The Infinite and Infinitesimal

The Infinite and Infinitesimal

Leonardo Drew won’t say what his work means. He’d rather let you figure it out.
Leonardo Drew at Brooklyn Studio

In his Brooklyn studio, Leonardo Drew assembles richly textured mixed-media sculptures that are as detailed as they are immense. 

Michael O'Neill

When we look at an enigmatic artwork, it’s tempting to read its title for clues. It’s for this very reason that Leonardo Drew has always identified his pieces by number rather than name.

“What I’m feeling, what I’m going through, why I create – it’s not as important as your experience as a viewer,” says Drew, who has been making mixed-media sculptures for more than 25 years. For almost a decade, his main material has been wood – planks, roots, branches, small fragments – that he cuts, paints, burns, and otherwise manipulates for a weathered effect, then assembles into wall compositions, large freestanding structures, and room-size installations. “There should be some complicity between an artist and the people taking in the art,” he continues. “I do feel deeply about allowing viewers to realize themselves, allowing the work to act as a mirror to reflect back on them. If I told you exactly how I was feeling about the work, then, in effect, you would only go there. You would not allow yourself to explore.”

So take a wander through Drew’s woods. Be warned: They’re deep and vast, and you may get lost before you find yourself. But it’s a wondrous trip, filled with startling, strangely beautiful visions.

Art critics have called some of them “dystopian” and “apocalyptic,” evocative of the ruins of war, disaster, and industrial decline. Others suggest organic erosion and decay over time. What might grab you first is their powerful physical presence. Get closer, and it’s the detail that astonishes, the hundreds and thousands of pieces Drew arranges into intricate, ordered chaos.

In his wall pieces, small components often are packed in loose grids that resemble landscapes or densely populated cities viewed from above. These works are themselves walls, built by a craftsman the way nature would build them. We confront them head-on, can’t see around them, can only imagine the world beyond. Yet on their seemingly impenetrable surfaces, disparate elements stand out, events erupt. Something big happens, and it’s not about little things anymore. Here’s a hole, signaling disruption, dissent, a connection to the other side. Over there is a thrust point, where pieces break out, escape, try to fly.

A similar tension animates Drew’s looming three-dimensional structures, which have the feel of a barricade or massive beaver dam. The angle of the base is one of support, though it’s fragile and unstable, barely able to contain or ward off the action and energy within and without. His works on paper, depicting poetic images such as a tree trunk with gnarled roots visible underground, seem more serene, personal, internal. And then there are his installations, whole walls hung with a multitude of separate pieces, each one unique. It’s as if the artist were deconstructing one of his own compositions, telling us: Don’t focus on the overall complexity; look at the individuals – the parts.

So is Drew’s art a statement on the place of the individual in an ordered, constrictive society? A story of energy and matter, the cycle of birth, life, death, regeneration? A contemplation of overwhelming forces we can’t control? Again, he’s content to let us speculate. 

“Worlds within worlds, right?” he says, offering a hint. “Think in terms of the infinite and the infinitesimal. Think in those terms and then you’ll get it. There is micro space, and there is outer space. All of these things can be worked, but you have to realize that they are part of you. You are not separate from them. We are a part of nature, and you’ve got to let these things flow through you. So I think bigger.” 

While he prefers mystery in his creations, the artist himself is engaging, an easy mix of earnest and irreverent, with a big, infectious laugh. He thinks of his work as an expression both of himself – his background, experiences, “things I don’t have to call on, because they’re just there” – and larger, if not overt, influences such as his African American heritage and the human history and zeitgeist we all share.

Born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1961, he grew up in the projects of Bridgeport, Connecticut, during the political and social upheaval of the ’60s and ’70s – “some very moving times. Even if you were young, you felt it.” He inherited his artistic gift from his father, who liked to sketch, while his mother, a nurse, gave him his drive and work ethic. His name was prophetic: Leonardo drew, constantly. “My mother used to try to stop me. She’s a force of nature, and she couldn’t make me stop,” he remembers. “In school, they would give me a test paper, and I would flip it over and start drawing. I was always in trouble.”

His art talent was so formidable that people took notice, and at 13, Drew started exhibiting paintings at local venues. Soon he was being courted by the likes of DC and Marvel comics and Heavy Metal magazine, and on track to success as an illustrator. After seeing the paintings of Jackson Pollock, however, he resolved to pursue artmaking in a more personally meaningful way. He moved to New York City and got his BFA at the Cooper Union in 1985. By the decade’s end, he had earned a quiet reputation in the art world for work that demonstrated a profound engagement with materials. Part of his inspiration, he says, was the landfill he’d seen from every window of his family’s apartment growing up – “God’s mouth,” he once called it, “the beginning and the end. Talk about the essence of us – it’s right there, in those places, all the things that travel through us, that we’ve experienced, not only physically but spiritually.” In 1989, a Manhattan gallery exhibited his wall hanging Number 8, a thick tangle of wood, paper, rope, and feathers, along with such unlikely elements as animal hides and carcasses. It was a critical sensation; today, it’s seen as a seminal work.

Since then he has explored materials ranging from cast paper to rusted metal and been featured in museums and galleries around the world. Based in Brooklyn, he travels during the summer to Northern California, where friends own land, to gather his raw stuff, like the “monstrous” tree root that made its way into a recent piece. Today, he’s satisfied with wood; who knows what’s next? “It’s not like I try to put a cap on my creative process and materials.”

Now in his 50s, he continues to grow and evolve. “Just like the Grand Canyon or a redwood tree, we’re layered, right? Rings have been added.”

Home and studio have been one and the same for Drew his entire adult life; he works constantly, obsessively. “There’s no separation between how I approach my work and how nature decides that it’s going to carve a mountain,” he says. “I don’t sleep at all,” he half-jokes, “but who needs it?” A cinephile, he keeps films playing on multiple TVs around the studio while he works, either on a classic-movie channel or from his collection of more than 3,000 titles: “It keeps me in touch with another way of creating.” His favorite directors include Terrence Malick, “for his quiet but powerful resonance,” and Stanley Kubrick, “for his systematic constructs,” working in separate parts that come together to create a whole. 

“I’ve known lots of artists who are totally devoted to their craft, and Leonardo is that. But more than anything, he’s an explorer. What he’s looking for is the process, the journey,” says Richard Shebairo, Drew’s close friend and accountant. “In the early years, he would make these fabulous pieces and cannibalize them to make other pieces,” Shebairo recalls. “It was never about the object itself, but the exploration of materials, the challenges he would set up for himself and figure out how to overcome, constantly pushing to something new and unimagined. He goes where the experiment takes him. There is a path he hasn’t fully discovered, that has no end. And we get to join him on the trail.”

Having begun his voyage at a relatively young age, Drew still empathizes with aspiring artists and understands the quest to find one’s voice. “If you’re in school, try to glean as much as possible from that,” he advises. “But also know when to get rid of the excess that will keep you from the big reveal – the one we’re always trying to reach out to, and capture. The answer should be one that is elusive, yes, but in some way, in your mind, achievable. You should imagine that you can get at it. But the fact is – I just tell you honestly – you never get it,” he says, bursting into laughter.

He pushes forward nonetheless and recently went to China to collaborate with artisans on cast and tricolor-glazed ceramic versions of his sculptures.

“It’s an ongoing journey. I keep imagining the next thing, and there it is, right in front of me.”