This impressive sculpture pointed the way toward Maelstrom as well as toward Graft (2008-09), outside the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Neuron (2010), recently on view outside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney as part of the city’s latest Biennale. With Graft, a 41-foot-high stainless steel sculpture made from more than 8,000 components and weighing about 16,000 pounds, two separate trees grow from the same trunk: one gnarly, knobby, twisted and bent, the other far more sleek and smooth. Chaos and order, right brain emotionalism and left brain rationality, are juxtaposed and combined. Neuron, 41 feet high and 52 feet wide, is a fantastical, wildly exaggerated version of a neuron, complete with dendrites, reaching skyward as well as to the ground. Fusing abstraction and biology, the sculpture seems to almost crackle with pent-up energy.
I recently visited Roxy Paine in Treadwell, N.Y., in the Catskills, where he spends much of his time, and where his large sculptures are realized. Paine’s spectacular, 21st-century nature-culture collisions are fashioned in a place of rare natural beauty, not far from the sites favored by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Church and other Hudson River School painters. Like those renowned 19th-century artists, Paine is particularly inspired and energized by this landscape, with its sublime and picturesque aspects.
Distillation, a work intended for an October show at New York’s James Cohan Gallery, was in process. Paine’s first large-scale Dendroid designed for an interior space, it too is largely made of stainless steel pipes, plates and rods, and will start at the gallery’s front and “grow” through much of the space, advancing around corners and walls, invading exhibition rooms and back offices, inexorably spreading like the fungi that Paine has long studied. Indeed, fungal shapes sprout from some places, kidney shapes from others, and the sculpture also sports various handles, valves and vats that blur botany, biology and industrial mechanics. Some parts of the work are burnished, others are smudgy and seared, since Paine brings to his sculptures a distinctly painterly interest in surfaces, textures and colors. As with Maelstrom, multiple systems of information cohere and overlap in this eccentric, looming structure that also loosely suggests a moonshiner’s still and an alchemist’s lab. Like all Paine’s recent works, Distillation fuses technology and nature, humanity and impersonal forces, as it strives to induce the exhilaration, amazement and awe that are, in certain privileged moments, our route to transcendence.
1 Eleanor Heartney, Roxy Paine, New York, Prestel Publishing, 2009, p. 21.
2 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” The Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Brooks Atkinson, New York, Modern Library, 1968, p. 6.
3 Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” The Portable Walt Whitman, ed. Mark Van Doren, New York, Viking Press, 1945, p. 33. (“Urge and urge and urge / Always the procreant urge of the world.”)
GREGORY VOLK is a New York-based critic and curator, and professor at the School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.