Artist: Richard Nonas
Almost-clarity about not-quite-confusion is what I want. Barely perceptible dissonance is what I want — the dissonance of place, the dissonance of art, the dissonance, I mean, of intersecting and conflicting human meaning cut into an unyieldingly physical world.Richard Nonas
The work of Richard Nonas (b. 1936 in New York) is characterized by a formal simplicity and rigidity of material. Simple, mostly geometric, minimalist forms created out of wood, steel, or stone comprise the “vocabulary” of his often serial, repetitively structured spatial sculptures. But Nonas does not think of himself as a minimalist; he is neither interested in pure sculptural form, its intrinsic minimalist value, nor is he focused on the language of material. Nonas’s work relies fundamentally on the relationship of the spatial sculpture to the surrounding space, the location. One is inconceivable without the other. With the simplest of formal means, he creates spatial-sculptural scenarios capable of potentially addressing the entire spectrum of human sensibilities and also of subtly incorporating meanings that resonate with memories and emotion. The viewpoints and perceptual abilities of viewers therefore are of particular importance.
Specially developed for the Galerie Stadtpark building, Richard Nonas’s spatial sculpture skeleton-cuts, line by line questions and incorporates the exhibition space as well as the gallery’s entrance area in a spatial, sculptural manner. Nonas integrates a structure into the existing building structure, an architecture into the existing architecture of the modernist gallery building. Skeleton-cuts, line by line, can be understood as a structural form of evenly positioned wooden cubes that connects Galerie Stadtpark’s gallery space to its entrance foyer, but which pierces the entire building—quite invasively—at the same time. In the main space and foyer, additional rows of wooden cubes are touching at a right angle the longitudinal axis of the sculptural form, which is slightly rotated relative to the building’s floor plan. In its entirety, the produced structure enters into a spatial, relational dialogue with the surrounding space and subtly counteracts the orthogonality and clarity of the building. The overlapping of the two spatial structures (the gallery building and the orthogonal, wooden-cube form) goes far beyond an abstract, spatial-geometric or minimalist reading, rather it creates its own distinct form of spatiality: the interfusion of both spatial matrices yields a kind of third space with its own distinct, albeit ambivalent status. Nonas’s structural intervention makes space itself here the actual material. The careful yet simultaneously invasive placement of the spatial structure turns the spatial—in the sense of a spatialization—into the central aesthetic subject. Form, space, and specific location are not simply recognized or found here, but are formed and co-produced through visual perception.
Constituted by evenly positioned cubes, the spatial structure appears fragmentary and skeletal. With Nonas, it does not function in a formally autonomous way, in the manner of a serial minimalistic sculpture independent of space, but can instead be understood as a structure of support lines, imaginary volumes, and implied directions and spatial positions that develops its spatial presence and dynamics in relationship to the surrounding space and thus necessarily involves the viewer. The serial rows of cubes can certainly be thought of as a potentially expandable structure, at least in those places where they come into contact with the building’s glass surfaces. Conversely, the potentially expandable structure is confined by the walls of the exhibition space and building, thus halting this imaginary expansion. In this mostly mental process of “forming space,” the viewer’s current viewpoint becomes a critical factor around which everything revolves.
Installed in various locations in the exhibition space are a total of six wall elements, four in the main room and two in the foyer. These wall elements—each consisting of segments from the same piece of wood as the floor elements—do not form distinct sculptural units, but function as spatial markings highlighting the wall’s function as a spatial boundary. The intension here is less about emphasizing the limitation of the exhibition space than it is about focusing on the limitation of the spatial segments framed by the series of wooden cubes. These spaces within the space feature no right angles and they oppose—like the overall structural form that is “skewed” in relationship to the building—the formal clarity and authority of the exhibition space.
