Society Defined in Shapes

Martin Puryear has penetrated the art world hierarchy in a subtle, courageous journey, carving through the corridors of power to reveal a highly sophisticated message about Art. He also offers the viewer a message that explores racism in the U.S. — a rare expression of moral outrage whispered in masterfully skilled and beautifully constructed sculpture with metaphor, whimsy and deep commitment to visual art in these times.
While researching for this article I found in-depth analyses going back to the 70‘s in Art Forum by Judith Kirschner and John Ash. Puryear’s work exists on several levels. One is the abstract imagery superbly crafted with metaphorical references to African huts and totems, primitive utilitarian objects like baskets, cooking and planting tools, and imaginative constructions that shelter. Another is the playful characterization on the Black experience in a White man’s world.

Face Down, 2008. Courtesy of the artist. © Martin Puryear, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics

While the drawings and prints are in and of themselves Art, they are also the artist’s way of working out his sculpture. In them we see the marks, mistakes, erasures, and multiple ideas translated onto paper.
Martin Puryearʼs “Multiple Dimensions,” the recent exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago is about the soul felt love of material and human life. It lifts the veil of hypocrisy about a free country for all in America. Puryearʼs drawings and sculpture remind us of a time before political correctness, diversity, racial discussions were popular culture.
With the skill of a master, Puryear transformed wood into sculpture as he experienced the life of people in Sierra Leone while working for the Peace Corps in 1978. In the first rooms are 20-plus careful contour drawings (rendered on napkins and brown wrapping paper) of women, men and children that Puryear met in Africa while teaching English and Biology. There are two ways of looking at these works: the initial drawings (figurative, botanical, framed Western style renderings describing a human face, a child, shelter and trees) and the abstract, mysterious, haunting sculpture which came after the drawings. They represent two worlds of seeing, two ways of approaching reality, sometimes in opposition but always successful as works of Art.
In 1966–68 Puryear studied at the Swedish Academy of Art. Woodworking skills used in boat building that he learned there are employed in many of his works on view today. Rune Stone, commemorating Puryearʼs walking trek through Norway and Sweden in the 70ʼs harks back to Scandinavian memorial stones. Shaped like earlier heads of his work, these heads reappear throughout Puryearʼs oeuvre. Phrygian looks like soft sculpture, it could be foam, or hollowed out wood, even the folds in the cap look natural. Closer examination reveals the solid red cedar meticulously shaped like the cloth it is meant to evoke. Phrygianʼs grand entrance appears in the painted red cedar from a distance. Surprisingly it is possible to view it in this gallery.
During my second visit to the exhibition, I overheard two men talking about the books enclosed in a glass case — the Jean Toomer books that are difficult and important reading for a white person, like me. “What did you pay for yours? …At one time you could get a Puryear from her… I called her yesterday, …not a chance. Do I have to look at this?” he asked referring to the books by Jean Toomer. Toomer won the highest literary achievement of the Harlem Renaissance writing a masterpiece of African American writing, a blend of fiction, poetry and drama set in rural Georgia and Washington, D.C. “Cane” is a tragic story about Becky, from the South, a white woman who carried and bore a Black man’s child. Toomey’s stories are memorials to women who bore the brunt of racial discrimination in the deep South.
Puryear would come to sculpture from his drawing, for they were his way of developing an idea, working it out on paper. He said it was a different way of incising, “a kind of carving that got me to how things are made.” Certainly the impeccable craftsmanship present in his sculpture belies being called only craft. They are raised to a level of Fine Art reminiscent of the time before the industrial revolution when utilitarian objects were made with careful unselfconscious imagining — when the dichotomy or the digression between Art and Craft was unknown or suffered. Exhibiting the openness of ideas, Puryear enjoys working with opposition and the fertility of co-existence between oppositional forces like gravity and weightlessness.

Untitled, 2009. Courtesy of the artist. © Martin Puryear,courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery. Photography by Jamie Stukenberg, Professional Graphics

Jug drawings, drypoint with brush and gray wash, are eerily reminiscent of Shackled and Face Down in their head shape. Quadron, a soft ground etching and aquatint, refers to a mixed race person, a historically charged notion. This piece suggests submission, sacrifice, abasement and, for all its masterful execution of materials, terror. The drawing for Bearing Witness later becomes a welded bronze plate, on permanent exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, in Washington, D.C.
In the final stage of development, although what meets the eye looks perfect, they are not, as Puryear said. Given the nature of some of the wood the artist employs, rosewood, cedar and tulip poplar, it is the artist’s conscious intent not to highlight his maverick workmanship.
Puryearʼs work is easily absorbed into the mind as they are reminders of something unnamed. What is difficult to digest is the content of works for Becky, whose story is poetically told by Jean Toomer.

Annie Markovich, Chicago Editor

Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 38-39

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