New York

Roxy Paine

James Cohan | 48 Walker St

Roxy Paine’s work tends to fall into two quite different categories: machines that make art, and art that looks very much like nature. In the first category are devices called the “PMU” (painting manufacturing unit) and “Scumaks” (auto sculpture makers). With the aid of computer programs written by the artist, these devices create paintings in various historical styles and objects marked by Oldenburgian floppiness. The second category encompasses meticulously rendered sculptures of flora and fungi presented in pseudolaboratory settings (poison ivy occupying a vitrine; mushrooms growing from a gallery’s wooden floor; poppies covering a neatly excised square of earth). But however different these two categories may appear, they are connected by similarities in process and intent.

Paine’s recent exhibition at James Cohan Gallery included a new gadget that imitates a natural sequence of events. Erosion Machine, 2005, consists of a mechanical arm that blows jets of air and silicon carbide grit at a block of sandstone housed inside a large glass case, thereby creating a miniature eroded landscape. The patterns etched on the block resemble natural canyons, mesas, and riverbeds but their forms are in fact determined by the weather records gathered in Binghamton, New York, in 1980. These data are translated into movements of the arm, which pauses here and there as it works like an indecisive chess player. The effect is hypnotic; as the arm moves, the sparkling dust that has settled on it falls off in wispy clouds, sometimes wholly obscuring the box’s interior. The ambiguity of authorship suggested by this reliance on machinery in an artistic context is only compounded by the use of it to simulate a natural process.

In a kind of not quite reversal, every bit of Weed Choked Garden, 1998–2005—a rectangular plot of land full of rotten, insect-infested tomatoes, cauliflowers with brittle brown leaves, and an assortment of vigorous weeds—appears to have been made by nature but was in fact constructed by Paine (though it looks real enough that visitors with mold allergies kept their distance). The work’s unsettling oddity comes in part from the very care taken to render something in such a state of complete decomposition so precisely. The rich decay on show is reminiscent of that which appears in Flemish still lifes, but is somehow much funnier.

The relative distance of the artist from the work in these two pieces suggests a critique of the idea of the artist as a capital-C creator. Paine’s opposing objects might even be interpreted as different punishments for the ultimate hubris of equating oneself with God: displacement by technology or irreversible decay. In Bad Planet, 2005, an enormous epoxy sphere, the artist has created an entire world, albeit one mottled with damage. A globe of uniform brown, it is covered in one part with an unhealthy-looking rash of mushroom-shaped blobs, in another with craterlike formations, and in a third with swirls that suggest apocalyptic weather raging below. Here and there are little muddy puddles of epoxy. The whole thing is as much like a tumor as it is like a planet, and this serves what one suspects is the artist’s final point: The question isn’t so much how powerful or intelligent a designer may be, but how wasteful and asinine the beneficiaries thereof.

Emily Hall