Leonardo Drew Brings His Historically Charged Forms to Finland
It’s a salient moment for African-American artists in the United States, and Leonardo Drew is no exception. While he doesn’t claim to engage in the country’s recent headlines around police brutality and race relations, his works, which frequently delve into issues of mortality and decay, can now be seen in a new light.
Featured in a solo show at Helsinki’s Galerie Forsblom this month, Drew has often said that his artistic career is shaped by his experience growing up in a public housing project in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His large, tactile works are visually arresting, particularly the wall-sized Number 22F, a mixed-media installation crafted with wood, paint, and glue, and the spectacularly intricate Number 13F, made with wood, paint, and a seemingly countless number of screws. They’re also rich with symbolism, especially with respect to his use of materials. Some of these symbols may be perceptible to the viewer—as Mary Proenza of Art in America noted in a 2013 review, “his past use of such symbolically charged materials as cotton, rope, rags, and rust has been cited as referring to the antebellum South, Civil Rights struggles, and modern industrial America”—and others not. Drew’s latest works are made with wood and found objects, including tree branches, industrial scraps, paper, cotton, rust, roots, and mud.
Whether natural or manmade, these materials speak to the cycle of life, and to the inevitability of decay, even when Drew distresses the wood himself to make it appear to be weathered by time. But there’s another equally intriguing layer to the symbolism of these found materials. They were acquired by a small team of homeless people that Drew hires for the job. These pieces aren’t only layered in terms of texture, they’re thick with possible meanings and social commentary gleaned from the artist’s decades of life in a particular place and time. He refrains from much further explanation. “Take a step back; the truth is right there,” he’s said, declining to title his works with descriptors, opting instead for systematic names like Number 21F.