Martin Puryear

at Donald Young

Martin Puryear, who received a MacArthur genius grant in 1989, is best known for his contemporary yet timeless carved-wood sculpture. A trained craftsman–he built guitars, furniture, and canoes in his youth and learned African woodworking techniques as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone–Puryear combines sensitivity to materials with an acute awareness of the natural world. At a time when installations, conceptual art, found objects, and high tech rule the art universe, his abstract yet evocative forms have a quiet dignity, revealing themselves only gradually and with great subtlety. Both tactile and intellectually challenging, his pieces blend art and craft in a unique way. Formerly a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Puryear hasn’t had a solo show here in more than a decade but now has a riveting exhibit of five sculptures and 11 prints at Donald Young.

Confessional, created in the late 90s, exemplifies a recurring motif: large, headlike shapes. More than six feet high and almost four feet wide, Confessional is made of wire mesh covered with tar and includes as its “face” a wooden “door” whose chalk markings reveal the wood’s intended use in building rather than fine art. In a permutation of the church confessional’s small interior screen, which allows the passage of secrets, the wire-and-tar surface is enveloping yet nearly impenetrable, a patchwork that combines wire of different gauges and only occasionally provides a glimpse of the interior. A small step blocks the door and makes the interior seem even less accessible. A cube has been cut from the door and attached in another place on the upper left, while a small round hole echoes a curved, hornlike “handle” next to it. Musing on abstract shapes, Confessional both excludes viewers and invites them into this enclosed space, which is visible but unreachable. This confessional will never work, but its fluctuating meanings evoke the mysteries of the human mind.

An untitled piece from 2005 resembles Confessional in size and shape, but its white pine “door” is only about two feet high. Three bowllike “holes”–thick layers of wood stacked vertically, glued, and carved to protrude into the interior–form the facial features. The “head” is a cage of openwork wire and fraying rattan, which creates a hairy aura. I found myself wanting to caress the intricately crafted work, whose wooden surfaces have been sanded to skin’s smoothness.

A Distant Place (2005) uses basswood, yellow pine, white pine, and maple burl in a combination of natural and architectural forms, contrasting polished geometric shapes with the knobby, irregular geography of the burl–essentially a big wart from a tree. A gray cross lying on its side supports this bulbous natural form while a long pole like a 14-foot lancet emerges from it. The lancet’s base, nestled into the top of the burl, is a box perforated by cutouts that connect to one another in the box’s center, creating circular, rectangular, and square tunnels of machinelike precision. The houselike box seems a metaphor for civilization, which rests on the foundation of the primordial. A Distant Place asks the viewer to reflect on how such a sophisticated form, the wooden column, could be made from this irregular, bark-covered material.

Le Prix (2005), which translates as “the prize” or “the price,” also includes a long, slender column, but here it’s curved and resembles a neck–in fact Puryear has made “neck and body” sculptures for almost 20 years. Ten feet tall and made of yellow pine fashioned into chain links, the column ends in a ring resembling a face and emerges from a rounded body resembling a snail shell. This zoomorphic form is much more familiar than the strange conglomeration of shapes in A Distant Place–and just as inviting to the touch.

An untitled work from the late 90s–another neck-and-body piece–sits alone in a far gallery. Made of pine, cypress, ash, and rope, it resembles the wooden skeleton of some unknown creature–one viewer suggested the Loch Ness monster. In some ways unassuming, the piece is like a living form, perhaps a dinosaur or a horse (there’s definitely a rump), but with a twist: a rope hangs from the end of the arched neck, suspending a wooden ball just above the ground. Suggesting a pendulum or a plumb line, this incongruous element begs to be swung like a tether ball, while the 12-foot-high work as a whole looks like a piece of playground equipment. Still, the suggestion of a head dangling by a thread and the idea of the plumb line, which reveals depth or true vertical alignment, are sobering. The construction is careful and clean, with wooden slats and semicircles riveted together.

Many of the prints show images resembling Puryear’s sculptures, but there are also woodcuts on handmade paper, used as illustrations for a special 2000 edition of Jean Toomer’s 1923 Cane, a Harlem Renaissance work whose combination of poetry, fiction, and drama redefined the novel. Puryear’s forms are largely abstract but suggest various real-life counterparts: a rising sun, the ring patterns of trees, a drooping head or seedpod on a slender neck or stem. The project, for which Puryear also made wooden slipcases for 50 of the 400 books, was a good match for the sculptor, whose mix of materials, shapes, and techniques resembles Toomer’s eclectic mix of forms.

In 1989 Puryear was commissioned by the Chicago Park District and the Art Institute’s B.F. Ferguson Monument Fund to create a sculpture memorializing Jean Baptiste Point DuSable for a park being designed in the explorer’s honor. It proved a project fraught with difficulty for an artist who works largely with abstractions: though no one knows what DuSable looked like, the Chicago DuSable League has consistently argued for a representational statue. Puryear has created various designs, but none has been made public. This show, however, gives Chicagoans the rare opportunity to see a contemporary master at his best.

When: Through Sat 2/11: Tue-Fri 10-5:30, Sat 11-5:30

Where: Donald Young, 933 W. Washington

Price: Free

Info: 312-455-0100

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom Van Eynde/courtesy Donald Young Gallery.