Richard Serra, Gagosian 2016

Richard Serra

NJ-2, Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure, Rotate

01 October, 2016 - 25 February, 2017

Gagosian, Britannia Street, London WC1X 9JD


Winding, bending slabs are interlaced to guide you through the vast structure of NJ-2. The opening to this labyrinthine trail guides you into its darkness, initially it scares you inside, with only the slither of illumination above flickering to usher you through the blackness. It invites dread as you enter the deep enveloping shadows, and as the sheets bend outwards, the narrow pathway broadens to reveal you to the light and air. A double loop of steel sheets forms two paths that run parallel and yet appear divergent. The voices and footsteps of fellow Gagosian gallery goers are never truly locatable. Eeriness abounds. We feel compelled to dismiss this unease by distant thoughts of idyllic garden mazes, but the unease is difficult to shake off, as thoughts of the Minotaur abound.  

Richard Serra’s latest solo exhibition is currently showing at the Gagosian. I can stare at Serra’s oversized installations for hours. They inspire awe and remind me of my perishable form; their corrosion a snails pace compared to mine. These structures will outlive me by quite a distance. Yes, they too show signs of decay, but their immortality is absolute; first, as a piece of art, second, by their fundamental nature. They have been shaped by industrial hands, and will continue to exist in their steely form beyond our conception of time. Yet their immortality comes at a cost: I am sentient. 

Entering the brilliant white enclave that is the Gagosian, one is immediately struct by the stillness and silence of the gallery, which contradicts the processes involved in the inception and installation of these conceptual pieces. Industrial in look, these works are erected with industrial might, their sheer physicality contrasts with the gallery’s calmness. Serra's work can dominate their surroundings. The gallery space here rises up to the challenge of presenting these monolithic forms, the cool design housing the three installations boldly in three separate rooms. 

The San Francisco born minimalist artist’s material of choice is steel, a medium that is visually challenging; and yet has an undeniable aesthetic. Moving closer to the metal, one can see the grain of the material, which varies from sheet-to-sheet and from block-to-block. The rust is for real. The matt brown oxide layer of NJ-2 vividly devoid of shine, absorbs the light, and steals the brilliance of the room.

Rooms two and three accommodate two spherical and two cuboid objects, both are massive and once more I am dwarfed in comparison. I feel challenged by such dimensions, their mass compels me forward, but their sheer size and weight stir visceral, repellent emotions. If the emotions of NJ-2 foster eerie unease, the feelings Rounds and Rotate inspire are that of brute force. Lacking the patina of rust of NJ-2, the material looks and feels more raw too. The steel is rough with knocks, scratches and pockmarks that blister up as burnt umber coloured scars. These are tough, immovable structures.

The spherical forms of Rounds: Equal Weight, Unequal Measure are displayed within oblique walls that draw the viewer towards them, their pull whipping you around and back again. Such is their size and shape, they remain resolutely stationary, appear fixed to the ground, perhaps even penetrating the foundation of the building. The cuboid structures of Rotate demands different considerations. It requests attention to its symmetry. Placed in a rectangular room, the length of both sit perpendicularly and demands the eye along the room. With their inherent desire for symmetry, these massive forms are the least challenging to my senses. They have a brutal beauty, which works in harmony with one another and with this space.

Installations of this magnitude command a suitable gallery space, and often play a role in the exhibition's success. Shutting out the bustle of Kings Cross, the white stillness of the Gagosian wonderfully houses the latest works by Richard Serra, and allow a serene contrast to the storm of emotions these bleak installations summon. Richard Serra of course does not buy into any of these sensual descriptions, insisting the sculptures are what they are, weatherproof steel shaped into enormous structures. Yet that they evoke such strong emotions cannot be ignored. Steel is ubiquitous in our modern world. It gloriously shapes and defines our power, and yet like the very best of modernism, Serra’s work offers reflection to our deepest insecurities.

Mehmet Hassan