“Shelter Serra’s Abject Objects of Desire”


By Carlo McCormick



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Hailing from Marin County, California, in the town of Bolinas – a place of such hippie ideals that it is primarily known for removing all roads signs to insure privacy from developers and tourists alike; Raised without a television in a home of artists whose patriarch, Tony Serra, is one of the most radical defense attorneys in all the land; By the time Shelter Serra hit New York City in 2009 (via U.C. Santa Cruz and Rhode Island School of Design) he was already unlike most any artist out there.


Since his arrival in NY, he’s been working for his uncle, that most macho of minimalists, Richard Serra. Though Shelter is also a sculptor, his art bares little resemblance to that of his uncle, the familiar legacy being more about a determined intellectual rigor and studio practice, as well as a process-based work where (to cite Shelter quoting Richard) “ideas are only found in execution.” Simply put, in an age when everyone is striving to be clever, Shelter makes stuff that is smarter than the rest – art that is not premised on some idea, but constructed out of a question.



“Water Bottle”, 2010. Cast Plaster, 8” x 2.5” inches. Edition of . Courtesy of the artist.

“Water Bottle”, 2010. Cast Plaster, 8” x 2.5” inches. Edition of . Courtesy of the artist.


Shelter Serra’s inquiry into the quotidian and iconic objects that populate our materialist culture is posited on the dynamics of materiality; the process of his re-creation in the studio and the transformation of form, content and functionality that occurs in its new state. Drawing on a lineage of Duchamp, Beuys, Nauman and Johns, he produces the surrogate to fathom the extent of consumer desire – to allow us to see if it’s the form or function we are attracted to – as well as to draw attention to the myriad issues and relative associations these commodities signify.


Early in the evolution of these ideas was Serra’s Hummer from 2007. Created before the massive recession that diminished their popularity to near obsolescence, and in this way prescient with its address of our penchant for grotesque waste, Shelter immobilizes the original, fracturing it (literally splitting it in half) to find the fault lines between the implicit aggression of a military vehicle and its repurposed utility as a vehicle for the conjunctive ego. It serves for Serra as the psychological “interior space of our manifest destiny.” A formal rendering of the emotive meaning of inanimate objects.



“Darth Vader”, 2013. Ink, charcoal and pencil on paper. 60 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Darth Vader”, 2013. Ink, charcoal and pencil on paper. 60 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist.


He returned to this idea with the seventeen car engine replicas he made last year for designer Helmut Lang’s stores, and a tank he cast in which the detail was stripped away, leaving mostly the abstract as a kind of Barbara Hepworth enigma still grounded with a referential foot firmly in the real world.


A manufacturer of provocations, Shelter Serra’s ersatz merchandise does less to fulfill our insatiable consumer desire than to undermine it. For his installation this Spring at Paul Kasmin Gallery’s PK Shop, Serra produced a series of fake, plaster cast guns. Horrifically timely in light of the escalating violence and doomed gun debate facing our country at the moment, these loaded metaphors hit upon our inherent attraction and repulsion to such artifacts, isolating them in the aesthetic frame of the objet trouve. In this, Shelter Serra returns repeatedly to the mundane for its eerie and disturbing connotations.



“Salt Lick”, 2013. Porcelain and stone powder, resin. 10 x 12 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Salt Lick”, 2013. Porcelain and stone powder, resin. 10 x 12 x 10 inches. Courtesy of the artist.


Serra’s current solo exhibition, “Balance of Trade,” through the end of May at Anonymous Gallery in Mexico City, features similarly disorienting transpositions:


A casting of a plastic water bottle where this vessel of life becomes a nature morte, a memorial monument to our unhealthy addiction to disposability in the name of convenience;


A drawing of Darth Vader based off the original drawing for the character from Lucas Studios, depicting the manner by which we invent icons of evil as universal commodities;


A replica of a 1967 VW Beetle that, like a post-modern Rosetta Stone, provides the translation for the subjective relativity of meaning, be it the “people’s car” of Nazi Germany, the embodiment of hippie freedom, or (in Mexico) the classic taxi;


A rug piece quilted together from inexpensive scraps that itself weaves together the artisanal craft of the homemade with the patina of a luxury item;


And most elusive of all, a salt lick (as used by ranchers and hunters) recreated in resin, porcelain and stone powder, the ultimate in representational abstraction where form intercedes function and the organic and manmade collide in a brutal confrontation between nature and artifice.


Shelter explains his art as a kind of “existential dialogue” not too dissimilar from the kinds of questions his lawyer father might ask, seeing the artist’s job of “doing things differently to push our culture” as a way of finding resolution to the problem of why all things are how they are. In a culture of conformity where social conditioning habituates silence, Serra’s re-vision of the ordinary may not resolve anything, but it offers a path of inquiry that is both profound and provocative.


For more information visit Shelter Serra.


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