The Aesthetics of Urban Decay - A Reaction to Rust

Nicholas Forrest
Nov 12, 2012 4:08PM

I have noticed that there is a trend developing within the world of interior design that embraces the aesthetic characteristics of urban decay – rusty and galvanised metal as well as oxidised surfaces. 

What is particularly interesting about the use of rust in interior design, and especially with works of art, is that a rusty metal surface takes on the characteristics of a living organism which is constantly changing and reacting to its environment.

When we see a rusty piece of metal it usually signifies abandonment and disuse but can also represent progress, change and development.  As a sort of “living surface” that is beautifully textural, there is more to rusty metal than its utilitarian function would suggest.

Richard Serra has used rusty metal to great effect with his monumental sculptures that challenge people’s concept of space and proportion. “It's all about centralizing the space in different ways. How people move in relation to space, that's essentially what I'm up to,” he has said.

Jean Tinguely took the concept of urban decay one step further by creating complex assemblages of metal and machinery that were built to self-destruct.  Tinguely’s motorised iron and wood creation Cocktail au Cheval, 1966 from Albright Knox Art Gallery wasn’t made to self destruct but is still a great example of the beauty that can be extracted from rusty metal.

Daniel Rozin’s Rust Mirror actually turns the viewer into rust through the manipulation of rusty metal “pixles” which shift to render the silhouette of whomever approaches the mirror. Motors and software designed by the artist turn 768 "rusty" rectangular pixels into the reflection of a person. 

As well as being a reflection of the decay that every human being experiences over time, Dougherty’s sculpture also emphasizes tension between the natural outdoors and virtual environments.

Real/Unreal, 2005 by Lei Hong transforms a rusty iron panel into a beautiful minimalist work of art that celebrates the very essence of urban decay in its purest form.  Although the piece of metal is isolated and shaped in such a way as to celebrate its utilitarian nature, the way the piece is displayed – precariously perched on a corner – adds an interesting level of interaction and reaction to what is essentially a mundane object.

In what is perhaps the ultimate homage to rusty metal, Garth Evans creates watercolour paintings that mimic the effects of rust and oxidation.  Evans is known for his ability to manipulate common materials, like tape, cardboard, and fiberglass, to resemble stone, bronze, or porphyry.

Nicholas Forrest
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019