Leonardo Drew Rides His Magic Carpet to a New Field

When Leonardo Drew was invited by the Madison Square Park Conservancy to make his first outdoor public artwork, he came to realize he couldn’t compete with the Empire State Building in the distance and other skyscrapers surrounding this urban oasis off Fifth Avenue just north of East 23rd Street.

“The city is just a monster!” howled Mr. Drew, well-known in the art world for his dynamic assemblages of hand-weathered materials, some of charred wood, that seem to erupt floor to ceiling across gallery walls.

In his tall, chaotic studio space in Brooklyn, where sculptural reliefs project off the walls, Mr. Drew, 58, was in constant motion, applying ground charcoal to a tabletop work throughout the conversation. He described scrapping a number of concepts for the park, including “an exploding tree with flying parts” that he feared could be dangerous in a high wind. Ultimately, he reoriented his center of gravity to the ground, with the proposition: “What if you are Gulliver looking down at Lilliput?”

One might feel like a giant clomping through a miniature land when Mr. Drew’s “City in the Grass” opens on June 3 and park-goers are allowed to roam over it all. Sprawling more than 100 feet by 30 feet across the Oval Lawn, a topographical mosaic of wooden blocks — based on photographs of New York taken from an airplane — rests atop an undulating aluminum structure. Colorful sand adheres to the metal in patterns that evoke a gigantic Persian rug in motion. (New Yorkers facing weekend L train shutdowns might appreciate a flying carpet to get around.)

“The most beautiful Persian rugs have a worn and lived-in quality,” said Mr. Drew, who has purposefully left holes where the grass pops through. Towers burst out of the design, 16 feet high, referencing the cinematic illusions in Metropolis and The Wizard of Oz.

“Cities can be places of great inspiration but also great denigration, and that complexity is in this project,” said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and senior curator at the Madison Square Park Conservancy.

“I think he’s conjuring ideals of domestic contentment — the comfort and stability a carpet denotes,” she said. But “Leonardo’s carpet is purposely filled with voids. He’s confronting the promise but also the lapsed commitment of home life.”

Mr. Drew has long resisted a signature material or style. “People like to believe that I made a whole bunch of cotton works, but you only have to do that once,” he said. “Once I’ve done something well, I’m looking to move on to the next thing.”

After years of making darkly patinated installations, the exploration of vivid color is “pulling me by the nose,” he said. His project in the park informed the mammoth centerpiece at his current show at Galerie Lelong. For this, he painted plywood sheets with polychrome sand in Persian rug designs and then splintered the boards. The fragments project in a visual cyclone from the wall.

“I completely bastardized and abstracted” the carpet motif, the artist said.

He will complete commissions for the San Francisco International Airport and Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., later this year. For now, he intends to watch how park-goers respond to “City in the Grass,” believing that the viewer is central to the completion of his works.

“In the end, it can be your flying carpet transporting you to wherever you need to be,” he added. “It is definitely doing that right now in my life.”

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