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Arts & Culture

Sculptor, Bridgeport Native Leonardo Drew's 'Monstrosities' Gets An Exhibition At The Wadsworth

Abstract sculptor Leonardo Drew is returning to his Connecticut roots with a new exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Two Projects includes an outdoor installation on the front lawn of the Hartford museum and two works inside.Drew’s sculptures are distinctive. Bits of raw material -- often wood, metal, paper and fabric -- are fused together to form shapes that at first glance seem familiar and complete. But African American sculptor Drew also gives the viewer a sense that these shapes are unraveling, falling apart or even exploding.

And the works are often massive. The lobby of the Wadsworth Atheneum is dominated by his latest work, a 24-foot-tall sculpture made of splintered plywood and paint. It’s titled Number 82S. Drew jokingly calls it a “monstrosity,” in part because he “frankensteined” material from other works in his studio to make the sculpture. Same for the other indoor work at the Wadsworth.

He admits that he’s drawn to building large pieces.

“I will create work based on the height of my space,” Drew explained. “This actually matches up to ceiling height. So even if I couldn’t lay it out, I knew I was going to create something up to that near 30 feet. I know that in a lot of ways psychologically, that where I am working is actually dictating how I am creating the work.”

Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
The lobby of the Wadsworth Atheneum is dominated by Leonardo Drew's latest work, a 24-foot-tall sculpture made of splintered plywood and paint. It’s titled Number 82S.

Drew wryly adds that when artists create a large work, they need to make sure they can get it through the door when they are finished. He said he made that mistake only once.

Drew lives and works in Brooklyn, but he grew up in Bridgeport. He had his first art exhibition at the age of 13, while still a student at St. Anthony of Padua School. He says his early art was inspired by illustrator Norman Rockwell, the Wyeths and by comic book art.

In fact, in his early 20s his drawings caught the attention of both DC and Marvel comics. He said he could have gone the illustration route, but something, or more precisely, someone got in the way.

Credit Courtsey Randy Dodson, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Artist Leonardo Drew

“I got surprised, I go into the library and I see a book on Jackson Pollock, and it was like, that is enough,” said Drew. “His work is super powerful, super charged, and probably the only thing that would have gotten me to sort of challenge my facility. It was a slap in the face.”

And so, inspired by the work of the abstract expressionist painter, Leonardo Drew transitioned from illustration to abstract sculpture.

“The things that I was really good at -- color, drawing, painting -- those things I could no longer do, or wouldn’t allow myself to do,” he said. “So, it was necessary to go either black or white, the opposite. So, from the black works I created these wall-mounted shapes. I’m still doing wall-mounted sculpture, but it had its beginnings right there. When you get really comfortable with how you make things, then do you decide to stamp it as ‘this is what I do, my signature is this’? Or do you say, ‘What else is out there?’ So, for me, it was always what if?”

As well as challenging himself, Drew also challenges the viewer. Like his hero Pollock, he numbers most of his works, rather than giving them a suggestive title.

Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Leonardo Drew's interactive outdoor installation at the Wadsworth, City in the Grass.

“They’re numbered so it allows you, the viewer, to participate in completing the work. You have to have an experience, I shouldn’t have to tell you how to think about what you are seeing,” he said. “A lot of artists will stamp the work and say ‘this is what you should be seeing,’ and that’s in the title. These works are not titled, they’re numbered. When you step in front of it, it becomes a mirror, and you should see yourself.”

The Wadsworth exhibit features Drew’s first outdoor installation. City in the Grass was commissioned for New York City’s Madison Square Park in 2019. The work is interactive; passersby are encouraged to climb on the rolls of metal decorated to look like a Persian rug.

Drew’s work has been shown at galleries and museums around the world, including the Guggenheim in New York City, The Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C, and London’s Tate Gallery. The 60-year-old artist says what ties all of his work together is a sense of spontaneity.

“You have to get that. You have to capture that in the actual work. If you can get that, then the work is even heavier, more powerful. There’re all of these mistakes, or things that occur by happenstance as you are creating, as you are moving forward, and you want to be able to see that. If you plan it all out on paper and then do it, then you have already siphoned off a good deal of the energies of the work, you know?”

Leonardo Drew’s outdoor installation is on view through Nov. 14. His two indoor sculptures will be on display through Jan. 2.

Credit Tyler Russell / Connecticut Public
Connecticut Public
Leonardo Drew's outdoor installation on the lawn of the Wadsworth Atheneum.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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