Thursday, April 14, 2016

Richard Serra, Ramble Drawings @ Gagosian Gallery Paris

Richard Serra, Ramble Drawings, Exhibition Installation @ Gagoian Gallery
This exhibition has been getting five stars around town, which surprises me. I wonder if it’s the Richard Serra factor, or is that critics believe these drawings are at the forefront of contemporary art. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them, but Serra’s drawings are not easy viewing, and their meanings are not immediately obvious. His abstract art requires a large degree of understanding to access.
Richard Serra - Ramble Drawings
Richard Serra, Ramble 4-16, 2015

On a superficial level, on entering Gagosian’s Paris gallery, visitors will be struck by the green that shimmers across the drawings mounted in rows. This optical effect of the lighting gives the impression that lime green powder has been spread over black crayon in some of the drawings. However, their composition in lithocrayon, paintstick and black pastel powder defies all possibility that the green exists. As I wandered around the gallery I then experienced a persistence of vision carried into the frames of those without colour. A wave begins to move from frame to frame. The lighting in the two downstairs galleries is quite different, the main gallery exposed to the light coming through the sky light, while the light in the first gallery is muted by curtains. This, together with the individuality of each image, means that each otherwise black crayon on paper drawing behaves like a unique work of art. Each is a different size, a different texture, a different resonance across the paper, and each reacts differently with its environment. Therefore, the impression, that might actually be an indication, is that each drawing is not rigidly structured, but that chance in the process of production has been key to the final product. These first reactions reminded me of the familiar Serra motivation to have his viewer question the space that she occupies, a questioning that takes place in the challenge to vision and the way that vision constructs space in the gallery. After learning that the green was not in the image, I started to question other aspects of my vision.

Richard Serra, Ramble 4-23, 2015
Given how much of Serra’s art is about the process, I was disappointed that the gallery flyer gave no information on what is one of, if not the, key moment of these drawings. Serra has always been interested in the objectness and self-referentiality of his art works, and the drawings are no different. For Serra, as we know from the steel sculptures, matter is the source and motivation of the works. Each work begins with the hand made paper -- accounting for its individual texture, size and finish. Similarly the fact that each is in black is also key to how the RAMBLE DRAWINGS here presented make meaning. Black is the non-color, the only color that refers to itself. Up close we see that the black crayon brings out the thick texture of the paper, so it becomes an interaction between the two. That I then see a lime green powder, on some, but not all, therefore immediately sparks curiosity.
Richard Serra, Ramble 3-53, 2015

The process as I understand it is one of lithography. Serra presses the crayon between two sheets of paper over a steel plate. The result of the pressed crayon on the sheets will determine which will be thrown away. Serra never knows in advance which sheet will be jettisoned. So this element of randomness in the process underlines the “ramble” in the title of the exhibition. Perhaps. The addition of the powder and further modification is dependent on the image produced. Again, the process could be said to express the aleatory of the title.
Richard Serra’s giant steel work Ramble.
Richard Serra, Ramble, 2014 
All this said, the title of the drawings reminds me that there is nothing random or aleatory about them. Their title surely casts them as relations to the enormous steel sculpture installed in Gagosian’s London gallery a couple of years ago, Ramble. The steel slabs arranged in rows, the size of each one different from the next are, typical of Serra, designed to give the impression of chance and randomness, where in fact they are carefully and consciously placed. With Serra everything is precise and thought out in advance, even if there are strains of not knowing in their performance, their reception by a viewer in motion in space. And so, we must assume that Ramble Drawings are likewise measured and methodical, though of course, it is not for us to find their logic and reason.
Richard Serra, Ramble 4-26, 2015

The drawings are sensuous, emotional, expressive, and even if they are not using a paintbrush, we feel the presence of the body, the artist’s body in their production. The hands that are so important in his early work, become felt in the weight of the crayon, or its absence on the paper in the final product. However, we do well to remember that Ramble Drawings work within an oeuvre that has engaged a set of issues over the past 50 years. Irrespective of their medium, the drawings continue that, very practiced, and constantly changing, Serra discourse on form, matter, space, light and vision.  

All images courtesy of Gagosian Gallery

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