Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sticks and stones and tar and rawhide.

I like the way SFMOMA uses it’s atrium to hint at the special exhibits hidden inside the museum. Last time I was there it was Olafur Eliasson’s crazy fan. This time, it was two dizzying works by Martin Puryear: Ladder for Booker T. Washington (1996) and Ad Astra (2007), a 63-foot tall sculpture that rises all the way to the museum’s fifth floor. You’ve got to have a big museum to show these works. And I still wanna know how they moved this exhibit from New York to San Francisco.

After the lobby, you don’t see another Puryear sculpture for the next four floors. You almost forget the dramatic nature of the sculptures. Finally, as you cross that scary mesh metal walkway to the fifth floor galleries, you’re ushered into the strange and beautiful world of Martin Puryear. These monumental, contemplative works are intricately crafted from wood, stone, tar, and rawhide.

The sculptures are all about craftsmanship taken to astonishing heights. They also feel strangely historical and seem to speak to personal or cultural identity. A perfect example is Self. This monolithic wood sculpture was created by covering an armature with a smooth, rounded shell. The armature was then removed leaving a void that the viewer cannot see, only imagine.

Much of Puryear’s work is about defining space and creating containment. Take Brunhilde (1998-2000). The basket-like sculpture made from wooden slats seems ready to burst in its effort to contain space. I loved the thousands of staple holes, remnants of the effort required to create the shape.

Even the presentation of the exhibition seems designed to reflect Puryear’s understanding of space. This show is beautiful. The open expanses of SFMOMA’s fifth floor are a perfect environment for the sculptures. And a perfect place to escape.

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