On ViewMckee Gallery
May 3 – June 29, 2012
When I think of Martin Puryear’s work, I think of its exquisite nature in relationship to our contemporary history, and of the benevolent yet fierce spirit that each piece generates. His interests are unlike those in his generation who focus on identity, culture, and history, and who utilize, however complex or simply, a set repertoire of images as either overtly expressive or justifiably ironic statements. Instead, Puryear’s sculpture has always appeared breathtakingly subtle while remaining firmly memorable.
The secret to Puryear’s pictorial strength and invention of form, I have always felt, is in his resistance to the ongoing distractions of the external world, which allows him freer thoughts. His modest and immense ambition is tempered by a broad worldview and a conception of time conditioned by an awareness of the past, present, and a sense of rhythm. Like the Blues, a form typically structured by a call-and-response progression of three different chords, Puryear seems to embody the tripartite condition: a point of departure, a moment of rest, and the interval in between.
The artist’s incorporation of folk techniques mirrors the development of the diddley bow (after which Bo Diddley named himself). A crude, one-stringed instrument originating in West Africa and typically considered “entry level,” the diddley bow played a significant role in the transference of African performance techniques into America’s early instrumental vocabulary; the rural American South of the 1930s, for example, saw the advent of sliding pieces of metal or glass along stringed instruments, which had historically been plucked to produce sound (this innovation would eventually advance to the modern slide guitar). Similarly, Puryear incorporated his deep attraction to the traditional techniques of weaving, pottery making, cloth dyeing, and especially joinery and wood craftsmanship, from local woodworkers and ebony carvers during his mid-1960s Peace Corps stint in Sierra Leone, before undertaking more complex issues in three-dimensional form. One has this sense that Puryear is in a profound search for some sort of DNA without illustrating any step of the way.
Without losing a beat since his 2007 – 2009 retrospective, organized by John Elderfield, Puryear took the very last piece created for the seminal exhibition, “Ad Astra”—constructed with two found vintage wagon wheels, a built geometric form resembling something between the truncated polyhedron in Dürer’s “Melancholia” and samurai armor, and a carved sapling tree rising upward over 60 feet—as the jumping off point for two prominent pieces in his current show at McKee Gallery. The first is “Hominid” (2007 – 11); the other is “The Load” (2012), featuring two found wheels that carry a gridded wooden cube structure and a long harness pole, which instead of thrusting upward like “Ad Astra” or the smaller, less abstract version, “The Rest” (2009 – 10), is balanced and resting on a center prop. Filling the interior of the gridded cube is a white sphere painted half way around, exposing the structural strips of wood converging in the rear center. A dark, semi-translucent glass disk is inserted into the sphere, converting the whole into a giant eyeball, evoking Odilon Redon’s possibly transgressive political statement against Darwinian evolutionist theory, “Eye-Balloon” (1878). Peering through the glass, one struggles to gain a clear vision between the viewer’s reflection and the elaborate interior infrastructure, which resembles Gothic rib vaulting. The effect is disorienting. As with the eyeball/sphere/glass/wood employed in “The Load”—for drama or emphasis—Puryear will occasionally combine two distinct materials of extreme contrast (nearly identical to “Hominid” is “Vehicle for Reflection” (2012), where large is transformed to small and pine to steel and walnut).
As is often the case with Puryear, newer works are generative leaps from older works, such as the particularly significant “Scrolling” (2011) and “Balance” (2012), having evolved from “Pride’s Cross” (1988) and “Malediction” (2006 – 07). A couple of other important inclusions in this exhibition are “Night Watch” (2012) and “Heaven Three Ways/Exquisite Corpse” (2011), which to me reveal two sides of Puryear’s sensibility. On the one hand, he is a keen observer and lover of modern art, manifested threefold in the title of the latter work: the bottom spiral recalls Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International”; the top features the relatively small, saw tooth-like form that gradually reduces to a point as it moves upward, undoubtedly evoking Brancusi’s “Endless Column” and “Le Coq”; finally, what connects them in the middle is a thick cord-like line anchored atop the spiral and extending vertically with sizable distance, only to turn horizontally in one direction like an arm curling around in an embrace. The white bronze piece allows a rare and playful chance for the artist to utilize the famous Surrealist’s game.
Puryear is also deeply invested in the power of poetic images that spring from a collective consciousness and the selective memory of his past experience. “Night Watch” seems to allude to the artist’s reminiscences of Sierra Leone, Sweden, and Japan—a tri-national, cross-cultural synthesis registered in the spirit of the maker, for whom every detail is addressed with equal and absolute attentiveness. What seems to exist is a personal belief that perceives formality, naturalness, and ease as one indivisible unit. The slight alterations or irregular treatments that appear in such subtle degrees draw us closer to the work, and the sense of intimacy is increasingly amplified each time one re-experiences Puryear’s individuated shapes. Minute shifting occurs in the placement of form, as in “Night Watch,” where hundreds of holes—with identical diameters and spaced by more or less equivalent intervals—were drilled for the lanky willow whips to be inserted into; yet one notices countless holes overlapping one another that had been filled, cut flush, then re-drilled rather spontaneously. One has the feeling that the artist began in the middle and planted his willow sticks outward in all directions, with the result being as fluid as the wind blowing through a field of saplings. And while the two opposing diagonals on one side of the supporting hexagonal logs in “Hominid” are opposed to the other perpendicular side, enhancing its sense of disequilibrium, in “Vehicle for Reflection,” a small indentation at the top of one cross-bar structure gives the illusion of perfect balance in motion.
Walking away, I contemplated how rare it is to see works that allow us to experience the artist’s fullest pleasure in making his objects. Even more rare, in our present time, is the presence of the artist’s hand with the capacity to signify a possible and profound democracy obtainable with thoughtful reflection. Puryear’s current show proves that the geography of his imagination is a result of perpetual curiosity and patience, and that history is in fact part of the contemporary condition. Puryear is a Delta Blues master who has the singular will of a samurai and a carpenter who adores his tools.
745 5th Ave // New York, NY