For a month last year, the 79-year-old sculptor Melvin Edwards went to Oklahoma to participate in Oklahoma Contemporary's 2016 artist-in-residence program. Sourcing steel from local scrap metal yards, Edwards created a new body of work that is now on view in Melvin Edwards: In Oklahoma, at Alexander Gray Associates. It's the artist's first show since the 2015 retrospective Melvin Edwards: Five Decades at Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas. In Oklahoma features welded steel sculptures, wall reliefs, and installations using Edwards's familiar material language of chains, scrap metal, barbed wire, nails, and welding and farming tools to explore his personal history and connections to the African diaspora.
"This exhibition focuses on the notion of what can I do in about a month worth of work, concentrated in one place, with a good source for material," Edwards tells Creators. "The works themselves are independent, improvised if you will." The artist's process is like that of a jazz musician, which speaks to how his work is "developed freely." Edwards bolts, joins, hammers, bends, and forges steel simultaneously in recent works like Two is One, Steel Life (Spring Again), and Off. Each provides a glimpse into the compression or extension of time. Edwards's construction process is not additive, but one that undergoes variations as he works on the fly, revealing that "improvisation in sculpture doesn't have time limits."
The specific symbolism found in Edwards's recurring use of steel chains—in works like Chain Breaker and Steel Life (After Winter), for instance—evokes the influence of modernist sculpture, the diaspora of black people throughout history, and the tradition of blacksmithing. Blacksmiths distinguish welding, which fuses the same material together, from braising, which joins together two different materials like bronze and steel.
"This is a material that I find interesting, not necessarily in what it is, but in what I can do with it," Edwards says. The use of chain as a material also evokes its history as an object. The chain is a conceptual language in Edwards's art that connects the people, cultures, and histories of the African Diaspora. Considering that "chain is a material which was invented because it made a better rope—not for slavery or to pull a car out of snow—but has been used for those purposes," Edwards's choice evokes the multiplicity of meaning found in the use of utilitarian materials as art object and metaphor. An Edwards sculpture typically forgoes direct illustration. In Lines in the Mind of, Agricole, and Suspended Afterthought, the ways Edwards improvises with suspension, barbed wire, and linear space demonstrates that the artist is concerned with the conceptual possibilities of provoking an audience to consider playing with material.
The titles of works like Homage to Almany Samonry "Keletigui" Toure, Homage to Sony Lab'ou Tansi Poet, and Homage to Oba Ewaure II of Benin City, Nigeria, pay tribute to West African history and Edwards's personal friends and collaborators. In Oklahoma also features ARK-LA-TEX-OK, four individually made lynch fragments connected by barbed wire. They evoke both the artist's childhood memories of growing up in Houston's Fifth Ward and the artist's familial ties in the neighboring states of Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
The lynch fragments form a significant body of Edwards's art. They are an ongoing series that the artist began in the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement. The small-scale abstract reliefs comprised of chains, railroad spikes, welding tools, and scraps of steel reference the lynching of black people in America in the way that relief sculptures typically hang from a wall. The works are largely a metaphorical reminder of white violence against the black body and the complicated nature of American history. "I have never intended to be simplistic," explains Edwards, reflecting on his fifty year career. "I never expect anyone to understand everything about the sculptures. I don't always understand the implications of what I've done. I make discoveries within the work as I move."
Melvin Edwards: In Oklahoma continues through May 20 at Alexander Gray Associates. Click here for more information.