A Review of Joel Shapiro at Pace Gallery, London

 
Courtesy of Pace Gallery 

Courtesy of Pace Gallery 

 
 

Playful shapes in primary colours seem to defy gravity at Pace Gallery. Joel Shapiro’s whimsically hung sculptures inaugurate the artist’s first solo exhibition at the London space, where seven vibrant sculptures and a selection of works on paper make for a subtle yet refined overview of Shapiro’s recent output. The sculptures are the real showstoppers, with many being suspended from the gallery’s infrastructure as if caught in motion. Their vibrant primary colours and unusually volumetric shapes reminded me of children’s toys; it was like a dreamland for Lego-loving giants.

In conversation with Michèle Gerber Klein for BOMB Magazine in 2009, Shapiro said: “the only thing I want to do is stick stuff in space … Why accept any limitation of architecture? Except as a foundation.” It is this attitude that is made manifest in the Pace exhibition. These sculptures reveal Shapiro’s architectural interests; the act of suspending the works within space is performative, breaking free of the traditions of grounding sculpture and the tensions associated with it. Indeed, the viewer is invited to consider the relationship of the sculptures to the entire gallery space–even to the air within it–as many of these works hang as if weightless in time and space.

There is an element of surprise when one first encounters the suspended works. Their unusual shapes yield a sense of uncertainty; it is as if they are unsteady, appearing weightless and yet unsettlingly colossal. Their random shapes, sizes, spacing and heights all defy expectation. Some of the works are placed on the floor, juxtaposed against those that are suspended: however, this is not a stark contrast. The works on the floor seem as if they are just resting there, and as such there is almost a lyricism to this colourful contrast. Juxtaposition is a key element in Shapiro’s work: he is concerned with the relationship of each sculpture to its environment, something that is clearly at play in this show.

 

 
 
Courtesy of Pace Gallery 

Courtesy of Pace Gallery 

 
 

Spatiality and colour are the key elements of Shapiro’s current sculptural investigation. Each work in the show is unique, taking on a personality of its own in accordance. The colossal and colourful forms are characteristic of the artist’s ongoing investigation into anthropomorphic and architectonic forms. They are intimate and playful, each individually characterised thanks to their colour, shape, and size. The hollow works are constructed by hand from 3cm thick plywood and then hand painted. Some of the shapes are faintly reminiscent of the human or natural form, and their dynamism is accentuated by their colour: the intimate red, absorbing blue, confrontational yellow, succulent orange and calming green.

Perhaps best known for his monumental public art (one such example, Verge, a permanent bronze, can be seen just down the road at 23 Savile Row); it is fascinating to see here how Shapiro works on a slightly smaller scale, heightening the intimacy of interaction between each individual piece. The viewer is a key component in delivering the impact of each work. It is as if Shapiro is thinking purely in terms of colour, questioning how one witnesses and receives each dynamic form of colour and shape.

In using a single colour for each piece, Shapiro questions how the viewer reacts to colour – to blue, yellow, orange, or red, and how that affects the interpretation of each piece. Think of how dull they might seem if they were all painted white or not painted at all, or how macabre they would appear if monochromatically black. The boldness that arises from the playful primary colours is coupled with a sense of intimidation, which is created by their size and placement. Shapiro confronts the viewer’s psyche: it is an investigation into colour that simultaneously explores human reaction and perception.

 

 
 
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Courtesy of Pace Gallery

 
 

Shapiro takes much of inspiration from the American Minimalists of the 1960s and 70s: Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Anne Truitt, John McCracken, Richard Serra and Tony Smith. The shapes owe much to the Constructivists too. The brilliant cobalt blue sculpture hanging in one corner is a bold statement of homage to Yves Klein. Shapiro simultaneously honours and rejects their legacy of restraint and reduction; his works are perhaps too expressionistic, too man-made, and too, at times, awkward. He challenges the restrained anonymity of Judd et al–and yet the works retain that typically Minimalist fascination with geometric abstraction.

These seven sculptures represent a slight departure in Shapiro’s oeuvre; one he has been occupied with since 2002, which has seen him exploring the transcendental possibilities and nature of objects. This practice arose from an initial desire to de-assemble sculptural structures into a series of wooden works, which he would subsequently suspend and hang with wire from the walls of his studio–the flat elements of previous works becoming dynamically volumetric forms.

 

 
 
Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Courtesy of Pace Gallery

 
 

Another of Shapiro’s great juxtapositioning comes from the atmospheric works on paper in ink and gouache that hang on some of the walls. The small works are intimately expressionist, quite a contrast to the starkness of the sculptures, and there is a complexity in them that is not so explicitly explored in the sculptural works. On paper, the works are loosely related to the sculptures; however, both mediums are used to explore spatiality and mood through shape, form, and colour–albeit on contrasting scales.

The gouaches explore artistic possibilities not allowed for through the use of sculpture, and vice versa. In the paper works, Shapiro creates abstract gouache and ink compositions, which are sometimes then blotted to create a sort of mirror image using another piece of paper. As in the sculptures, Shapiro explores and exploits this technique with an investigative nature. He uses colour and shifts the orientations of the works so that they become more challenging than they first appear.

Written by Georgia Messervy, a Contributor to Arteviste