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Medicine Man: Martin Puryear at FW Modern

I took my 3-D design class over to
see the Martin Puryear retrospective at the FW Modern the other day. puryear87.jpgIt’s
pretty spectacular. 20 years ago, he was one of those artists so ubiquitous,
and traditional to my teenage eyes, that I couldn’t muster much interest. Not
being particularly crafty, though I was studying sculpture I didn’t look to him
much for inspiration – though then (and a little bit still), some part of me
sort of longed to have some defined material discipline. Back then, I had Nauman, Kosuth,
and Beuys more on my brain. In any case, Puryear’s honed material sense is the
central pleasure to be found in his work, and made for a concise master class in formal sculptural concepts. 

The show is arranged
chronologically, which benefits the older, almost overly familiar stuff. You
get to see it in relation to the later pieces, and how earlier ideas develop
and get embellished upon. We all have certain shapes, gestures, visual ideas
that we return to again and again, that obsess us. Puryear has this certain
lyrical blob form that runs right through. It seems so Platonic that it
probably can be described with some algorithm, the Golden Mean or something. It
is certainly pleasing to gaze upon; and more than that. puryearblob.jpgThe physicality of this
work is its signature quality; its size in relation to your own body, and to
the spaces the pieces sit within. This is increasingly apparent in the later
galleries. Earlier, you can see Puryear developing techniques and his visual
language at a relatively smaller scale. The work just gets larger and larger,
until “Desire” simply dwarfs you and everything else in the museum.

A huge 20’ wheel is attached by an
arm to a central pivot, all made of wood, poised as if ready to grind the karmic
grist in your psyche’s mill. A number of the later works deftly evoke this kind
of poetic free association. It’s distinctly romantic stuff, solidly in the
modern tradition. What distinguishes its contemporaneity is in part the fact that
Puryear is the only black sculptor of A-list significance in his or any
preceding generation, and that his studies as an emerging artist in Africa
illuminate everything he’s produced. The earlier work most obviously alludes to giant,
antiquated, “first culture” hand tools: saws, bows, digging sticks, grinding
stones. Later, sculptures get more elaborate, and resemble mysterious ghostly machine
relics from a lost civilization of titans.


There is the distinct ash-y flavor of
poignant loss in these works. Their gaze is planted firmly behind us, into a
past of indigenous tradition, ritual, and connection to ancestors and place – or at least to some archetypal realm where these things still dimly glow.
Our own civilization’s clear and increasing alienation from just these things is embodied in
these useless fetish objects, thrown into an uncomfortable relief: we feel everything
we’ve left behind, traded in for nuclear power, cell phones, silicon chips, CAT
scans, and Ambien. Here is this guy, out sensitively crafting these soul-activating,
mind-kneading, time-traveling talismans, defiantly resisting the pull of our
sci-fi present, much less the gleeful proclamations of the futurists who say
our descendent’s fates lie in deep space and nano-tech. I’d call it a noble, even visionary calling.



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