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The strength, and beauty, of steel

“Two is One” by Melvin Edwards.
Bell Gallery
“Two is One” by Melvin Edwards.

PROVIDENCE — “Melvin Edwards: Festivals, Funerals, and New Life,” in a lovely, spare installation at Brown University’s David Winton Bell Gallery, features work by the first African-American to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, back in 1970.

The artist, now 80, has been welding steel sculptures for more than 50 years. They are brutal objects, strung with heavy, rusting chains and circumscribed by barbed wire. His signature “Lynch Fragments,” series features tight-fisted steel assemblages mounted on discs that read like portraits. One piece from that series, “Homage to Almamy Samory ‘Keletigui’ Toure,” an elegant melding of pipes, a small basin, and tools, pays tribute to a 19th-century West African leader who resisted French colonial rule. 

While the sculptures’ industrial steel nods to Minimalism, their patina and social history flood them with associations to slavery, confinement, and the ongoing consequences of colonialism.

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In “Corner for Ana (Scales of Injustice)” a scale holding fragments of chains, wire, and rusty metal hangs behind lengths of barbed wire: justice imprisoned. The artist was inspired to make the scale last year, after a Gambian immigrant drowned in Venice’s Grand Canal. Nobody jumped in to save the man; onlookers shot videos. 

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But “Festivals, Funerals, and New Life,” which quotes the title of a 1971 book by Edwards’s wife, the poet Jayne Cortez, who died in 2012, is as full of celebration and tenderness as it is lament. 

In “Two Is One,” a chain marking union, not bondage, loosely connects two dense wall assemblages made of circles, bolts, and ragged plates of steel.

Another piece, “‘Look through minds mirror distance and measure time’ — Jayne Cortez,” features great loops of barbed wire hanging from the ceiling. Edwards’s barbed wire defines space as delicately as Fred Sandback’s yarn drawings, but with teeth. This piece describes a funnel, like a birth canal in the air dropping and opening toward us — a thorny passageway to new life.

MELVIN EDWARDS: Festivals, Funerals, and New Life

At David Winton Bell Gallery, Brown University, 64 College St., Providence, through Feb. 11. 401-863-2932, www.brown.edu/bellgallery

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.