Whitehot Magazine

August 2012: Rudolph Serra Studio Visit

Rudolph Serra, Riders on the Storm #1 (2007)

By Jill Conner
Located just beyond the din of Manhattan’s Canal Street and the luxe of Soho, Rudolph Serra resides in an old loft building that is unusual because its occupants are all artists.  Here, Serra has pursued his works in clay and terra cotta for over two decades. 

Serra’s wall-mounted reliefs combine gestural folds, crevices, ravines, and gauges, which transform terra-cotta into three dimensional sculptural forms.  Although these pieces may appear to be rough, raw, and harsh, they are calm, beautiful, and replete with details that are a delight to the eye.  Serra informed me that the surface coloring, which is subtle as if it were air-brushed, is the result of the clay’s inherent body when the terra-cotta is subjected to a firing of extreme high temperature oxygen reduction, rather than from any kind of glaze application.
Serra grew up in San Francisco with the ocean to one side and a view of the mountains of Marin County to the other.  His father Tony, a great influence when Serra was young, taught him how to work in his woodshop, and how to fish for bass and salmon.  If the fish weren’t biting, during these fishing excursions, in the vast landscape Serra would often dig into, expose and explore the composition of the layers of coarse and fine sand, seashells, and rocks on the beach,  “We all, at an early age, develop an aesthetic fingerprint that derives from our immediate environment, ” says Serra.
Both Serra, and his older brother – Richard Serra – were strongly affected by their father’s  blue-collar work ethic; during World War II, Tony worked in the shipyards as a pipe fitter and welder.  “He was well-liked and hard-working.  Now, we live in a different time where work has gone out-of-style,” Serra says.  Tony sent both of his sons out into different artistic directions by teaching Richard how to draw on butcher paper, and Rudolph how to absorb the sublities of the landscape and how to work in a woodshop
Having studied at San Francisco State College with Stephan De Stabler, and at University of California at Berkeley with Peter Voulkos,  Serra began to make aesthetic objects that were non-utilitarian.  He feels that his early work was influenced by constructivist architecture.  “I would build it and people were impressed, but I did not grow from the process,” says Serra.  In 1978, when his work was included in a group show at the University of California at Davis, “Sculptors Who Worked in Wood,” the artist packed and compressed sweeping compound to form a large hemispherical mound.  This sculpture had a strong, minimalist presence, yet it existed in an impermanent state that was more interesting to Serra:  In actuality it was like a fragile, five foot high snowball whose process of construction was part of its presence.
Drawn to the inherent, malleable qualities of materials, Serra has worked with asphalt, concrete, plaster, and hydrocal, as well as with terra cotta.  Serra’s goal, as a sculptor working in terra cotta, has been to explore the inherent potential of the material and reject the baggage that the field of ceramics has carried with it: that of making vessels and figures with shiny glazes.  Serra’s newest prints echo the appearances of his sculptures, with their positive and negative configurations
Today, Rudolph Serra works out of his studio on Greene St in lower Manhattan.  He develops terra cotta reliefs by working directly on the floor.  “I got there by just kneading clay on one side, and working on a project on the other side.  Eventually, the kneaded mounds appeared to be more interesting than the object that I was building.”  The newest three-dimensional pieces are larger (two feet by four feet) and curl like twisted rubber bands. 
A recent trip to Africa reestablished Rudolph Serra’s view of the sculptural object. “I saw things that I did not understand, such as rudimentary sculptures that were used as markers to keep away evil spirits in the night.  Rather than using art as a synthesis or realignment of western, European art-historical styles, the art that I saw was made by people for their inner belief systems.  I became intrigued when a material became empowered – when nothing became something.”
Clay is the primary medium of civilizations, symbolizing the survival and progress of humankind.  Rudolph Serra works with clay, but breaks it away from its history.  It expands into a series of physical, three-dimensional abstractions that bend, stretch and curl.  His art is about action and movement in space; a roving topographical map. 

 Rudolph Serra, Riders on the Storm #5 (2007)

Rudolph Serra, Riders on the Storm #6 (2007)

Rudolph Serra, Indicators #1" (2010-2011)

Rudolph Serra, Indicators #2, (2010-2011)

Rudolph Serra, Indicators #3, (2010-2011)


Jill Conner

Jill Conner is an art critic and curator based in New York City. She is currently the New York Editor for Whitehot Magazine and writes for other publications such as Afterimage, ArtUS, Sculpture and Art in America.  

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