New York

Roxy Paine

During my visit to Roxy Paine’s recent exhibition, I encountered a pair of visitors who, after looking at simulated dry rot framed on a wall and hyperreal tabletop tracts of grass, fungi, and poppies, were unsure whether the same artist was also responsible for the elaborate contraption in the rear gallery that was slowly secreting a stream of melted thermoplastic onto a conveyor belt, creating bloblike sculptural shapes the artist later numbered and signed. I assured them it was. But, they insisted, the replications of nature were so realistic and crafted; the white, irregularly shaped mounds, they implied, were not. Such distinctions are just what Paine addresses and attempts to undermine—to move beyond the uneasy frictions between the machine and the hand, the artificial and the natural, the unique and the reproduced. These relationships have been endlessly debated throughout the history of modernism, at least ever since the mechanics of the photograph or an inverted urinal intruded into the space of “fine art.”

With both his painstaking re-creations of the natural world and the sculpture-making machine, entitled SCUMAK (Auto Sculpture Maker), 1998, Paine continues to play on a range of artistic assumptions about nature, aesthetic perceptions, and the precepts of originality. Even Paine’s surrogate, the laptop computer that presides over SCUMAK, tweaks the issue of the “nature” of the artist in creating a work. Have we naturalized the machine? Or has art become mechanical? As efficient as nature or at least as a machine, Paine’s preprogrammed sculptures can be mass-produced and exhibited at the same time. This is not the first time the artist has embraced the Duchampian paradox. Two earlier works deconstructed Abstract Expressionism, where each “gestural” stroke assumes a certain meaning: Paint Dipper, 1997, features a mechanism that dips suspended canvases into a vat of paint, while Model Painting, 1996, consists of a series of distinct, concretized brushstrokes made out of dried polymer and individually framed.

Paine’s art-making machines function as a complement to his labor-intensive production: The mushrooms in Fungus Formica Field, 1998, are hand-modeled and hand-painted while the poppies in Crop, 1997-98, have been cast from flowers the artist grew himself. Integrated within these works are his Conceptual concerns, which might otherwise be perceived as secondary and didactic. The seriousness of his ironic stance, while both parroting and parodying nature, is often undercut by a certain levity. With Vibrating Field, 1998, a tabletop display of grassy weeds agitated by a hidden silent motor attached to the bottom of the table, the organic metaphor is literally shaken to its core as soon as one enters the gallery. Set in an epoxy bed resembling wet loam, each artificial, hand-painted blade of grass, quivering as if blown by an unseen wind, re-creates a spectacle of nature.

While the hallucinogenic plants and fungi that Paine has replicated in the past, such as psilocybe mushrooms or opium poppies, carry their transformative associations as a potent metaphor for the volatility of perception, his current crop, mostly of more benign plants, grass, mushrooms, and molds, continues his assault on static perception and the codification of meaning. With work like Puffball Field, 1998 (an assemblage of objects resembling everything from skulls to cow manure), the artist situates the viewer at the juncture between objectivity and hallucination.

Mason Klein