Melvin Edwards began making his Lynch Fragments during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and continues to produce them to this day. Small, visceral constructions of found metal objects welded together in an open-ended process, the sculptures collapse the centuries of pain, suffering, labor, violence, and exploitation that define a significant portion of African American history into symbolic aggregations of material. Edwards draws on the practice of assemblage and subverts the macho tradition of metal-welding sculptors to produce these fragments, whose small scale and eye-level display encourage an intimate encounter with their tortured tangles of mangled objects. They are shrapnel bombs, pregnant with symbolism and latent energy waiting to explode. The chains call to mind the shackles of slavery and the chain gangs that came after. The spikes evoke the hard manual labor of building American infrastructure as well as the implements of torture that coerced it. Other objects reference agricultural production, daily life on plantations and in prisons, as well as contemporary everyday life. What really gets me about Edwards is how he channeled the ethos of minimalist sculpture—its use of found and industrial materials, its interest in how objects inform the space around them—toward intensely emotional and political ends, as opposed to his contemporaries more austere rejection of content. Like the minimalists, his sculptures hold no answers within them, and instead direct our attention outward toward the systems in which they circulate in our search for meaning. In Edwards’ hands, welding takes on a rich metaphorical meaning, becoming a way both to acknowledge the painful histories embedded in objects and, perhaps, to blunt their force and redirect it toward something else.
Melvin Edwards, Djeri Djef, 2004