Internationally acclaimed artist Melvin Edwards’ solo show at the Christian-Green Gallery, part of the University of Texas’ Art Galleries at Black Studies, combines works on paper, freestanding sculpture and wall reliefs, including pieces from Edwards’ ongoing series, “Lynch Fragments.” Organized by gallery curator Phillip Townsend, the works in “WIRE(D) and CHAIN(ED)” provoke new associations from across Edwards’ nearly 60-year career.
Edwards’ steel sculptures are abstract, but incorporate shapes and materials that give layered political and social meaning to his compositions. Although he began his career at a time when the art world prioritized formalist critiques and “art for art’s sake,” the Houston-born Edwards used his art to engage with the ideas and events of his time, including the Civil Rights movement.
The sculpture “August the Squared Fire” (1965) which sits in the center of the gallery, references the Watts riots of 1965, during which time, Edwards was living in Los Angeles. The dynamic work is composed of dense shapes, including a twisting mass of metal surrounded by a thin rectilinear frame. More than abstract geometry, the work evokes the damaged buildings that remained after the six days of unrest caused 34 deaths and more than $40 million in property damages.
As the show’s title “WIRE(D) and CHAIN(ED)” indicates, the two materials and visual themes that dominate the show are chain and barbed wire. In “Routes de Fer” (2000), which translates to “Iron Roads,” Edwards presents two coils of chains in handmade black paper as an homage to African ironworking. And in an untitled brightly hued watercolor from 1975, chain appears as negative space, dangling from gold barbed wire.
In Edwards’ practice, barbed wire is a flexible, linear material that can be posed and draped. Using its symbolic associations with labor, restriction, containment, and protection, in “Curtain for Friends” (2015), a three color lithograph, he depicts these metal materials in a composition that pays homage to his friends and fellow artists William T. Williams and Peter Bradley, with whom he shared a studio. The lithograph is based on “Curtain for William and Peter” (1969), a site-specific sculpture that does not appear in the exhibition, but which hung at Edwards’ 1970 solo show at the Whitney, the first at that museum by an African American sculptor. Both works’ lines of barbed wire connected by draped chains are transformed into a shape associated with soft fabric. In the lithograph, the addition of a red, black, and green color scheme evokes the Pan-African flag, further connecting the depiction of chain to the tradition of metalwork in Africa.
Likewise, in “Machete for Gregory” (1974), chain and barbed wire are draped and form fabric-like patterns. Connected to a right angle made of metal, the shape resembles a flag being cut by a machete. The barbs on the wire are star-like shapes, evoking the stars and stripes of the American flag. Through both the chain and the machete, Edwards engages with the history of slavery, but neither symbol has just one possible meaning. The machete symbolizes forced labor and violence, but also emancipation, as the blades were used by enslaved Africans in the Americas to harvest sugar cane, yet also as weapons of defense and revolt. The piece is dedicated to Edwards’ brother, Gregory, and the chains symbolize both bondage and the strength of their familial bond. As racial tension, discrimination, and violence continue to be experienced by many Black men living in the United States today, the sculpture serves as a gesture of recognition and protection between brothers.
Edwards’ relationship with Africa, which he first visited in 1970, and has toured extensively since, reverberates throughout the exhibition. He has maintained a studio in Dakar, Senegal since 2000, and one work on view, “Diamniadio” (2004), takes its title from the word in Serer (the third most spoken language in Senegal) for “return in peace.”
Mounted at face height, the work, part of the artist’s “Discs” series, is a smooth round disc with welded metal objects. The simplicity of the round base shape and the complexity of the overlapping metal at the center contrast each other. Engaging with minimalism, Edwards foregrounds the viewer’s experience with the art. Suggestions of forms, such as a shield or a mask, are subtle but present.
This small exhibition of Edwards’ work is powerful, combining rarely seen works on paper with sculptures spanning his artistic practice. The works are in conversation with each other, some drawings even depicting the reliefs hung next to them. Rich with symbolism, “WIRE(D) and CHAIN(ED)” nicely illuminates ideas Edwards has explored for decades.
“WIRE(D) and CHAIN(ED)” continues through Dec. 10 at the Christian-Green Gallery, Jester Center, 201 East 21st St. galleriesatut.org