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Paintstick and Perception

At the Menil, Richard Serra masterfully uses simple materials to alter the world around us.

But why draw something black rather than paint something black? Scrubbing black paintsticks into the surface leaves a record of the physical effort. There is less effort involved in stroking the paint onto a surface with a brush. It can also give you a smoother surface. One might wonder why it matters, if it's all black anyway. The natural lighting in the Menil beautifully illustrates the point of all that work.

Blank (1978) is an installation of two ten-foot square drawings on opposite walls; each butts up into the corner of the connecting wall. If you walk up with the sun behind a cloud or from a certain angle, the drawings appear to be impossibly thin, yet impossibly heavy sheets of darkly burnished steel. And as you move into the space or as the light shifts, you see the subtle sheen of the vertical marks — they're deliberate and focused, not crazy, agitated scribbling — and the tiny bits of paintstick accumulated on the slubs in the fabric. You can see the control and the effort. To civilians, this is seventh-degree art geekery, but nuances like this make a difference in the visual effect of the work. Serra deftly plays with our perceptions of space in his drawing installations. Standing inside Blank, it feels like squares have been cut from the visible world, leaving windows into some cosmic void beyond. In Abstract Slavery, Serra created a barely noticeable parallelogram that is just perceptible enough to throw you off.

Some later works are more expressive, and I think less successful. A series of 1999 circular drawings made on square paper have a great, dense accumulation of melted paintstick matter in the center, but the splattering haze around the circles' edges just makes them seem kind of pointlessly dramatic. But overall it's a great show.

The one distracting thing was the layout, which has you zigzagging through an almost maze-like arrangement of rooms. I understand the drawing installations need to have their own space, but the layout is a little gimmicky and distracting. The Menil usually has pitch-perfect tone when it comes to installing work, so I found this a little surprising. I think it may be a result of the artist's input, as it seems something similar happened in the Met show. Serra has effectively created these kinds of spaces in his sculptures, leading viewers in and out and through them. But it doesn't fit well with the rectilinear confines of the gallery, so it feels too contrived.

When you get to the end of the installation, however, it's all worthwhile. The last gallery is Two Corner Cut: High Low (2012), commissioned specifically for the Menil. It's incredible. Two drawings run down opposite walls of a long, narrow gallery in thick bands, like enormous rolls of wallpaper hung sideways, crooked and with the ends cut off at odd angles. The drawings are so recent you can still smell the linseed oil of the paintstick, and Serra has placed them on the walls so masterfully that the viewer is totally disoriented.

The optical effect of those dark, massive drawings convinces you that the floor you know to be perfectly level is sloped. I sat at the end of the gallery typing on my laptop and looking down through the installation. My eyes told me that if I did a somersault, I'd keep rolling down the slope until I came to rest at the opposite wall. The logical part of my brain tried to convince me that wasn't the case, but what really stopped me was the fact that I haven't done a somersault in 20 years. It's amazing how these drawings, made from materials as simple and low-key as fabric and paintstick, can so alter your perception of the world around you.

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