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“Directions: Leonardo Drew”

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to June 20

Leonardo drew. Leonardo Drew drew—painted, too. But now he collects trash. He does it so artfully, however, that his parents’ namesaking can’t be faulted. Of course, he does more than collect it. He sorts it, groups and regroups it, carefully distresses some of it, and arranges it into wall-hung sculptures of formidable depth and scope. The Hirshhorn is now showing three new untitled Drew pieces whose giant grids teem with thousands of bits of urban debris.

Drew is ungrudging—and unspecific—in acknowledging precedent, but there are obvious links to be made: the smashed plates of Julian Schnabel’s crockery paintings and the carefully laid-out plastic housewares and trinkets of Tony Cragg’s floor and wall sculptures; the dark monochromaticity of Louise Nevelson and the compartmentalization of Eva Hesse. There are also suggestions of the printed circuit boards that have been welcomed into the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection. The allover composition of large sections of the works nods to abstract expressionism, and the panoramic scale of the biggest piece, which covers nearly all of the gallery’s largest wall, calls to mind the 19th-century taste for epic landscape.

That said, in his present incarnation, Drew is also a crowd-pleaser. I don’t think I’d ever seen a Directions show better attended in the middle of a weekday. Adults charged with looking after small children—who, like Around Town commentators, got understandably fidgety in the difficult David, er, Robert Gober show on the second floor—were more comfortably shouldering their custodial burdens upstairs. The intricacy of Drew’s work elicits extended study, and the familiarity of his materials urges interpretation. I accepted the invitation to eavesdrop.

Unfortunately, today’s children have so completely absorbed environmentalist propaganda that their response range has narrowed considerably. “This is our Earth,” sermonized one enviromoppet, gesturing broadly at the litter arrayed before her. “That works for me, Lindsey,” chirped her generic green mom. It’s enough to make you wonder if weeping for the dolphins should perhaps not have become as ingrained a learned behavior as, say, looking both ways before crossing the street.

At least in part toeing the art-traditionalist line, a boy maybe 9 years old said, “It’s amazing what they put in art museums.” A woman I took to be his mother mumbled something about a commentary on “the culture.” But what she didn’t pick up on was that the boy’s dismissal was adulterated with hints of wonder. He knew Drew’s junk landscapes didn’t look like Monet’s pretty ones, but he was indeed amazed.

Other kids saw in the trash traces of their own cash-and-carry lives. “There’s that squeaky toy you have,” one girl told another. “I used to have that brush,” a teenager confided to her boyfriend, whose genuine, official System of a Down T-shirt, the back of which sloganeered, “Advertising Causes Need,” encapsulated youthful ambivalence toward the consumer culture. What I think these viewers were warming to is that while Drew’s new work supports political interpretation (enviro-political, that is, in contrast to Drew’s earlier work, which was generally regarded in African-American identity-political terms), it also thrives on a broader, more socially minded view. It hopes viewers will recognize themselves within the borders of its grid, locating themselves among its blocks and byways.

Drew is a builder of cities. His spaces are public spaces; his grid is the urban grid. He fills its cells with urban slough. The interactions of his remnants mimic the intertwinings of our lives, our coming together and splitting up. We identify with these things; we are these things, he says—or we were. The modularity of his pieces, in which are placed items in grids of squares that make up still larger grids of squares, suggests the possibility of shifting things around, tearing down and rebuilding. In Untitled (No. 77), numbered pieces of tape mark some barren sites. After a second visit, I asked a museum staffer if they indicated spots where parts had fallen off the grid. It turns out the tape had been there from the beginning; I just hadn’t noticed it before. You know how when you’re walking down the street and you see a new store or restaurant, you often can’t remember what occupied the site before? Drew’s sculptures are like that; they’re so vast that you’re always failing to notice things in them or forgetting them outright. You’d never swear on your return that all was as you left it.

The grid is a mathematical construct, a simple plan, a means of keeping track of where things are. But the vitality of a city lies in how hard it pushes against the grid. Decades of idealized city planning have taught us that urban character is largely a matter of accident. Enough uncoordinated, if not random, details accumulate and a neighborhood flavor erupts. Enough scattered residents profess allegiance to some interest and a scene is born. Some groupings are prominent. Some go unseen. Many simply hide in the shadows of more visible agglomerations. Culture obscures subculture, which in turn begets culture at large.

Whatever path the eye takes at first, you can bet it won’t be retraced. Drew’s grids allow you to mentally reshuffle the objects they hold in place. They cause you to break down, examine, and form anew various connections among objects (gather all wires, all seatbelt clasps, all sandals; try pairing that fan housing with this wire, an individual turtle shell with several feathered outcroppings that look like wings; go on a scavenger hunt for foam-rubber lettering, right-reading and reversed, or for a Christmas-tree topper and some broken plastic eggs wrought by some sweatshop Faberge). Though the overall structure of Drew’s work is stronger than any individual place holder, certain configurations of objects, particularly in the heavily manipulated No. 77, work like expressive passages in paintings. A tangle of deep-blue threads on the end of a stick, its function and identity camouflaged by grime, turns darkly lyrical. A grubby inverted stuffed panda, a filthy toy gargoyle, freaks the bejesus out of me. An explosion of wooden strips that dominates the center of the piece expressionistically echoes the canyons of Manhattan, where the urban grid goes vertical.

How many stories left in this naked city? I wouldn’t be surprised if Drew had tapped an inexhaustible supply. CP