Saturday, June 13th, 2009

Roxy Paine on the Roof: Maelstrom at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 28, 2009–October 25, 2009 (weather permitting)
The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden
1000 Fifth Avenue, New York City, 212-570-3828

Roxy Paine, Maelstrom (detail), 2009. Stainless steel, directions variable. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery. Photography: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Teresa Christiansen
Roxy Paine, Maelstrom (detail), 2009. Stainless steel, directions variable. Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan Gallery. Photography: The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Teresa Christiansen

Maelstrom, Roxy Paine’s magnificently intricate installation currently on the roof garden of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is to date the most prominent offspring of a rapidly evolving typology, lifesize tree golems rendered in stainless steel.  Paine manages to steer these leafless “Dendroids,” as he calls them, between the Scylla of transparency and the Charibdis of mechanization, unyielding hazards to authorship of his own contrarian devising established by two other families of sculpture.  On one side are Paine’s “Replicants,” portraits of notorious, untrustworthy plants and fungi fixed in eternal plastic with an exegetical fidelity to surpass the craftsmanship of the best diorama and Hollywood prop technicians.  Here the hand dissolves like the Cheshire Cat around the grin of its expertise.  But looming off to starboard are the industrial prototypes that have been tuned to glop, dip, carve, or spray potentially numberless unique artworks, induced but not touched by the artist.

Most disconcerting about these machines is how undeniably ravishing are the objects they produce.  The minimalist stalactites of Paint Dipper, the scholar’s canyons of Erosion Machine, and the impeccably grotesque, groovy meltdowns of SCUMAK, for example, flout the prerogatives of painting and sculpture not merely with sly, assembly-line standardization but in manifesting a literal and figurative gravity to die for.  Neither accidental nor pre-determined, rather the emanations of carefully calibrated tolerances prodded by stochastic input, these formidable, ever-machining editions should make contemporary painters and sculptors tremble on qualitative, not just quantitative, terms.

Fortunately for the post-post-humanists among us, the Dendroids point the way past endgame perils to open sea, in part by locating an improbable wiggle room in the otherworldly sheen of stainless steel.  This unforgiving, perfectionist material can absorb delight in surface mimicry––a shelf fungus here, a splintering fracture there––while also reconstituting organic brachiation within the industrial logic of diminishing diameters of pipestock, thus positing the artist, himself, as art-making machine.  With these shimmering “substitutes,” “placebos” and “misnomers” (sampling from a list of the artist’s trickster titles) Paine can succumb as nowhere else to expressive selectivity along a sliding scale of verisimilitude in service to his barbed, alienated narrative.

All the more so with Maelstrom. Both a culmination and a transitional piece, it is full of dead ends and abundant new growth.  By relaxing the explicit tree metaphor, letting it bleed into neurology and other sorts of rhizomic, entangled hierarchies, Paine makes available at eye-level the most tender manipulations of bending, welding and grinding.  Delicate bud-like terminations, puns of weld-burr annual rings, tuberous bulgings and whittled, indented slicings need no longer kowtow to a logic of ramified extremity hoist to the clouds, but may arise at electively rhythmic intervals.

2007’s Conjoined, originally installed in Madison Square Park, was the first dendroid to violate strict branching, its two-trunked logic reversing flow at achingly grafted fingertwigs.  It seemed as if the trees could neither part nor fully embrace––a lyrical enactment of killing the thing you love.  In Maelstrom, the grafting is general, making for strange loops everywhere.  The greater prominence of the artist’s hand may be the strangest loop of all given Paine’s assassinations of the romantic notion of creativity––the very thing Paine, and contemporary art by and large, can neither embrace nor let go of.

Maelstrom’s interpretive vectors are more scattershot than those of Conjoined.  They can be seen to grasp at every straw: connecting up to fire standpipes (presumably ersatz) and thus the hydraulic infrastructure of civilization; rooting into plant box, tendrilling into trellis, diving into yew hedge and gesturing at the pastoral of Central Park beyond, all places where nature submits, for the moment, to orthogonal impoundment; inveigling the sky for a chaotic flash of catharsis; and in numerous places sheering off flush at the decking upon which the massive tumbleweed nestles with deceptive buoyancy, miming penetration through the pink granite pavestone into the whole history of visual culture theorized below.  Indeed, these infiltrating shoots might be imagined regrouping underfoot into the rhizomes of a far larger colossus.  Everything from ripped Greek wrestlers to Chinese zigzag pines, from Twomblys to Bierstadts, from medieval armor to Pictures Generation quotation can be thought of as nodes of the vast, implicit tangle.

Coincidently or not, David Smith’s Becca from 1965 is displayed directly beneath, several floors down, its plates of welded stainless buffed to a mesmerizing holographic luster.  Paine’s use of the same alloy in tubular form is as thoroughly original.  Manipulating bench tools that bend with pulverizing force as if they were pliers, he has achieved in the tuberous trunks of Maelstrom the homuncular suggestiveness of the mandrake root.  He can arc weld to an uncanny level of detail.  Most astonishing of all is how Maelstrom exploits the tensile spectrum of the material: the gentlest breeze, the tappings of unsupervised toddlers cause the massive complex to bounce wistfully in its thinner linkages, like sprung vines.  If kinetic sculpture tends to be irreducibly robotic, it’s because life forms have no moving parts.  Here, Paine has realized, by metallurgical essence, a truer sort of animation worthy of a latter-day Bernini.

Maelstrom is as limited as it is graced by the site and institution.  Can one doubt, for example, that Paine would prefer to physically perforate the museum’s inviolable granite deck with its shoots, rather than simulating penetration?  (For that matter, a money shot mentality might demand that a future work be tied in biologically to surrounding plant forms.)  And of course the Met will not permit you to experience Maelstrom’s radiant calligraphy in the full range of light––alas not at dark, not in the rain, certainly not during lightning storms.  In authorized weather the roof garden becomes the upper deck of a tour bus.  Still, the site’s command over Central Park is privileged, imperial.  From its Gilded Age gilded cage, Maelstrom leverages its formal and conceptual intricacies to scale across the world’s largest terrarium below, entangling the Park’s facts and fantasies in its matrix––precisely what Christo and Jean-Claude’s gaudy and overcompensating The Gates failed to do.  Recalling also Paine’s 2002 tree, Bluff, installed among the Park’s doomed elms, he has succeeded in making public sculpture that exchanges DNA like a retrovirus with surroundings too iconic and mediated for less infectious work.