Perhaps the most astonishing thing in an expansive and engaging retrospective of the work of the African American sculptor, Martin Puryear, at the Parasol Unit is the sentence that opened the exhibition’s press release. This show, four decades into the career of one of America’s most consistently moving, if least self-aggrandising, artists, was Puryear’s first London solo exhibition. Better late than never is perhaps the most generous way to interpret the lack of attention Puryear has received at last in London, but if the past cannot be changed, then at least one may hope the future will be brighter. This is a sentiment the works of Puryear often evoke: an awareness of a dark, brutal historical lineage wedded to a determined sense of looking forward, and to the acceptance of forms of grace and transcendence.
The first floor of the Parasol Unit exhibition presented three sterling examples of this quality in Puryear’s work. “Big Phrygian” (2010-14) is recognisable to those familiar with the iconography of the French Revolution as a sartorial symbol of commitment to liberation, a hat favoured by the revolutionary classes evoking the historical dress of Anatolia. The work is human-sized (in the sense of being the size of a human rather than a size suitable for a human head) and this bespeaks the flair for the surrealistic that also characterises Puryear’s best and most multifaceted works. There is, of course, something comic about a person-sized sculpture of a hat that could be more suited to hiding bodies in than being worn, but when one ponders this notion, that the symbols of our liberation can overwhelm us, and that perhaps become exactly the kind of monolithic shibboleths that revolutions seek to overthrow, the joke takes on a more melancholic character. The dynamics of presence and concealment are also present in other works, notably the displaced field of reeds that sat on an elevated structure near the entrance to the ground floor gallery. The dynamics of safety, fear and concealment are inscribed in the piece, summoning a range of references including the famous spiritual song “Go Down Moses”, a song about another heroic figure concealed in reeds whose capacity to obscure himself became a means of liberation for others. Placed, as the work was, beside a massive iron work entitled, “Shackled” (2014), the metaphoric resonance deepens. Puryear’s work is too polyglot to be reducible to single meanings, and in works like “The Load” (2012) he seems to gesture toward the creation of a new form of doltish retrofuturism—Frontier Punk, an aspiring young fantasy writer might dub it—in which a structure similar to a wagon or tumbril houses an odd, orb-like object that seems to peer out of the American past into its appalling present.
The exhibition also included a series of drawings as well as the aforementioned large scale sculptural works. Thus, Puryear’s first London solo exhibition offered a trove of materials to pour through for insight into his process as well as the fruits of his cognitive labours. Like all retrospectives, even ones which provide the kind of airy, wide-angled view of the artist as this one, there is much more to be said about and seen in Puryear’s art; one must hope this was the first of many solo exhibitions here in The Smoke dedicated to it.