Last semester, I was fortunate to see visual artist Leonardo Drew deliver the annual Prentice Lecture. Drew spoke not only retrospectively about his art and his development as an artist, but also about his fascinating creative process in which he submits what he calls “brand-new stuff” to weathering and decaying processes in his studio. An object might be soaked in water for months, metallic materials oxidized, all in order to alter the condition and/or appearance of the material. This “brand-new stuff” is then put together to create one of Drew’s three-dimensional works.
As an aspiring archaeologist, I am drawn to this procedure of deliberate destruction, which presents such a stark contrast to my own desire to uncover and, more importantly, to preserve the past for the enjoyment of future generations. Drew’s art reflects the beauty of ruin and decay. His work holds a temporal aspect, exemplified through its sense of impermanence and delicacy. His pieces are numbered, not named (he lovingly refers to them as his “monstrosities”), and organized chronologically, allowing viewers to catch a glimpse of his personal artistic journey.
For me that sense of temporality is reminiscent of the production of ancient ceramic materials and the ways in which technological advances allowed for new artistic forms. Materials recovered by archaeologists have been damaged by the passage of time, but the study of these objects still offers valuable information about the past. Archaeologists use typology charts created by ceramic specialists to assign theoretical date ranges to objects based on the evolution of pottery over time. A fragment is given a date range that places its creation between that of an earlier object and that of a later object, defining it in relation to other objects. I am particularly enamored by Athenian pottery from the Archaic Period to the Classical Period, during which ceramic wares become more refined and elaborately decorated as new technologies and techniques developed.
Drew’s work is indeed thought-provoking. Through his destruction, creation, repurposing, and reuse of materials he is able to create “worlds within worlds,” languages through art, and rhythms that allow viewers to perceive his experiences. His lecture took me into his world of art, allowing me to understand his unique materials and processes. Drew invited me to think differently about the ancient objects and ruins that I study each day, to see them in a new context of beauty and decay.