The 79-year old Houston native Melvin Edwards recently completed a residency in our state unearthing a trove of found objects assembled into the currently running In Oklahoma exhibition at Oklahoma Contemporary. The new site-specific works are complimented by a retrospective selection that is visually and thematically seamless.
Entering the Circle Gallery evokes a summarily spiritual experience, as if in the presence of a council of elders; despite the fact most of the works in that room are the newest in the exhibition. The welded sculptural collages arranged on the walls are sagacious and cultivated collections of used chains, locks, hooks, rebar, etc.—the materials of industry and labor—intuitively assembled with unapologetically visible welding scars. The improvisational nature of their construction hearkens to a jazz and roots sensibility. They are anthropomorphized through their figurative resemblance to African masks—a resemblance Edwards highlights with the inclusion of a display of African and African-inspired works from his own private collection serving as sentries to our ingress.
In the main gallery, we see a convergence of old and new works. The mask-like forms resurge—often on adjacent walls connected with sloping chains. Chains and barbed wire also make repeated appearances as standalone installations. Basal and minimalistic, they are complex points of interest as the materials willfully behave on their own—evidenced in the slight buckling as the forms succumb to their own weight.
The reductive formal approach allows plenty of room for the emergence of conceptual themes inclusive of industrialization, agrarian culture, land rights, and the cycles of human control and occupation repeated throughout Western history. For this seasoned veteran known for his “Lynch Fragments” series, the site-specific works are contiguous of Edwards’ oeuvre—an extension of his stoic and unrelenting approach to tackling the human condition. It’s a perfectly measured response for Edwards—coming to Oklahoma as an outsider—to bring forth relics of this land that is not his home, but that harbors universally familiar history and struggles.
Perhaps the most powerful inclusion is “Vietnam (Dedicated to J. B. Washington)” first created in 1972. Three military barracks-style cots sit ominously, some stripped of their “bloody” mats that hang on the posterior wall, laced with barbed wire, or laden with red-soaked rags. This brutally emotional piece is dedicated to a family friend who lasted only six weeks in Vietnam. The inclusion of this work situates the newer contemplative works within a historical context. To be “In Oklahoma” is to be in this world. Oklahoma past and present are universal. We are all connected by weighty chains and razor-sharp barbed wire that simultaneously connect and cut.
To see In Oklahoma is to see truth. This week, as Aleppo falls and the threat of foreign adversaries loom under whispers of aggression, I implore you to seek out council from Edwards’ reconstructed materials unearthed as artifacts and given new life as compositions. These materials know well of labor, strife, destruction, and rebirth. Do so before the show closes on December 27.