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Martin Puryear's sculptures resonate with symbolic strength.

Good Wood


There is a certain vital faith in wood. Permanently alive, ever responsive to the ether, it implies more of the hereafter than any other media. When wood is permitted to retain its characteristic density, it asserts an adamant weightiness and invulnerability: It has an integrity that insinuates preeminence. When it is reduced to thin strips, it becomes as intimate and compliant as water.

Martin Puryear, who is currently sharing his sublime work with Richmond in an exhibition at the Virginia Museum, demonstrates his affinity with the eternal proposition of wood, contrasting it with mortal-made materials. No matter what medium he approaches, though, he instills in it the earth's accumulated laws and principles.

An exhibition of work such as Puryear's nudges out an awe for the responsibility that the artist undertakes in his exploitation of his material. One almost never considers that living material is sacrificed for some item or other, until one comes across work like this. Suddenly, it's apparent that a piece of fallen wood has, in being used, been consecrated by the artist and the art. The abiding sense of this thoughtfully curated collection of wood (and other) sculpture is that the relationship Puryear weaves, dowels and staples into the fabrication of his highly conscious structures seems to be one of mutual respect between the tree and the artist.

Puryear's sculpture is rich in simile, once removed. The forms have been likened to birds as well as bugs. There are ladders, cornucopias and cabezas; huts, pillows, toys and flasks — sort of. It is as nearly a comprehensive inventory of contemporary assets as any anthropologist might compile and translate from a foreign tongue. Puryear describes them in a visual etymology, as though the symbolic, or recognizable form is an archaic Latin word to which the statement he now constructs relates by only a few telltale syllables.

Puryear's undulating "Ladder for Booker T. Washington," which serves as the exhibition's memorable logo, is the most literal work in the show. It tentatively invites the viewer to follow it to its conclusion. But, suspended in time and space, it swerves and sways in the currents of event and the struggles of will — to the extent that its forcefulness as an abstract experience is even greater than its musical line, purity of surface and fastidious joinery. It effectively scars the atmosphere it floats in. After "Ladder" has departed on its national exhibition tour, the empty place where it once hovered will likely be permanently rent by its phantom image, just as its nimble wafting tree was split into perfect halves in order to tell time in rungs rather than rings. Puryear's elevator lifts all bodies from the cross and carries each good soul to its promised land.

Much of Puryear's work is accompanied by an afterimage of that sort. And many viewers may remain haunted by several of his sculptures and fascinated by the lingering metallic taste of others. The lithe and limber "Lever #2" is in turn a farm implement, musical instrument and swan, as it traces its shape in the imagination. It is also a question mark lying face down, as if in deference to something great; a question mark that reiterates the same innocent silhouetted curve as the artist's head forms propose. The question mark shape is almost Puryear's heraldic sign, and one that the exhibition's curator, Margot Crutchfield, places at the beginning of the exhibition in order to initiate us. It serves momentarily as a gateway, but sit it upright and it becomes the tempered human cranium that several of Puryear's endeavors contemplate in "Confessional," "Untitled 1997" and "Untitled 1995."

The delight of Puryear's monastic sense of humor comes across in many of the pieces, even while they assume a darker, Kafkaesque mien. "Horsefly" is such a piece. Observing as he is observed, a coldhearted wire mesh, tar and glass monstrosity of an insect regards the viewer placidly. Plump as an internal organ and elegant as an old abandoned factory, he coaxes an uncomfortable chuckle.

A quick word to praise the installation of the show: The large meditative spaces that loom about each sculpture are perfectly suited to each object's size and energy. The generous layout composed by the museum staff provides a visual silence that falls about each work like a curtain so that each piece is permitted to deliver its own private experience. "Martin Puryear" is a sanctuary, a chapel, a place to go to be assured.

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