With formally simple means, Nonas creates “unclear” aesthetic situations. The status of the sculpture that seems clear-cut at first, appears, on longer observation, to be increasingly ambivalent. In the process of perceiving it, skeleton-cuts, line by line becomes the potential bearer and mediator of various evocations. The individual wooden “building block” thus recalls a form of vocabulary from a (polysemous) field of meaning that unfolds before the observer, but which eludes clear conceptual definitions and also shifts between different temporal horizons—between the past, the present, and the future. Simply focusing on contemplating it in the here and now would in any case be insufficient. Nonas’s sculptural spatial structure aims neither for a direct, merely kinesthetic experience “of the object” nor for a contemplation that transcends material status, for instance in favor of “pure,” autonomous, geometric-serial form. Beyond the perceptual tenets of minimalism, the artist seeks to create a space, indeed a place of spatial concentration and layering, a “place” instead of mere “space,” that is, a completely specific place, a “physical space imbued with human meaning.” (Nonas)
For the artist, an object is far more ontologically potent than its mere material status would suggest. With Nonas, there always seems to be a significant divergence between the material and evocative content of an object or a spatial sculpture. What seems simple at first glance, quickly generates varied and quite contradictory kinds of resonances. Defining or pinning down Nonas’s work in terms of historical genre also presents a challenge. At times it resembles sculptural intervention, at other times architectural environment, or then again spatial gesture or mnemonic resonating space. The spatial-structural interventions are always minimal but not minimalistic in nature. With simple material and structural placements, the artist carefully disturbs the spatial syntax of the given location (exhibition location). He directs the focus of the perceptual process away from the thing, from the physically concrete toward the spatial itself. Viewers are not so much confronted with the question of what they see, but rather with what the spatial reveals to them, what it manifests to them and what that specific, aesthetic location demands from and means to them—in an entirely personal way.
Nonas creates a spatial scenario which, on longer observation, produces a multiplicity of possible latent meanings, in actuality a “supersemantics.” This is not about content in terms of linguistic or narrative evocation, interpretation, or connotation, but about meaning “pre- and beyond” language, about an aesthetic capacity—rather than an epistemological one—that is articulated in a highly intuitive, undirected, and diffuse manner. In the artist’s view, the aspect of imbuing meaning and evoking content can be understood as a space of various resonating meanings that deliberately incorporates the personal, i.e. what’s remembered, emotional, and projective in a manner that is completely at odds with the dictum of minimalist de-subjectification. The potential resonating space of a thing, of a sculpture, or of the created specific place, remains semantically ambiguous and tends towards a “surplus” of meaning. In this way, the artist turns the recipient into an active perceiver who gives meaning to what is seen in a precognitive and semantically “unclear” manner.
Nonas’s work strives for a domain of vagueness and ambiguity. It seeks to create a state of suspended meaning that refuses and opposes a separating of cognition into perceptual and mental, into sensual and epistemic. With Nonas, the borderline between different cognitive qualities and forms is presented as permeable and osmotic, nevertheless he is uninterested in deconstruction. Rather, he specifically works with a lack of clarity, deliberately subverting semantic unambiguity in order to generate a state of ambiguity on site and in the here and now. The less “pronounced” and articulated the evoked contrasts are, the stronger and more artistically effective the work is. In skeleton-cuts, line by line, Nonas therefore creates a specific place that not only fluctuates between knowledge and non-knowledge, between sensorial perception (multiple manifestations) and epistemological vagueness, but which is also capable of mediating between these presumed opposites. He is concerned with not-knowing as its own form of knowledge, with a knowledge that takes into account the precognitive, the cognitively diffuse, as well as the inkling, i.e. the not-yet-knowing. In the artist’s view, getting closer to things, being able to encounter the limits of knowledge, requires ambiguity more than it does rationality.
Richard Nonas searches spatially and aesthetically for the moment when an existing, familiar thing, a space or a place becomes something else. “The problem is that we are all kind of lazy in our seeing. We are used to knowing the things we see. But every once in awhile something catches you and it looks different than you thought it would. I see something that was always there in front of me and I didn’t notice it and suddenly I see that and then I start to think why didn’t I ever see that before? And that’s that doubleness that interests me. Once you do see it, you cannot not see it.” This modification of the view does not mean a mere shift in perspective, but marks a break in the perceptual continuum, in the familiar. In the moment of transformation in which perception, thought, and feeling finally blend together naturally, a shift occurs subjectively that makes the entire world seem potentially different and transformed. A subtle, spatial-ontological dissonance can thus lead to a fundamental epistemic eruption that not only has a reverse effect on seeing and perception, but, more broadly, on the entire being of the beholder.
Translation: Erik Smith