Improbable Games: Gabriel Orozco


In the past few years, the work of Gabriel Orozco, a 34-year-old Mexican-born artist who divides his time between Berlin, London and New York, has gained widespread attention. He already has several museum exhibitions to his credit, including a retrospective that opened last spring in Zurich, subsequently traveled to London and appears in Berlin early next year. In his recent New York exhibition, Orozco showed mostly works he produced for a London installation presented this past summer on five floors of a posh, but disused, gentlemen’s club currently known as the Empty Club.

            The sculptures and photo works in the show featured images of sports, games and gambling-all interests of the club’s erstwhile members. Organized by Artangel (the group that commissioned Rachel Whiteread’s House, among other large-scale art projects), the show poked fun at the leisure activities of the privileged few and at a well-heeled English ‘old-boy’ mentality. Removed from the context of the London club, the works on display in New York lost some of their impact. However, having seen both shows, I feel that most of the rich metaphors and associations the works harbor arrived intact.

The north gallery at Marian Goodman was filled with computer-generated images collectively called the “Atomists.” These large color prints (up to 6 by 10 feet, some made of abutted multiple panels) are photographic blow-ups of images clipped from sports pages of the London Times upon which are superimposed hard-edge, abstract patterns of circles and oval shapes, often subdivided into halves or quarters of contrasting colors. The neatly arranged geometric designs partly obscure the action in scenes of cricket, soccer and other popular sports. Rather than obliterating the photograph, however, the geometric patterns provide a rhythmic counterpoint to the overall design and enhance the dynamic motion each print conveys. Recalling the formal strategies of a wide array of artists, from Kazimir Malevich and Oskar Schlemmer to John Baldessari, Orozco’s geometric interventions instigate a tense exchange between abstract and figurative realms. In the “Atomists,” the athletes seem to compete with the abstract forms for control of the picture plane. At the same time, these orbs appear to reference microscopic particles as well as celestial bodies.

            The circle or oval shape is a recurring motif throughout Orozco’s disparate oeuvre. In one of the side rooms, a large wall-mounted light box illuminated an abstract collage of circles and semicircles cut from pieces of bright-colored translucent laminate. The motif is echoed in the Oval Billiard Table, a work made to the artist’s specifications, that was displayed in the south gallery. The curvaceousness of the oval table, covered in green felt and pocketless, is a disconcerting contrast to the rigid right angles of an ordinary billiard table. And here, Orozco proposes an improbable game, the point of which seems to be the futility of competition. He provides only three balls-two cue balls and a red ball attached by a wire to the ceiling and suspended less than an inch above the table. (The work recalls Man Ray’s 1938 painting of a pool table, La Fortune). Cue sticks are propped against a vertical stand near the table so gallery-goers can take a shot. But would-be opportunists are frustrated by the elusive red ball which, when struck, swings pendulum-like in the air.

            The Oval Billiard Table is one of Orozco’s most elaborate inventions, but more often he manipulates simple and mundane materials to maximum poetic effect. Some of the small drawings and paper collages which lined the walls of the south gallery, for instance, are made with toothpaste, spit and cash register receipts. He incorporates these abject materials into eloquent doodles-quiet musings of an apparently personal nature. Similarly, in a group of 12-by-18-inch Cibachrome prints, Orozco concentrates on simple subjects-an accidental arrangement of twigs on a sidewalk, a discarded pair of sandals, a small tree near a deserted park bench.

            Another side room of the gallery was filled with six artificial potted trees, collectively titled Moon Trees, each approximately 8 feet tall. Identical round paper disks, about 2 inches in diameter, are slotted into all the leaves. In London, the trees lined a game room for English bowls-the bowling lanes were made of gray pin-striped suiting. In New York, the Moon Trees constituted a haunting garden; as indicated by the work’s title, each leaf appears to have an individual correspondence to the moon. In this piece, and in all of the works on view, Orozco suggests even that the most seemingly insignificant matter has a unique and important relationship to the cosmos.

“Gabriel Orozco” appeared at Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, Sept. 10-Oct. 12.
“Gabriel Orozco: The Empty Club” was at the Empty Club, London, June 25-July 28. An Orozco retrospective will be on view at the DAAD gallery, Berlin, Jan. 11-Mar. 2, 1997.

Author: David Ebony is a writer who lives in New York.