Richard Nonas is an artist who courts the unexpected playfully. It’s not the first thought gathered looking at his heavy, austere minimalist sculpture, but look closer. It’s the unexpected detail, the unexpected layering, the unexpected intimacy in an art that seems so unbudging and finished that makes his work so fascinating and even companionable. Nonas, trained as an anthropologist, did field work on the native people of northern Canada, Mexico and Arizona for 10 years before turning to art. The result is something very real and concise, considerate of the large gallery space it is in at MASS MoCA. The exhibition, titled The Man in the Empty Space, will be on view through Sept. 5.
Perhaps what Nonas does best is surprise you, albeit carefully. He’s not in it for the immediate beauty or instant shock value. Rather, there’s something gentle in the art on view, and when you notice the minute changes and attention to craftsmanship, you’re permeated with a sudden sense of calm, a sense of awe. Nonas’s work is about noticing things upon second glance. Looking at his art is neither quick nor easy, but it’s worth the introspection.
In “Untitled (Split Wood Series),” the first piece you encounter upon walking into the exhibition, Nonas takes three short, rough-hewn pieces of wood and stacks them one on top of the other. The shadow resulting from the very deliberate overhead light above is sharp and jagged, adding another dimension to the work.
“Crude Thinking 3,” to the right of the base of the steps, could not be any more different. The sculpture uses the same medium – wood – but it’s cut precisely, one vertical piece over two horizontal. The shadow these pieces cast is flush with the T-shaped configuration of the wood.
In working with the same medium and same forms consistently, Nonas is showing us that minute changes in a simple idea can yield vastly different works. There’s a beauty in that order, in the progression of similar trends with slight changes. It’s a fun coincidence, then, that three floors of Sol LeWitt’s wall drawings are in the next building over. LeWitt, who worked serially with his lines in four directions – recording all their possible permutations and executing them in different sizes in graphite, colored pencil, ink wash and acrylic – probably would have had a nice conversation with Nonas.
There is something awesome about the consistency in Nonas’s work. There’s a beauty in precision and in order, yet Nonas tweaks this perfection by slightly altering one or two details in every work, sometimes mysteriously so. How can you control the shape of a work’s shadow? How exactly was this work carved? The small deviation from expectation is what makes the work exciting and personal; it’s what reveals the artist’s hand. This is what we notice.
“Untitled” leans effortlessly against a wall yet looks precarious doing so, like a balanced ladder that might slip at any time. It’s a small staircase to nowhere, it seems, shaped from one large piece of lumber. But again, there is more to see. The tree rings are not parallel to the wood’s surface; instead, they climb up the steps, rings stretching across both the vertical and horizontal parts of the stairs. It’s an illogical detail you notice after the fact. Trees can’t grow between a right angle.
Simplicity in Nonas’s work is key. The art is minimal, but what exactly does that mean? Nonas has stripped away color and narrative content in favor of medium, texture and form. In other words, he focuses on the pure sculptural qualities of sculpture and nothing else. This is not to say there is not much to his work. He may be working with less, but the detail and precision to craft is much more than most. Nonas succeeds by giving us detail where we least expect it: in the thickness of the materials, the bladework, the positioning, the shadows, the surroundings. The sculpture is not framed, nor is it put upon a pedestal. We see the forms in context. The work just is.
“Untitled” is hung between two windows, two planks of wood flush to and sliding past each other. By now, moving through the exhibit, you’ve become accustomed to noting the slight changes, like the stacking of three to two pieces of wood, the cut negative space and complex shadows that result and the smooth, refined shapes. Here, there’s no layering, no shadow. The pieces of wood are side by side. Look.
The work is actually cut from one single piece of wood. Yes, the right side is smooth, dark and higher than the other by just a lip, the left lighter and nicked with shallow cuts in the surface. Everything points to two separate pieces of wood. But Nonas awes us by tricking the eye, creating another simple illusion, a wry detail by carefully carving the work to look like two separate pieces of wood.
There is a joy in noting something’s just a little off and being able to pinpoint it. With the work in Empty Space, we think we know the medium well – wood and steel. But when we realize there’s something a bit different in each work, it doesn’t sit well with us. There is so much embedded in these sculptures that there is a persistent attempt to pinpoint what’s off, and that is the thinking exercise that follows through in closely viewing this exhibition.
Yet the wood works are just a taste, a simple glimpse into what’s to come in the next three sections of the exhibition. In the back room on the first floor, you encounter works of an entirely different medium – unburnished steel that’s immediate and cold, austere and hugging the ground. And on the wall, too, there are tiny pieces of heavy steel with textured striations – is it purposely cut to look like wood grain? Perhaps.
Nonas leaves no stone unturned in inhabiting the space with his striking sculpture. The stairwell is perhaps the last place you expect to find art, but alas. “Untitled,” from 1972/ 2014, looks down at you from the top of the stairs. It’s a familiar shape, a slim rectangle, but with its core gently scooped out. There’s an undulation of form within the rectangle as you walk up the stairs and look at the piece. A wood chisel was used, but not in its intended manner – wild cuts and rough coarseness instead of a shaped smoothness.
And at the top of the stair landing, one part of “Long Way Home” sits almost camouflaged against the diamond plate. The work can’t be more than six inches long and three inches tall. Small, but considered.
Nonas creates works that make you feel a certain way and sometimes, that means feeling deeply uncomfortable. “Untitled,” from 2014, is a medium-sized piece of woodwork with natural nicks from the shaping of it. But the deep, straight lines – the lacerations – cut into the wood are completely intentional and harrowing as such. Visceral cuts – look at the shadows they leave behind. Nonas very purposefully stuck a knife deep into this work, violently, destructively, to leave these deep gashes, carefully and slowly done.
With Nonas, there is a poetry in the minimalism, a maturity in the modesty. When you discover the detail lying in each work, it is a very personal experience. The work waits for you to notice another unnoticed impression, another wry detail that makes you realize something’s off. The work doesn’t parade itself as sculpture, it doesn’t brashly make itself known as possessing something deeper. The Man in the Empty Space is a show focusing on noticing the small things, on introspection.
So much of the work in this exhibition cannot be properly described; so much of the work needs to be examined in person; so much of the work relies on a careful, close-up examination of detail.
As art critic Holland Cotter noted in the New York Times in regard to another exhibition, “Pay close attention to what you’re seeing, and even closer attention to what you may be missing.”
Keep this in mind with Nonas.
Take your time.