New York

Roxy Paine, Distillation, 2010, stainless steel, glass, paint, pigment. Installation view. From the series “Dendroid,” 1998–.

Roxy Paine, Distillation, 2010, stainless steel, glass, paint, pigment. Installation view. From the series “Dendroid,” 1998–.

Roxy Paine

James Cohan | 48 Walker St

Roxy Paine, Distillation, 2010, stainless steel, glass, paint, pigment. Installation view. From the series “Dendroid,” 1998–.

Distillation, 2010, the centerpiece of this show, belonged to Roxy Paine’s “Dendroid” series, begun in 1998, which New Yorkers may best remember for Maelstrom, the elaborate work with which he filled the rooftop sculpture garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009. In tune with its site above Central Park, that work was entirely arboreal, referring in all but its stainless steel substance to the forms and growth patterns of trees. Distillation, by contrast, began in James Cohan Gallery’s entrance hall with a regular cylinder, a shape clearly coded as artificial. Moreover, this cylinder was not a Euclidean or sculptural pure form but was fitted out with hatches, pressure valves, and pipes for the entry and exit of fluids or gases—a tank, then, and as such a machine part, or a material link in a chemical plant’s production line. One of those pipes, rising up from the tank’s top, invited us to follow it into the gallery’s main space, where it lost its straightness and symmetry, dividing and multiplying into an intricately unpredictable airborne network of crooked, uneven, gradually thinning branches. This was the tree metaphor of the “Dendroids” reasserting itself, but not entirely: In places the pipes ran into more stopcocks and valves, more industrial tanks and alembics, along with new appearances such as a large glass flask and a forked, antenna-like array that I’d guess might model a cooling system or condenser. Meanwhile a third layer of imagery also emerged here, of the animal body, for some of these tanks took the form of physical organs, most recognizably the kidneys. Finally the ever more attenuated net of vascular branches—in some places raw or painted red but mostly shiny stainless steel—twisted itself out of the far door of the gallery into the smaller room beyond, and then into the gallery’s offices beyond that, where it finally came to an end in a metal point in midair.

In fusing animal, vegetable, and mineral-cum-mechanical bodies like this, Distillation brought together long-standing themes of Paine’s in a way both clear and packed. The artist has in fact made a number of functioning machines, including those of the “SCUMAK" series, which do just what their abbreviated title claims—they are sculpture makers—though in keeping with his corporeal concerns, the sculptures that come out of them are turdlike piles that you’d avoid if they were smaller and on the street. This reference too showed up in the present work, whose kidney shapes told us that the animal part it cited was the digestive system—and indeed, the glass flask held a serving of half-liquid, half-crystalline yellowish sludge that was about as inviting as the output of the “SCUMAK” works. If this was the end product of the distilling process to which, again, Paine’s helpful title directed us, the work made an equation between the kidneys’ association with filtration and excretion and the other side of that coin, the purifying, intensifying function of distillation, where you hope to get rid of the unwanted, unusable parts of what you put in and arrive at the essence of its value. This kind of duality also appears in earlier works of Paine’s as well as in Oscillation, 2010, a group of exacting copies of psychoactive and toxic mushrooms also present in the show. Beauty and disgust, nurture and poison, purification and elimination—Paine makes these things inseparable.

Both visually, in its alternately spindly and swollen lines, and in this particular complex of ideas, Distillation reminds me of Surrealism, of the bloated, distended, unruly forms conceived by such painters as Salvador Dalí and Yves Tanguy, and from there of a line of thinking on the grotesque that leads back to Rabelais. At the same time, there’s a balance of rigor and system. Like crystals, which despite their “unnatural” geometric forms are not in fact rare in nature, biomorphic organisms follow strict, ultimately rule-bound growth patterns, unpredictable though the results might seem. Indeed, Paine has spoken of the “language” of trees, meaning not that they talk to each other but that they grow and take shape according to a syntaxlike system that an artist can use as a structural principle—as Paine did in spreading through the gallery the tendrils of Distillation, simultaneously grand tree and creeping fungus.

David Frankel