Since he began making sculpture in the late 1960s, Martin Puryear has shaped a form of experience between art viewing and totemic reverence. His works’ obliqueness has prompted writers to read them as traces of Puryear’s formative experiences: for instance how his rare deftness at shaping wood – here cedar, ebony, hickory, maple, pear, pine, poplar, willow and African blackwood – derives from his experiences of Swedish and Sierra Leonean craft traditions, or how his works’ obduracy feeds back to the debate about the art object that preoccupied East Coast discourse when the artist was a student.
At Parasol Unit, works are displayed across two floors, with the main ground-floor space occupied by larger-than-life-sized sculptures made between 1993 and 2014. Without exception they are closed forms, albeit with different degrees of inwardness. Night Watch (2011) looms over the visitor, a mass of tall, tightly-packed grasses bowed by the wind and embedded in a table top – an unsettling vision of hoarded supply. By contrast, Brunhilde (1998–2000), a benign cage of interlaced cedar and rattan, exemplifies Puryear’s method of ‘drawing in space’ – as the artist once described That Profile (1999) – his monumental outdoor commission for the Getty Center. Like that work, Untitled (1995) calls to mind the shrunken head of a tailor’s dummy. Composed of black tar laid over wire mesh and supported on a cedar ‘neck’, the image stakes out the artist’s African American identity with quiet power while maintaining allusions to Constantin Brâncuși, as well as the trio of metaphysicians: Carlo Carrà, Giorgio Morandi, and Giorgio de Chirico, whose lexicon of impenetrable signs christened the modern gallery ‘an immense museum of strangeness’.
Upstairs, this humanoid form is cast in bronze, its surface miming wood grain. Set on a plinth across from Shackled (2014), a black iron hook, the artist’s shift in media marks a gear change. Awaiting a manacled slave, Shackled, with its smooth curves, makes clear that the absence of human presence in Puryear’s work is the root of its social and political force. This is especially vivid when the artist makes explicit the issue of race, as in earlier works including Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996), a terrifying rickety ladder that tapers as it makes its precarious ascent. Also displayed here are several monochrome woodcuts printed to accompany an edition of Jean Toomer’s masterwork of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane (1923). The imagery of roots predominates in this series, and Karintha (2000) – with its solitary, drooping cotton boll – is a piercing image of drought on Southern soil, and one of the artist’s principal leitmotifs.
The issue of human liberty is often implicit in Puryear’s work and here both The Load (2012), a wooden cart bearing a caged glass orb, and Big Phrygian (2010–14), a large red pupa of painted cedar, make for universal emblems. The Phrygian cap has served as a malleable national sign since antiquity, which is appropriate for an artist of such formal and semiotic hybridity. However, as I found out this week, it is also the medical term for a folded gallbladder. Martin Puryear is a social surrealist for our times; his first solo exhibition in London is uncomfortably overdue.
Main image: Installation view, 'Martin Puryear', 2017, Parasol unit, London. Courtesy: Parasol unit, London