Artist Leonardo Drew’s explosive sculptures draw order from chaos


“I didn’t know who Leonardo was until I went to Catholic school,” says American artist Leonardo Drew. “Before that, my name had just got me beaten up at public school. So that’s one thing I owe to those nuns. The one thing . . . ”

Drew, it turned out, shared not only a title however an distinctive expertise for drawing with the Renaissance polymath, though his creative status, seamless and sustained for greater than 30 years, derives primarily from his explosive sculptural work.

Leonardo Drew in his studio © Christopher Garcia Valle

Now 61, imposingly tall and slender and often sporting a dashing leather-based cap, he has proven at main establishments together with the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and the Hammer in Los Angeles; he has a sprawling everlasting set up within the Harvey Milk terminal at San Francisco airport; and in 2019 he laid 100ft of adorned carpet in New York’s Madison Square Park — a crumpled metaphor for dwelling and sanctuary — together with a mini cityscape made out of wood blocks.

“Had to be careful there,” he says of the park, which is framed by the Flatiron and the Empire State Buildings. “You’re in the presence of monsters like that, you need to make concessions to your surroundings — or you’ll get the shit kicked out of you.”

Coloured carpets and small skyscrapers sit on the lawn of a green park amid real skyscrapers
‘City in the Grass’, Drew’s mission in Madison Square Park’ had the Flatiron and Empire State Buildings for firm © Courtesy the artist. Photo: Hunter Canning

Drew’s subsequent context is the decidedly un-park-like atmosphere of Unlimited, the part of Art Basel that takes place in a gritty hangar of a corridor and is devoted to super-scaled works. If Drew confronted iconic buildings in Manhattan, right here the neighbours will embrace Rachel Whiteread’s chic “Untitled (Stairs)” from 2001 and Isa Genzken’s creepy association of dolls below solar umbrellas from 2007. But there’s little worry that Drew’s assemblage — of a whole lot of shards of painted plywood that sputter off the wall and appear to shatter and spin throughout the ground — can be ignored. His work has a pent-up energy and magnetism, an atomised complexity that pulls viewers to it.

I first met Drew in London earlier this yr, just a few hours after he completed putting in an exhibition in Goodman Gallery’s elegant white dice. Sculptures bristled energetically on the partitions: black-coated timber usual into twisted, petrified branches; wood panels furry with finely crafted wood quills. An set up occupied the complete again wall of the lower-ground gallery: skinny sticks of painted wooden, kinds embellished with reels of tape, accretions of wood scraps, a rolled-up ivory-coloured rope carpet, all organized in a grid.

Flat wooden sculptures are stuck on a white wall
‘Number 248A’ (2022) was put in at Goodman Gallery in London © Courtesy the artist/Goodman Gallery

Though they may very well be mistaken for discovered objects, the myriad components are studio-made, with precision and care, from recent supplies, then patina’d with paints and resins, sand and rust. To set up them, he lays them throughout the ground, then mounts them one after the other. “I go in with a plan,” he says of his course of, “then you feel the space and you jump in. I become the weather and it takes shape around me.” The last impact is monumental and microscopic, a confection of order out of chaos.

Drew appeared a little bit anxious that day in London, most likely drained from his flight, presumably nervous. It was his main London debut. The subsequent time we converse, although, he’s in his studio in Brooklyn and unstoppably upbeat. He lives on his personal above the studio, a former storage constructing with 30ft-high ceilings on the bottom ground. “I don’t have much of a life,” he says merrily. “I need to be in contact with my work 24/7.” His neighbours, he says, can’t actually make him out, this rangy man in soiled overalls, who has this large constructing and has simply purchased the home subsequent door. “They’re ham-and-eggers, with regular jobs. But they love me because they get to use my parking space.”

Drew is used to chopping an uncommon determine. He was born in Talahassee, Florida in 1961, and the household moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut when he was seven. “That was when my mother threw my father out,” says Drew. Times had been laborious for him and his 4 brothers, and his obsessive drawing of superheroes didn’t impress his harried mom, although it did his mentors at the area people centre, who had his work proven on the nation golf equipment of close by Westport. This introduced Drew to the eye of executives at each DC and Marvel comics, Mad Men sorts who made the day by day commute to Manhattan. “I was this one black kid in the room, and these white guys were buying my work,” says Drew, who was then 13. “I was well-trained in race relations from an early age.”

A square made up of layers of paper scraps
‘Number 113D’ (2008)

A square made up of tiny ceramic fragments, white on the top half, coloured on the bottom
‘Number 327D’ (2022) © Courtesy the artist/Goodman Gallery. Christopher Burke (2)

If Drew hadn’t found Jackson Pollock within the native library, he would most likely be a star of comedian illustration right now. Instead, he put down his pencils and went to review at Cooper Union below Jack Whitten, the unconventional Alabama-born painter. He began working with useless animals, “to get below the prettified surface. I was thinking about death, because it’s the tough one, the unknown.” He realized to remedy hides and clear bones and by 1988 had created a piece combining blackened feathers, bones, skins and wooden that spoke of degradation and chaos and mirrored life within the tasks, the place he’d grown up, and on the streets of New York, the place he now lived. Robert Longo selected his work for a gaggle present in 1989 referred to as Young Turks. “He said, ‘You deserve the attention,’” says Drew.

Since then, Drew has labored in sequence. For some time his chosen materials was unbleached cotton, with its embedded narrative of slavery and the American South. He experimented with oxidisation on metallic and with burnishing wooden. He was impressed by journey — a visit to Gorée Island in Senegal and its blood-chilling remnants of the slave commerce; a go to to Machu Picchu resonant with the traces of the ancients.

A tall wall of dark wooden fragments rising up like a storm
‘Number 215’ (2019) © Courtesy the artist/Galerie Lelong & Co

“I have ideas, and when they’re worked out of my system, I move on. From 2004, I just worked with white paper for a while. I’d been rusting and burning things, but I found that the emotional charge of blank whiteness was just the same.” He wrapped up bicycles, and weapons, and typewriters, hanging them from strings in Boschian tangles, fetishising American life.

Traces of newer journeys can be seen in his set up at Basel. For the 4 years main as much as the pandemic, Drew had been visiting Jingdezhen, a centre of porcelain manufacturing within the north-east of China. “That was when colour started affecting my work,” he says. In 2019, for a present at Lelong gallery in New York, he created an exuberant set up (“Number 215”) of a whole lot of wood components painted with patterns then damaged, distressed and frozen in mid-flight frenzy. Passers-by had been drawn into the gallery from the road to leap round in its energetic drive area.

One day, CBS anchor Anthony Mason walked previous, and shortly afterwards Drew was in entrance of the cameras, explaining his artwork to the nation. “We all carry a collective weight,” mentioned Drew then. In Basel, he’s the one throwing it up within the air once more, seeing the place all of it lands.