Nature vs. Nurture
Years ago I read a short story (or maybe it was a Twilight Zone episode) about a man who had a watch that could stop time. I always wanted a watch like that -- not so I could rob jewelry stores, just so I could get everything done. I think Roxy Paine has that watch. Warping the space-time continuum is the only way he could have made the phenomenally labor-intensive works on view in "Roxy Paine/Second Nature" at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Well, either that or he has obsessive compulsive disorder and a host of studio assistants.
Obsessiveness truly is the hallmark of Paine's work. For an early project, Dinner of the Dictators (1993-95), he spent nine months researching the favorite foods of heinous rulers. It took another two years to realize Paine's tabletop vitrine of place settings and freeze-dried food ranging from Genghis Khan's partridges and glass of horse blood to Hitler's "yogurt, zwieback, mushrooms, honey and pills made from the feces of healthy Bulgarian peasants." (No, there are no plans for an accompanying Psychopath's Pantry cookbook.)
In his current exhibition, Paine turns his intense focus to nature itself, simulating and duplicating it with ominous undertones. He also extends his creative workaholism into making involved contraptions to ironically mechanize the art-making processes of sculpture, drawing and painting.
Crop (1997-98) appears to be a section of a poppies excised "from a field in Burma," a convincing cluster of plants growing out of an eight- by six-foot swatch of dark earth. For the piece, Paine painstakingly cast poppy plants at different life stages. Cradling the tiny leaves in his hands, he brushed thin layers of plaster onto them until they were rigid enough to sustain a full mold. He then cast the flowers petal by petal, then reproduced all the elements in vacuum-formed plastic, then reassembled and painted them. The piece effectively conveys the raw, unarranged prettiness of nature. But, colored by our knowledge of the poppy's real purpose in the human scheme of things, Crop seems dangerous. The white milk seductively leaching out of a split pod evokes scenes from Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction.
The drug associations in Paine's work are far from accidental. Paine has been on intimate terms with a variety of chemicals. He addressed the issue in a 1993 Drug Ziggurat that presented a tower of substances in the order of Paine's acquaintance with them. With no fewer than 14 circular tiers of substances, it started with 24-ounce Budweiser and moved through tobacco, pot, glue, nitrous and mushrooms, ending in a spiky crown of heroin syringes.
Paine grew up in suburban northern Virginia and started experimenting with drugs in his early teens. The scrubby swatches of nature between the massive tract-housing developments were where Paine and his friends explored illicit activities. Poison Ivy Field (1997) was inspired by those early experiences in the not-so-sylvan glades. A thin scraggle of cast poison ivy is sterilely contained in a glass display case. (In his gallery talk, Paine said that casting the poison ivy was like working with radioactive material; he wore gloves, and anything that had touched the plant had to be disposed of.) Poison ivy abounds in high-traffic areas where human presence kills off other plants. Empty Thunderbird bottles, condoms, syringes and other debris litter the ominous greenery -- toxic feeding on toxic. It feels like a late-20th-century suburban archaeological site re-created for a museum of the future.
With other sculptures Paine ceases to cast from nature and begins to mimic it and riff on natural forms. His Amanita Virosa Wall (2001) presents dozens of realistic models of a highly toxic mushroom that can kill you if you ingest the tiniest piece. Incredibly lifelike, these fungi are sculpted, not cast, and realistically hand-painted. While we easily accept the idea of fake flowers, in Paine's work the fakery is unsettling. The fungus sprouts unexpectedly from the clean white walls, implying an underlying decay. The lighting casts dramatic circular shadows under the mushrooms, giving the piece a formal rhythm.
For Dry Rot (2001) Paine takes off the governor and runs wide open. A massive galactic spiral of fungal decay emanates from a pristine wall, its freeform exaggeration of natural phenomena incredibly convincing. Initially a painter, Paine applies a painter's compositional expressiveness to his fungal amalgam. The piece has particular resonance in the context of mold-plagued Houston -- it looks like the ultimate homeowner's insurance nightmare. It feels out of control, menacing and unstoppable, albeit with an oddly fascinating and spectacularly unconventional beauty.
Painting also reasserts itself in Paine's PMU (Painting Manufacture Unit) (1999-2000). The machine is fairly complex, but its presentation is extremely bare-bones; the work is not about aestheticizing the machine itself but about functionality. Raw linen canvases are held over a catch basin as white paint is sprayed over the surface from a giant tank. The height, path and duration of the spray are controlled by a laptop, as is the drying time between coats. The resulting paintings have a surprisingly organic feel as layers of paint end in frozen stalactites along the bottom edge.
SCUMAK no. 2 (2001) is a sculpture-making machine that gloops out puddles of thermoset plastic to create freeform layered 3-D blobs. Again, the artist's programming determines the variables: the amount of plastic squirted out onto the conveyer belt, the duration of the belt's agitation, the number of layers and the cooling time between them.
An amazing variety of forms emerges from the parameters Paine has established via his software. The artist, who once worked as a welder, makes the machines himself and collaborates with programmers when the software required becomes too complex. The machines are busy creating while on exhibit, so the works really have three component parts: the apparatus, the performance and the output. The paintings and sculptures can stand alone as visual objects but are enhanced by the overall context of their creation.
The works are rife with irony as well. The intent in automating tasks is to increase production, something that is anathema to Paine's methodically plodding machines and casting techniques. But Paine is essentially still creating all of these artworks himself, the mechanization merely acting as an intermediary between the artist and the final object. Chance still plays a role in the end, in how much paint sticks and how much drips off as well as in the effect of gravity on the blobs of hot plastic.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether Paine has OCD or that magic watch. His ideas and their labor-intensive realization are simply fascinating.
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