NORTH ADAMS — In Mass MoCA’s hangar-size Building 5, a 300-foot swath of old railroad ties gently curves across the worn concrete floor. Sunlight streams through the rows of windows lining the brick walls of the former factory, projecting bands of light down the building’s length that mirror, and engage with, the stretch of track — a crossroads of the natural world and the manmade.
“I work on the edge between nature and culture,” says sculptor Richard Nonas, walking through the cavernous gallery, “between space and place. What we think of as culture is simply assigning human meaning to those things that don’t start out having it. Place is the physical world, filled with human meaning.
“This,” he adds, gesturing toward his softly arcing installation, “is as much about these windows as it is about that line.”
“Richard Nonas: The Man in the Empty Space,” which opened earlier in February, explores the New York artist’s fascination with our relationship to the physical space around us. Spanning more than four decades, the exhibit features an array of Nonas’s spare, elemental works, ranging in scale from the massive, site-specific “Single Artificer” to wall-mounted, metal constructions no larger than a fist.
“Nonas’s work speaks to you immediately,” says Susan Cross, head curator at Mass MoCA. “They’re powerful objects with a visceral impact. His works transform the space they’re in, and make a new place; I’ve watched this gallery change before my eyes.”
Like “Single Artificer,” Nonas’s path to becoming an artist followed a curve rather than a straight line. After studying literature, he worked as an ethnologist, doing fieldwork in northern Canada and the Sonoran Desert. It was there that his interest in the relationship between nature and culture began to take form.
“I spent two years in a village of about 50 people,” he says, “and became fascinated with the way they put ideas together. While I saw vast stretches of desert, for them, the desert was filled with separate places: the place where Jose’s grandfather fell off his horse and broke his leg; the place where the mythic coyote came up from the earth. The desert was marked by memory, by history.”
Back in New York, and on a solid academic track, the then 30-year-old Nonas was teaching at Queens College and writing a book about his field studies when he found himself questioning his direction.
“In order to talk about abstract things, I was writing details about people’s lives that I wouldn’t want anybody to write about my own. I became more and more uncomfortable.
“I had a big dog at the time, and we’d go to Central Park; I would pick up pieces of wood and play with them.” One day, Nonas picked up two sticks and held them together. “There was an identifiable emotion, but no reason for it to be there. It occurred to me that maybe there was a way to communicate abstract feelings directly with objects, in a way that I couldn’t with words.”
For the past five decades, Nonas has pursued an artistic form of fieldwork, employing a simple geometric language to create physically austere, emotionally charged installations all over the world. He listens to the spaces; he builds on their stories. “I’m looking for spaces that are anchored,” he explains. “They can be small, they can be calm, they can be noisy — but something that has a sense of itself. Then I work from that, and for that, and skew it so that you feel what’s there more powerfully than you did before.”
“He likes spaces that already have a presence that he wrestles with,” says Cross, “and then gives a new sense of place from his own work, which lets the other history leak in. You feel the lines of the envelope of the space, not just the interior void.”
Nonas is equal parts creator and spiritual steward, his strongest works functioning less as stand-alone sculptures than cultural totems, modern markers of past places that inform, and invite contemplation of, their surroundings. “These ties are from the local lumberyard,” he says, stepping onto a long, darkly weathered rectangle of wood. “They have the same kind of ghost of history that this room has — the ghost of the railroad. But I don’t want it to be too literal: I want a certain degree of ambiguity, just the edge of confusion. A tension between now and the past, what’s real and isn’t real, what’s memory and isn’t memory.”
Nonas pauses by a series of wall-mounted wooden sculptures fabricated from trees downed in a Brooklyn cemetery by Superstorm Sandy. Split logs cross each other at offset angles, the pale wood appearing to float on the masonry wall that supports it. “I like to work with familiar materials,” he says. “Wood. Metal. Stone. There are resonances connected to them: a kind of knowledge, the way we understand the natural world.
“I want everything to make sense,” he continues, “except the final result.”
RICHARD NONAS: The Man in the Empty Space
At Mass MoCA, North Adams. Tickets: $7. 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org