Rounding out the three “Ps” of SFMOMA’s current lineup is Martin Puryear. While both Participation and Passageworks are continuing on into February, the closing date for the Puryear show is imminent, so I made sure to cram a visit into an already packed Thursday night that included the Butoh performance at the Asian Art Museum and a replay of Janet Cardiff’s interactive video piece The Telephone Call (which, if you haven’t experienced yet, should be your top priority right now).
Mounted on the long wall at the exhibit entrance on the museum’s top floor is Some Tales, 1975-78, a collection of familiar seeming sculptures.
A hoe possibly. A threshing tool, a saw blade, a plow… Perhaps a crook silly-puttied into a long loop. All in fact seem elongated to the point of delicateness: set any to work and they’d snap in half in an instant. Time to look at the signage. Puryear spent a good deal of time criss-crossing the globe, and during that time he paid particular attention to “the material culture of societies… as well as the skills and trades employed there…” I’m reminded of a place my family used to go to for dinner when I was a kid back in Michigan. The Silo, unsurprisingly, was a restaurant set in a refurbished barn with an attached silo. Passing through its namesake cylinder which comprised the reception area, and staring upward toward where the ceiling was lost in the gloom was a highlight of the trip. For decoration in the dining area, dozens of farm implements had been placed on the wall, which had then, tools and all, been covered in red paint. There was something about that red paint that told the viewer that these were unmistakably props. Their usefulness was over. In fact, think of them as the idea of a tool rather than the tool itself. I wonder if Puryear’s going for something like this in Some Tales.
Old Mole, 1985 in the first room to the right of the entrance is probably the piece most of us immediately recognize as the work of Puryear. You can’t help but smile upon finding yourself in a room with it. Stepping into the first of the larger spaces of the exhibit I find my first surprise and then have a hard time walking away from it. Rawhide Cone, 1980 is just what it says and it stands in marked contrast from the cool, clean sculptures that make up the majority of the show. Its fraying, undyed material is mottled and discolored at the edges, which turn up in tattered curls.
From that point, I find myself avoiding a lot of the work that appears too easily to suggest a subject: a snail, a dinosaur, a swan or a dog. Not in the mood to give them a chance I guess. Brunhilde, 1998-2000 I like however, despite the nagging suspicion that I’m looking at a medieval hat. Made of cedar and rattan, it has an amazing feeling of lightness that alternately fills the space and then seems hardly there at all. As the signage suggests, a close look reveals that it is riddled with staple holes, especially at the sides where the lattice seems to be doubled up for strength. Right around the corner is another piece that shows how Puryear can practically create language through his skill and imagination with construction techniques. Thicket, 1990 is comprised of several layers of basswood and cypress that interlace using wedges of similar material to fill in gaps. There is something alarming about the whole, that doesn’t suggest to my mind a thorn bush at all, but rather very human constructions like barbed wire, cages, even arms thrusting guns into the air.
The final room proved my favorite. On a slightly raised platform are an assortment of objects that collectively look like the results of an excavation. For Beckwourth, 1980 is a work in turf, oak and pitch pine which takes on the shape of what you’d see if someone filled in the space directly beneath a cross vaulted ceiling with cement. Cracks line the surface of the top of the little mound. Their look is that of a coating of hardened lava. Mus, 1984 is a simple cone, lying on its side, the bottom covered with a rounded mesh. Reliquary, 1980 is a slim rectangle that comes to a peaked top, which is riddled with holes and a dusting of white gesso. Believer, 1977-1982 is a ball of wood that variously suggests an uprooted stump or an enormous seed. It’s topped by a little box which makes it teeter between apprehension as a purely organic structure and one fiddled with by the hand of man. The title of the work Reliquary is fairly suggestive, but it is the arrangement of all the works together that reinforces the feeling that what you’re looking at are artifacts rather than contemporary sculptures, and they have a story to tell if you could just read their surfaces and material correctly. In that signage from the beginning of the show, there is a quote from Puryear where he explains that “(i)t gives me great pleasure to feel there’s a level that doesn’t require knowledge of, or immersion in, the aesthetics of a specific time and place…” I think the final collection of pieces in the show best exemplify this idea, and certainly the sculptures that build presence out of their construction techniques and the intrinsic nature of the materials were the ones that resonated most for me.