Richard Serra at Gagosian
There are numbers penciled along the edge of a couple of Serra’s steel slabs, all in the same hand. His, presumably. I find myself writing them down, sketching them almost, the distinctive 1s with their long beak--
I do this as if these numbers were the aesthetic objects at hand, skirting around the steel slabs themselves, which in their huge brute presence are just as matter-of-fact, but equipped with less graspable contours. Their bulk and the mute self-evidence of steel overwhelms any angle of approach. I am drawing the numbers for something to say. They are on the edge of a slab that lies flat named Silence (for John Cage). This silence is, it seems, a spreading horizontality in contrast to the upright assertions, the positive vertical presences of Every Which Way, the forest of slabs installed in the main space.
Like redwoods the stillness of these is full and tense with latent power. But their surfaces are busy—on one, dribble trails of some liquid run sideways from the edge so that I can tell its orientation was once 90 degrees otherwise. But it’s hard to imagine the colossal object uprooting or moving. What would it sound like, slamming onto its side? Can a thud be sharp? A suddenness that’s dull with weight but keen with the zing of steel. Dull and sharp are the two poles we use when seeking to articulate bodily pain: a crude linguistic scale made necessary by the difficulty of giving voice to brute feeling.
The slabs are incontrovertible, majestic, and my body is small. In Through it is ushered narrowly between two especially enormous slabs whose rectangular uprightness has been toppled on its side, landing lengthwise and becoming cavernous. There are three of these, with a smaller crack between the second two—not for bodies. The sound comes again when I imagine it closing in—a sharp thud and a perfect airless embrace.
And there is another sound—less sharp but not round, either—that’s happening on the surface of the steel: a rogue noise that belies the total, austere clarity of the sculptural objects. A faint buzzing and tinkling of small life that gets louder as I get closer up, and discover the delinquency of rust in all of its tangential, penumbral glory. The chalky yellow of smeared pollen; clusters like stuff on a beach rock that cakes off with your finger, or iron filings; bubbly lacquer-black blotches spreading like sores. From further back, these small infestations present as a rash of colour—orange-magentas, bright and fleshy, and dusty plum blues—that insist, from within these mute bodies, upon the nuances of joy.
There is one small, square, windowless room containing no objects, just black rectangles painted alternately across the upper or lower half of each wall. Here is a different kind of flattening, and a discolouration, as if the room were acting as a cave of forms. But I am moved by how the upper rectangles of black paint bulge subtly at their lower edges where they meet the white of the wall, the way blue-tacked child drawings do when the paint has dried. And the smell of the paint is dense, almost peaty. Sound from the street is amplified fiercely in this small room, and the atmosphere becomes circus-like when the jingle of an ice-cream van echoes around inside its arena of checkered black & white.
Jonelle Mannion is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, The Los Angeles Review of Books, BOMB Magazineand Art Monthly Australia among others.
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