Setting things on fire is a vital component to Leonardo Drew’s practice. The American artist often uses his rooftop to set things alight, oxidizing his materials so that they appear densely black, or are otherwise left to the elements to become intensely weathered, before they are chopped and reformed into stunning assemblages.
Drew walks a tightrope between order and chaos, embracing the organic qualities of tree branches or the unpredictable nature of how a textile might hang, before coupling them with meticulously well-ordered patterns. He carves up geometric blocks, densely packing them to form entirely new textural surfaces, as well as mounting seemingly disparate objects that are unified on a horizontal plane. Through his distinct abstractionist, the Brooklyn-based artist unpacks the disorder of existence, particularly in relation to his city, where grid systems compete with the messiness of living.
For example, in large-scale installations such as the site-specific Number 248A currently on show at Goodman Gallery in London, larger elements function as planets, from which all other pieces orbit. Rope, wood, cardboard, paper and other forms of debris are all manipulated to form new textures, shapes and forms, encouraging the viewer to take in the beauty of scale, before honing in on the stunning detail.
If you could save only one item from your studio, what would it be?
What a question! If it was the end of the world, what would I drag into the bunker with me? It couldn’t be a pencil because that would wear out. Paper would be fantastic but I need something with which I can create endlessly, something that can be flexible enough to be used in a number of ways.
It’s got to be a cutting tool because I can carve with that. I can chip away at anything, even at stone. A chisel or a sharp instrument that I can carve, chop, and draw with. The environment becomes the base, the material. If I was in a cell I’d use it to cut up my bed sheets and sew.
What was the last art material you bought to use in your work?
Kerosine. That is the material that is most vital to me at this point. I’m painting with fire at the moment, burning wood and playing with levels of shading that you can get from that process. Understanding what you can do with it. It is important to continue to expand my language visually, spiritually and emotionally.
“We’re all reaching, trying to get to the highest thing on the shelf. You don’t ever get there but you try”
What is your go-to music when you’re working in the studio?
I have eclectic taste in music but if I was going to select something that relates immediately to what I do it would be classical or jazz. Jazz is like a dance, it’s cumulative, immediate. You continue to reach and try to reach the next note. We’re all reaching, trying to get to the highest thing on the shelf. You don’t ever get there but you try. The music has to have range and elasticity. I’m continuously adding to my playlist of 20,000+ songs.
Which single work of art would you choose to live alongside in your home?
Géricault’s The Raft of Medusa.
Top three art or photography books?
“I don’t agree with the pretence that we collectively as artists have to be all-knowing. We are on a path of learning”
If money was no object, what would you most like to experiment with in your work?
Just before Covid hit, I went to China specifically to work with porcelain. I’d love to go back and continue to work with that material. Ground zero for porcelain is China. I’m compelled by the magical alchemy involved with it. That trip was when I introduced colour into my work.
Tell us a pet peeve of yours when it comes to the art world.
I don’t agree with the pretence that we collectively as artists have to be all-knowing. We are on a path of learning. Viewers are complicit in completing the work. I learn a lot from the people who follow the work and what they’re saying. I started showing work when I was 13, so I have been feeling out what’s possible from then.
What is your favourite gallery or museum space around the world?
The Frick used to be a place I’d go to for peace and solitude. That museum has an intimacy. It’s small and focused. The Louvre in Paris would also be up there. Also, the Egyptian wing at The Met which is staggering.
Holly Black is Elephant’s managing editor
Leonardo Drew, Goodman Gallery, London, until 23 April
Listen to all the go-to songs picked by our 5 Minutes With artists here