And why? Why all the expenditure of labor and resources to create an immense urban refuge, and all the vigilance today to protect it? Here it is worth considering not only the civic-minded Olmsted and Vaux, but also a major influence on both: Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist poet/philosopher who championed immersive and ecstatic encounters with nature, understood as being suffused with divinity and spiritual truths that could then be channeled into art and life. In a famous passage of his 1836 essay “Nature” (a seminal text that Olmsted and Vaux likely encountered), Emerson observes: “Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.” He then goes on to memorably declare, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”2
I’m not suggesting that Paine is some sort of latter-day Transcendentalist, although his interests are indeed wide-ranging, and a great amount of eclectic scholarship goes into his projects. I am suggesting, however, that elements of 19th-century journeying, both literal and psychological—which entails an aptitude for vastness and catharsis, an interest in nature and its wonders—very much enter his work, and contribute to what makes him so compelling an artist.
Since emerging from the mid-1990s Brooklyn art scene, Paine, who was born in 1966 and attended the Pratt Institute, has used various methods, several of which combine sculpture and painting, to explore culturally infiltrated nature. He has also long gravitated toward outcast materials that are ugly, deadly, psychoactive or abhorrent. Fungi (including the deadly Amanita virosa and hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms), dry rot, poison ivy, weeds, poppies (which produce opiates), rotten vegetables and, of course, dead trees—all these elements (or, rather, their counterfeits) have figured prominently in Paine’s work.
One strain of the artist’s oeuvre involves botanical forms that he crafts from industrial materials including polymer, fiberglass, lacquer, oil and stainless steel, and then meticulously paints by hand. These fictive versions of nature, which he calls Replicants, seem real and have fooled many viewers. For Bad Lawn (1998), Paine delved into his own upbringing in suburban Virginia, where perfect green lawns were coveted and nasty disruptions like weeds and bare patches were anathema. To achieve these uniform micro-paradises (which are signs of economic success and social standing), homeowners made liberal use of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Bad Lawn is a synthetic tabletop version of a yard consisting of nothing but weeds, scraggly grass, worn areas and sprouting fungi. This work, a hilarious send-up of suburban taste, celebrates exactly what many fear and try to control: nature’s unruliness, its tenacious “procreant urge” (to borrow from Walt Whitman, whom Emerson also strongly influenced).3
Paine is equally known for art-producing machines that allude to robotics and factory production. The droopy, abstract sculptures made by his two SCUMAK devices—which pour layered globs of hot polyethylene onto a conveyor belt, where the viscous material cools and hardens—evoke huge, world-shaping processes, like volcanic magma erupting and cooling to form mountains. Painting Manufacture Unit (1999-2000) features a computer-controlled nozzle, attached to a vat of white paint, intermittently spraying a canvas. This mechanical procedure gleefully undermines various mythologies surrounding artistic agency and subjectivity, but also produces compelling paintings that mix abstraction with intimations of horizons, drifting clouds, mists, winter mountains and desert topography.
The most surprising aspect of Paine’s machines is how they connect with nature, and thereby retain an aura of enchantment. Erosion Machine (2005) is a speeded-up equivalent of powerful geologic forces operating over millions of years. In a large vitrine, a heavy block of sandstone is blasted and incised by silicon carbide issuing in a jet from a robotic arm. The twist here is that the activity of this robotic arm is directed, via laptop conversion, by arcane numeric input such as weather data from Binghamton, N.Y., in 1990, stock market prices from 1998-2002 and crime statistics. Each block is eroded by a different set of numbers. The finished sculptures look like condensed versions of majestic canyons, information-packed, geologic simulations that suggest encounters with awe-inspiring nature.
Paine’s first Dendroid, Impostor (1999), created for the Wanås Foundation in southern Sweden, constitutes both a logical next step and a significant esthetic shift. Whereas works like Bad Lawn and the SCUMAK apparatuses bring the outside into sculpture, the Dendroids are intensively wrought sculptures made to be sited outdoors, in direct relationship with nature. Impostor, installed in a sculpture park tucked into a heavily forested area, remains one of the smallest Dendroids to date—no doubt because Paine was just beginning to figure out the complicated technical and engineering issues these works involve. This spare, leafless tree is at once goofy and spectacular, a 27-foot-high contraption that has a peculiar, offbeat majesty.
As Paine’s Dendroids have proliferated, he has explored an essentially straightforward conceit: a fake metal tree, often installed in proximity to actual trees. While these sculptures are related, each is also distinct, almost with its own personality and mission. Tilting a bit from its place on a small hill outside the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Neb., Breach (2003) seems at once fixed and precarious. Angled toward the sky and reflecting sunlight, its network of branches seems like a hopeful antenna trying to register cosmic information. Defunct (2004), at the Aspen Art Museum, is far more somber, suggesting a dead tree with its top lopped off and most branches severed—a once mighty thing, now wasted and ruined but still obdurately upright. Inversion (2008), exhibited the year of its completion at Art Basel, resembles an upside-down tree that has just been uprooted by a hurricane.
It is possible—indeed it is very likely—that Paine infuses his Dendroids with elements of his own psychic state, and that they are, in some sense, psychological self-portraits. But if so, this occurs in a subtle way that successfully hides any personal references. Still, while not anthropomorphic, these sculptures deal in human traits close to the bone—our grace and ungainliness, exuberance and unease, belonging and alienation—which is why they always seem so strangely communicative.
Conjoined (2007), shown three years ago at Madison Square Park in New York, was another breakthrough: the first time two of Paine’s structures stood in direct relation to each other. The 40-foot-high treelike sculptures face one another. Their upper branches touch and intertwine, delicately and tenderly so, even while conjuring a stormy sky lit up by lightning bolts. There is something frantic and erotic, sizzling and sweet about these two trees with their interlaced branches, which seem to be engaged in an intimate exchange.