The work of Richard Serra has become synonymous with a fluidity of form and meaning.
Serra, born in 1938 in California, first encountered steel while accompanying his father, a pipe-fitter, to a San Francisco shipyard. Serra said of his experiences at the shipyard: “all the raw material that I needed is contained in the reserve of this memory which has become a reoccurring dream”. And, indeed, metal has recurred throughout the artist’s later works.
Now Serra’s works feature in the collections of world-renowned institutions such as MoMA, Tate Modern and the Guggenheim Bilbao, among others, but this hasn’t always been the case. In the early days of his career, Serra took to working in steel mills on the United States’ West Coast to support himself, becoming increasingly familiar with the raw material that would, from the 1970s onwards, form the basis of his monolithic sculptures.
Although Serra has produced a prolific number of works on paper throughout his formidable career, it is his sculpture which has captured the imagination of both the artistic establishment and the general public alike. His undulating masses of steel, contorted in ways that make them appear almost weightless, seem to defy gravity. The sheet metal that characterises Serra’s work mimics rippling natural forms. To create them, the artist takes many tons of this solid material and transforms them into towering vertical planes.
In his work NJ-2 the viewer becomes immersed in the meandering curves coated with a rusty patina, the amber tones reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of his native San Francisco. The viewer is invited to walk not only around the piece but through it, as if lost or wandering among winding rocky outcrops and crevasses, with snatches of white-hot desert sun penetrating from high above.
Serra’s forms bend and twist, often striking a stark contrast to their environs. These monumental monoliths seem almost malleable and are open to a variety of interpretations. His sculpture is concerned with ineffability and expresses the unsayable through visual means. The works simultaneously point to recognisable forms whilst also bewildering the viewer. It is no surprise, then, that Serra counts Roland Barthes and Gilles Deleuze among his notable influences. The artist’s sculpture transcends pre-existing linguistic systems, stepping outside of the constraints of human language. Serra could be described as reticent: his minimal sculpture gives little away, leaving it to the viewer themselves to derive meaning. His work could be interpreted as the visual counterpart to that of the great philosophers and poets of the twentieth century, who struggled to represent meaning as they negotiated the world.
A key facet of Serra’s sculpture is its relationship to and dependence upon place. This site-specificity quality characterises his art and ascribes meaning to it. In fact, the work’s purpose relies so heavily on its environment that Serra himself said that to remove it from its intended site would be “to destroy it”. This is evident in the case of his infamous commissions for the Federal Plaza in New York City and the California Institute of Technology. Following a controversy, the former was removed while the latter was never installed, and so the works were “lost” or at the very least not realised in their intended capacity. Though the locations of Serra’s pieces vary enormously, ranging from east to west, city to desert, public space to private gallery, the gently undulating yet imposing metal facades, tarnished with a rusty patina formed naturally over several years, remain recognisably Serra nonetheless.
In contrast to Serra’s usual site-specific works, installed in public squares or national parks, three recent works were nestled in a gallery by London’s King’s Cross station. The large-scale steel sculptures, each on display in their own room of the Gagosian gallery, were disconnected from the natural environment and instead presented in a vacuum. Here, prevented from interacting with external influences, their ambiguity and uncertain meaning was intensified. This mode of display bridged the gap between Serra’s site-specific sculptures, created for and bound to their environment, and his two-dimensional canvases displayed on the distraction-free spaces of contemporary art galleries.
At a first glance, Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s current exhibition at Blain|Southern (London) evokes a surprising feeling of nostalgia. The large twisted bronze sculptures remind me of summer evenings spent with my family on holiday in Croatia. My favourite pastime was to wander through markets filled with hand-made goods crafted by the locals. I always found watching the artists sitting at their stalls and contorting thin strands of wire into a menagerie of animals and human figures rather extraordinary and strangely soothing. However, the feeling of nostalgia fades as fast as it emerges, as does the dense blue Adriatic Sea and its warm glow reflecting the summer sun. It is the end of February, it’s freezing cold outside, and I am surrounded by the sterile whiteness of Blain|Southern. The title Sticks with Dicks and Slits could hardly get more literal: the exhibition consists of pairs of gigantic stick figures endowed with humorous genitalia, engaging in actions such as lactating and urinating. This new series of work might seem raw and crude –because, quite frankly, it is—, but it can also be seen as toys with a more playful and whimsical side, its naivety lending a certain charm and innocence to these clumsy figures.
The duo met while studying together at Nottingham Trent University and became friends due to their shared love of music. They have been creating together, as a couple, since then, and have challenged the notion of self-portrait and portraiture throughout their series of well-known light and shadow sculptures. Just as their previous works, these double portraits explore the nature of relationships and identity, but they seem to open up a new chapter which allows us to see a different side of the artists.
In comparison to their self-portraits built from trash and waste, these stick figures are surprisingly light-hearted. Earlier works, such as Wild Mood Swings (2009-2010), Masters of the Universe (2000), and Dirty White Trash (1998) scrutinize certain aspects of human relations, from anger and rejection to pleasure and desire. Dicks and Slits focuses on the cheerful, comical side of Noble and Webster. A lovely Pair (Standing) portrays stick-Noble chasing stick-Webster with an erection, while another figure seems to be urinating on the viewer. While sex and bodily fluids are returning elements in the duo’s work, in this case they are paired with the charm of immaturity. The large stick-figures are celebrating our inner child, and act as a reminder of the joy of not taking ourselves too seriously. Childishness is still often considered an undesirable personality trait, and to portray vulnerability and flaws is rare in a world where the artist is still so often seen as an impeccable genius. Noble and Webster, once again, go against the notion of immaculateness to explore natural human attributes so often condemned.
It is refreshing to see the duo stepping away from their usual light/shadow technique to experiment with new materials and methods. The bronze sculptures seem weightless and spontaneous, and it’s interesting to learn that they use the old and difficult method of lost wax casting to create them. Sprezzatura, to conceal the difficulty of production, was considered as an art form in the Renaissance and it was essential to possess it in order to be acknowledged as a great artist. Noble and Webster have been considered the power couple of the art world, but they divorced in 2013, they said, for the sake of their work. As I see it, these sculptures could be the results of an emotionally exhausting period. It might not be wrong to assume that there’s a parallel between the choice of using the troublesome wax casting technique and the hardships experienced in personal life, which are both being concealed by the overall carefree appearance of the figures. This exhibition marks a new period in their relationship, just as in their professional life. Stick with Dicks and Slits portrays two people co-existing in a harmonious and joyful manner, which is a kind of revelation after the intensity and violence that characterizes most of their earlier works.
I can’t tell whether this exhibition has left a deeper impression on me than the market artists sculpting their wire pieces or not. It is fun, yet I find it a bit superficial. The figures seem to get lost in the sterile whitewash of Blain|Southern gallery. The antiseptic environment doesn’t do justice to the works’ potential, as the figures seem awkwardly out of place. On the one hand, the repetition of the same motifs, although it serves as a link between this new body of works and Noble and Webster’s oeuvre, it also makes things predictable. On the other hand, this exhibition might be just the start of a progress through which we will be able to see the pair’s work developing into something very different.
Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Sticks with Dicks and Slits is on view at Blain|Southern, London until 25 March 2017.