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Man of Substance
Architectural Digest

By Thessaly La Force

 

During a recent morning in Manhattan, light bounced through the Harlem studio of artist Nari Ward, reflecting off the large sheets of copper that hung from the walls. “This is the most expensive material I have ever worked with,” says Ward, who is known for sculptures and installations constructed using discarded objects—from baby strollers to TV sets to baking sheets. “The copper almost feels frightening because of its weight.” Yet the artist, far from being daunted, has clearly found his rhythm. Jazz plays on the radio, seemingly offering a soundtrack to the faint patinated footprints that dance across the panels. On every piece a series of hotel, each the size of a silver dollar, has been drilled to form a diamond shape, with copper nails hammered around the openings like the halos of medieval icons.

 

Beautiful to behold, these copper panel are the focus of Ward’s latest show, “ Breathing Directions,” on view at Lehmann Maupin’s Chrystie Street gallery, in New York, through November 1. The works are inspired by his visit to Savannah, Georgia’s First African Baptist Church, where the floorboards are perforated with breathing holes in the diamond motif. Beneath the boards once lay a hiding space for escaped slaves, a vestige of the building’s former use as a stop along the Underground Railroad. “I got really engaged with the power of this pattern,” he explains, “thinking about how it dealt with history, of course, but also the presence of unseen bodies.”

 

Ward, who was born in Jamaica and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 12, remains ever mindful of his adopted nation’s complicated past. As a longtime resident of Harlem, he has watched his neighborhood gentrify, and much of his art is a response to those changes. “I’ll see something while walking down the street and it triggers and idea,” says the artist, whose diverse oeuvre is the subject of “Sun Splashed,” a mid career survey at the Pérez Art Museum Miami that runs from November 19, 2015, through February 21, 2016/ Whether his materials are refined, such as copper, or pedestrian, like plastic bags, Ward enjoys the reactions they stir. “It’s all about engaging emotions,” he says. “I want to take that energy and propel it into some other form.”