Martin Puryear’s craftsmanship in wood and metal sculpture is practically legendary. Each of the 11 recent works in this show discloses a level of refinement rarely seen in the art world these days. Perhaps less often discussed is Puryear’s gift as a storyteller; he has the ability to suggest complex narratives with the sparest of means. Installed near the gallery entrance, The Rest (2009-10) conveys, for example, an epic but ominous journey. The approximately 4-foot-high bronze with a dark patina recalls an upended two-wheel covered wagon. Its pull-bar juts up in the air as if the horses had suddenly bolted and caused the wagon to topple over. With the riding compartment completely sealed, this phantom carriage alludes to a transport for contraband, prisoners or slaves.
Several other pieces resemble antique wheeled carts, although a notable exception is the futuristic Vehicle for Reflection (2012), with its four-wheel wooden axle supporting a two-foot-tall polyhedron of shining stainless-steel facets. The show’s centerpiece, The Load (2012), evokes a two-wheel contraption for hapless victims of the Inquisition, perhaps. Here, a large wooden cube with thick, open-lattice grid faces could hold several adults. But filling the cage is a white glass globe with a black circle in one section, like a giant eyeball. Peering into a peephole at the center of the black area, visitors can see themselves reflected in a mirror on the opposite side of the sphere and can scan the interior dome’s meticulously constructed wooden ribbing. The brief sensation of actually being inside the cage delivers an existential jolt.
Puryear’s unique sculptural language often encompasses equal measures of poetry and violence. Like a fantastical weapon, the 6½-foot-tall white bronze Heaven Three Ways / Exquisite Corpse (2011), featuring a long, jagged saw blade surmounting a spiraling base, exudes a kind of lethal beauty. Quieter, but no less riveting, Night Watch (2011) indicates an infinite landscape. The sculpture consists of a long narrow maple bench, whose seat is covered with hundreds of thin, tightly packed reeds made of willow branches thrusting upward over 6 feet high. The reeds bow slightly at the top as if they were blowing in the wind. This lyrical work hints at Rembrandt’s famous painting in its title, and, with its graceful bunches of willow, the plumes of feathers flowing from the caps of several Rembrandt protagonists. In this piece, and throughout the show, Puryear generated limitless possibilities of incidence and allusion.
Photo: Martin Puryear: The Load, 2012, wood, steel, glass, 7½ by 15½ by 6 feet; at McKee.