Roxy Paine: Reaching for the Sublime

New York

Bluff, 2002, stainless steel, 50 feet high.


It is not often that a contemporary sculpture in New York becomes a must-see attraction for city residents and visitors alike—a shining, touchable apparatus beloved by inquisitive children, and a visual marvel whose formal complexity appeals to adults. But that’s exactly what happened when Roxy Paine’s Maelstrom (2009) was temporarily installed last year on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Measuring 29 by 130 by 45 feet, the work features stainless steel pipes, plates and rods that have been bent, dented and conjoined into branchlike structures resembling a forest savaged by a tornado or some other cataclysm. Paine cites as inspiration the 1908 Tunguska Event, in which, apparently, a meteor exploded in midair and walloped the Siberian forest below, toppling some 80 million trees. (UFO enthusiasts attribute this blast to an alien spaceship or weapon.) Everywhere in the wilderness, though, one finds evidence of convulsive transformations, and that’s what Paine evokes with Maelstrom: overwhelming force, endless cycles of growth and destruction. At the same time, the gleaming work—enchanting and serene—offered a meditative idyll overlooking Central Park.

Several large branches and stout trunks touched the roof’s concrete surface and angled upward. Welds were clearly visible; industrial markings (numbers, product names and the like) were too. Paine’s nature simulacrum flaunts how concocted and fabricated it really is. At the Met, these forms, suggesting unbridled growth, sprouted into an aerial tangle of thin, elongated branches going every which way—reaching toward the sky, descending to the floor, probing the far borders of the roof like creeping tendrils, joining to form an overhead thicket or canopy. While in fact static, the work as a whole seems kinetic, suffused with swirling motion and circulating energy: an intricate, laboriously fashioned installation, charged with the rapidity and power of lightning bolts, whirlpools, cyclonic winds.

At the time, Maelstrom is the largest and most ambitious of the outdoor sculptures Paine calls Dendroids, a term that refers to trees but also connotes anything else that involves branching systems, such as synaptic structures, computer board circuitry and fungal mycelium (connective tissue that allows a single organism to spread underground, sometimes across huge expanses). Such widely diverse references, common for Paine, are essential to Maelstrom. At a couple of points, Paine’s branchlike forms connected to what looked like functioning standpipes. Suddenly Maelstrom appeared as a crazy, bursting outgrowth of the building’s own plumbing, one of the largely hidden internal systems that—like gastrointestinal and cardiovascular systems servicing a body—enable the museum to function. Another possible reference is to the brain in extremis, with its neural network gone haywire, as in an epileptic seizure or a moment of extreme excitation or fear.

Paine’s Dendroids start with multiple, oftentimes strikingly lovely sketches. Maelstrom, for all its heft and size, can be seen as a surprisingly delicate, three-dimensional “drawing” in which tree shapes shade into gestural abstraction. Moreover, while the use of a standard industrial material like stainless steel, worked into a system or pattern, recalls various Minimalist sculptures, Paine’s supple, improvisational touch with this resistant material, along with his shifts in scale and his reliance on representation, generate widely diverse components that are far from rigid seriality. Maelstrom’s jagged lines, ragged whorls, indentations and bulges also dispense with the uniform surfaces characteristic of many sculptures rendered in stainless steel.

You could walk around Maelstrom, admiring its many parts and nuances, while absorbing its silvery luster. You could also walk into and through it, as if you were entering some stricken forest. That’s when Maelstrom acted not only as a sculpture marked by ingenuity and skill but also as a remarkably open and sensitive structure responding to its surroundings. From inside, you looked wonderingly through its mesh of metal branches at the lawns and trees of Central Park, the hovering sky and the grand buildings surrounding the park. Emptiness, distances, greenery, passing clouds and changing light all factored in. This blatant metal fabrication, erected in densely packed Manhattan, seemed incongruously sublime, as it evoked rapt, consciousness-altering encounters with nature in deep forests or other wilderness locales.

Maelstrom was the second of Paine’s Dendroids to engage Central Park; the first was Bluff (2002), cosponsored by the Public Art Fund and the Whitney Biennial, and realized in collaboration with the Central Park Conservancy and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. Paine’s 50-foot-high stainless steel sculpture resembles a denuded tree with parasitical fungi on its trunk. It rewarded those in the know, who sought it out as part of the Whitney Biennial. It was even more astonishing for the many viewers who simply stumbled upon it. From a distance it shone with a luminous dazzle. Up close, even though you could scrutinize its materials and see how it was made, it still seemed uncanny: a supercharged dead tree that will outlast all the currently living ones by centuries, a hybrid reminiscent of homemade rockets, robots, bizarre genetic mutations, Hollywood movie props, faux nature at theme parks and products pieced together on factory assembly lines.

While constructing Bluff was an arduous enterprise, getting permission to install the sculpture in Central Park was no less a feat; the guardians of the park are loath to allow the intrusion of anything new that could alter its pastoral splendor, even though a number of older sculptures have long been in place. But as critic Eleanor Heartney has astutely noted, Paine’s ersatz, stainless steel tree—his nature mannequin—didn’t interrupt anything.1

Instead, I believe, the work (now relocated to a private collection) perfectly fit and clarified its first setting, because Central Park constitutes an especially manipulated, socially constructed landscape. To realize Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s 1857 Greensward Plan, calling for a natural-seeming, multi-use environment based on English romantic gardens, some 1,600 poor immigrants were displaced; Seneca Village, a thriving, largely African-American community, was leveled; massive amounts of gunpowder were used to blast through rock formations; and much of the landscape was dug up, rearranged and planted. A great deal of industry, technology, ideology and sheer human effort was required to construct this bucolic setting.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.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.