Walking into the Joel Shapiro exhibition at the Pace gallery is like entering a painting, as a friend of mine said when she first saw the exhibition. Seven of Shapiro’s sculptures are positioned in the white gallery space, filling it with blots of vibrant colour. Several of these volumetric shapes are suspended from the ceiling on thin cords; others are placed directly on the floor as if they are sitting. The viewer is able to walk among and below these shapes that play with the idea of gravity, seemingly defying it, giving the feeling that the viewer might also be able to float off into space.
Shapiro’s use of colour is particularly striking. ‘If you are a sculptor and you use colour, the colour has to mean something, do something to change your perception of the piece. Cobalt violet obfuscates form and blue withdraws. Cadmium red and black both add density’, Shapiro explains. Upon entering the room, my eyes are immediately drawn to the deep, almost Klein, blue of the largest sculpture, a series of cube-like shapes set upon each other. The colour is sensual, and sits wonderfully with the white walls of the gallery. Shaped roughly like the letter ‘L’, the sculpture resembles a seat, reclining as if it too is considering the gallery space. As I walk around the room, the piece reminds me more and more of a human body: a long, head-like cube at the top, a middle, and outstretched legs. Would it be too strange to compare it to Rodin’s The Thinker? I muse, as I wander. To me, the sculpture has a similar quality of attention, a sense that it is considering its surroundings and internal landscape as much as I am. Perhaps it is the velvety quality of the blue that makes it seem as if the sculpture radiates some kind of life force. It is also one of the only sculptures that is on the ground, and I wonder how the effect would differ if I was seeing it from below.
The other grounded sculpture is a yellow-green colour, and resembles a folded envelope. While Really Blue (after all) seems to dazzle and infiltrate the space beyond it, this one, if it had a personality, would be more modest. Entitled Yellow May, it doesn’t quite sit flat on the floor, and is all angles and straight lines. Walking past it, a small chair-like sculpture is suspended from the ceiling, looking as light as a feather. Although, like the other sculptures in the room, it is made of plywood, it reminds me of an escaped helium balloon, weightless despite its appearance of solidity. This small and pleasing shape finds an echo in OK Green, the piece next to it, painted a pistachio green, and, as if in reflection of its larger size, suspended slightly closer to the floor. Ok Green is also slightly chair-like, but could also be the exposed wall of a house. Its tilted angle gives it an air of mischief, and prompts me to think more about the shapes. Are they practical? Decorative? Symbolic? A later, boxy orange sculpture (entitled simply Orange) makes me think of a space ship, its sloping angles and streamlined shapes suggestive of motion and speed. Placed low to the ground, it looks as if it might take off at any moment.
Wandering around these shapes is a joy, and the spacing between each sculpture is also pleasing. Looking at them is like being inside an uncluttered mind, glimpsing hot flashes of thought, or seeing birds flying in perfect formation. They also remind me of stones set at just the right distance from each other in a necklace. As I sit and consider each sculpture, I start to feel my own body as a series of shapes. How do I take up space in a room? I feel transient in comparison to these larger, beauteous unfoldings of angles. Shapiro’s exhibition also includes several abstract gouache paintings, each made on textured paper. Colour is also foregrounded here, although to different effect. Rather than monochrome, the paintings explore more organic colour, with pond green, muddy yellow, and aqua blue tones. It is Shapiro’s command of shape and volume, evident in his suspended structures, that my mind returns to in the days after I viewed the exhibition, however, and I am excited to see what this artist will do next.
By Suzannah V. Evans
19 May – 17 June 2017