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Timeless Symbols Pack Nari Ward’s Sculptures with Meaning
The Creators Project

by Antwaun Sargent

Since the early 1990s, the sculptor Nari Ward has used materials he finds on the street to explore consumer culture and race. The old upright brown piano sculpture, Spellbound, on view as part of his current solo show Breathing Directions at Lehmann Maupin Gallery, is covered in hundreds of keys attached to nails embedded in the instrument’s wood. “Spellbound is an earlier work that is the inspiration for the rest of the works,” explains Ward. “I decided to do a video initially because there were all these elements that I wanted to bring together without having to drag materials into my studio,” he says of the film shown on the back of the work that flashes symbols and sounds that call attention to American slavery and appear throughout the show.

“Spellbound is the bridge because all the works deals with material transformation specifically the references to the church and keys come up again in the main gallery.”

The copper works, or, “Breathing Panels,” are large-scale abstract pieces that Ward created by applying darkening patina to the bottom of his shoes and stepping on the copper panels. “I was trying to play with this idea of things being both reverential and gestural,” says Ward, who punctuated geometric patterns into each panel, referencing traditional Congolese “cosmograms,” an ancient prayer symbol that represents the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. “The whole idea of putting marks into the Breathing Panels is that as the viewer move around them they change depending on the view you take of them,” adds the sculptor.

“For me it’s about taking these things that seem to be of another time and place and finding a way for them to be triggered into special place for the historical now,” explains Ward of his blending past of symbols with contemporary objects. “In the works I try to engage the body, the viewer walk on top of it and think about what these symbols are, how they relate to being in that space, and how the experience of being on top of the work may trigger within the viewer moments of trust.”