On ViewGoodman Gallery
March 16 – April 23, 2022
At the Goodman Gallery, London, Leonardo Drew presents recent examples of his ever-evolving approach to assemblage that, like 1960s eccentric abstraction, is driven by a self-referential structural logic and an openness to real-world associations. Seemingly exploded and reconfigured, the materials he uses to assemble his sculptures and reliefs—scraps of charred, painted, and beat-up wood, ragged textiles, and chips of paint and plaster—suggest the detritus of contemporary life. Yet Drew, a formalist at heart, would rather talk about how he creates his materials and compositions than any symbolic content.
There are almost no found objects in Drew’s wall and floor-mounted works. He imbues pieces of “brand new stuff” with auras of history and use through a wide variety of burning, oxidization, and distressing processes. “I become the weather,” he says of his transformative methods. “My studio is an archive of things I’ve touched and been through. The longer the work hangs around, the better off it is.” Like abstract sculptor Richard Serra and painter Imi Knoebel, Drew’s work is process driven. His images and approaches stem from the daily experience of compiling and living with materials.
The focus of the exhibition is 248A (2022), an airy and colorful assemblage work spread out over the gallery’s longest wall. Its hundreds of components—mostly irregular rectangles arranged like words on a page—range from tiny scraps of painted wood to large, rope-bedecked canvas sheets and undulating wooden forms from which sheets of splintered plywood radiate like the gills of a mushroom. Drew’s transformations of the work’s parts are rarely apparent. Rather, they appear to have broken off of some larger, mysteriously self-generated whole. There is, however, one biographical nod: comic book pages wrapping one fragment remind us that the artist, skilled at figurative drawing, was once scouted by DC and Marvel Comics.
The format of 248A feels forensic, like a buried Viking ship or a crashed airliner being pieced back together. But the stories it conjures are more quotidian, speaking to the everyday experience of things falling apart. “Entropy,” Drew says, “is the baseline of my work.” Any apparent chaos in the work, however, is undergirded by a deep-seated order.
A grid underpins the composition, which Drew says was developed by infilling between large components positioned first to serve as anchoring “points of introduction and departure.” He cites the painter Piet Mondrian, who is buried in a pauper’s cemetery near Drew’s Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, studio and home, as an abiding inspiration. Although Drew’s own constructions, which he calls “solidified jazz,” are far shaggier than his Dutch predecessor’s, both artists share an ability to balance disparate compositional elements in dynamic equilibrium. Drew’s appreciation for the ruly and the unruly, he states, also stems from his upbringing in a housing project apartment with a view to a landfill.
Other works exhibit darker, pricklier miens. Number 279 (2020) consists of hundreds of tightly packed, blackened, square-section wooden sticks extending vertically from a rounded central core resembling half an acorn. It would not seem out of place on the wall of a trophy room of a haunted house. Using all manner of sticks, boards, and dowels, Drew employs similar techniques and palettes in other works, including Number 259 (2020), an undulating, caterpillar-like entity traversing a gallery wall; Number 276 (2020), a shield-like form capped with a tentacular section of tree roots or branches; and Number 325 (2021), a vertical rectangle resembling a densely-packed dystopian cityscape divided down the middle by a white stripe of crystallized calcium carbonate. The effect of these works is uncanny. They pull light and the viewer into their craggy devices. As counterparts to the disconcerting energy of these relief works, three framed collage works on square sheets of paper use paint flaked and painted plaster chips to create lyrical, if still scruffy, studies in color and texture.
Drew, who travels widely for ideas and inspirations, views his mind and body as receivers for information. Visits to the Nazca Lines in Peru, porcelain factories in China, and cells in the former slave-trading fortress on Gorée Island in Senegal all feed into his abstract forms. Although never explicit, a social critique has always been baked into Drew’s project. For example, the cotton and rope used in early works pointed to histories of race and legacy of slavery in the US. Of this kind of legibility, however, Drew says he “got it all out” by around 1992. Today, his messages and meanings are submerged in materials and designs. The artist’s great sympathy for his humble fragments and the skill with which he amalgamates them makes his works powerful and unsettling avatars for a civilization driven by endless cycles of construction and demolition.