious reliquaries or natural history museums.

Canvas boxes piled into a crescendo in a corner then descending and dispersing to fill an entire room (Number 28, 1992) looked strangely at home with the Renaissance-style frescoes on the vaulted ceiling; their rusty patina played off the earthy colors of the intricately bordered images of mythological chariots. In its first exhibition, at the Thread Waxing Space, New York, this work’s associations were very different: In a former industrial space with its infrastructure exposed, the pile seemed the refuse of industrial production, or rather—placed across from huge hanging canvas apparitions with bloodlike stains—of a slaughterhouse. But here they took on the aura of antique debris in a deserted ancestral residence. Next door a squamous wall relief (Number 31A, 1999), composed mostly of the butt ends of wooden sticks and planks, looked like a gargantuan tree trunk, forcing the materials back to their natural roots in an evolutionary full circle. The most visceral installation was Number 106, 2006, a room illuminated only by the light boxes that covered an entire wall and seemed to be drenched in the inky, noisome goo of a pitch-black rain that had then been scratched off, creating an environment of hellish beauty.

Contrasting this eldritch scene, Number 103, 2006, a splendid white torrent of flying domestic objects—chair, mixer, shovel, teapot, iron, bicycle, radio, baby doll, toy gun, and shoes, all made from molded paper—hung from the ceiling of a passageway like industrial-age fossils. Nearby, Number 102, 2005, a long row of twenty-four small framed compositions of tiny rusting square compartments with assorted unidentifiable frizzy and folded materials stuck here and there, like beehives with dense coagulations of reddish brown honey, evoked the unstoppable primordial ooze seeping out of everything. Indeed, by ordering, regulating, and repeating all of these ruined elements—the detritus of consumer society—Drew conveys the evolutionary circle, a sublime yet comforting vision of the past and future all at once: the liminal wallpaper of our existence. But unlike the heaving, bombastic works of Anselm Kiefer, which also speak of ruin and decay, Drew’s compositions are intimate meditations on the rigorous, modest formality of their making. Although they also convey a melancholic romanticism, they do not employ narrative signs; they constitute their own language, one that speaks of hope and survival and the freedom of transforming what exists where we are into a new order.

Cathryn Drake