You would be forgiven for thinking the shows in Paul Kasmin Gallery’s adjacent locations were by two different artists. In fact, however, they are both by Roxy Paine, best known for his iconic stainless steel tree sculptures that are strewn about the globe. I’d encountered one of these at my undergraduat alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where I remember being taken aback by the steel tree, deceptively hiding amongst its live counterparts.
In the smaller gallery, Paine returns to this motif of stainless steel trees in the series he calls “Dendroids,” and the sculptures are as compelling as ever. In one piece, branches are made to resemble veins or nerves which connect to glistening organs that seem to grow from the branches like fruit. A striking annexation of body, nature, and industry, I couldn’t help but look at the branches of the rest of the sculptures as the alveoli of breathing lungs and, simultaneously, as stretching grids of wires. One tree is an upside down power transformer, while another incorporates a wild plethora of detritus, as if it had been struck by a tornado.
There is an ‘I Spy’ delight to examining and identifying all the mundane objects the artist has included, all of them in the same stainless steel, as if by landing in the tree they have become apart of it. Have we succumbed to the power of Nature, it seems to ask, or has Nature succumbed to us?
“Have we succumbed to the power of Nature, it seems to ask, or has Nature succumbed to us?”
In the larger gallery, across the street, there lies a separate series with a mere three pieces, but they pack a powerful conceptual punch. The first is a gigantic installation of what looks like a charred pile of lumber with glowing embers – Paine giving a strong farewell to his steel tree motif by burning them to the ground?
A haunting contemplation of destruction as well as illusion, at the very least: I couldn’t help but reach out and touch the piece (surely against the rules), and found myself actually surprised that it was not hot to the touch.
Further in, one encounters the artist’s chilling Dioramas, which resemble Natural History museum exhibits of animal habitats, except the animal is us. The first Diorama is a window into a window: a yellowed hotel room, disturbingly disheveled, lies behind the observing glass of a gray room with mid-century recording equipment, martini glasses, a coffee maker, chairs behind a table.
Something insidious is going on here, and it is made doubly so when the viewer approaches, dizzied by the optical illusion at hand. This piece depicts actual government experiments in the 50s, 60s, and 70s of the effects of LSD – indeed, the piece itself feels hallucinatory, the strange cartoonishness of the objects depicted inducing both delight and disgust all at once.
The final piece, Meeting, depicts a perfect circle of chairs in a mundane office space, with half-erased marker boards (some with leftover writing that feel like clues to a mystery), it is clearly the setting for a twelve-step program. The humans are conspicuously absent, yet therefore electrically present.
What strange habitats we humans occupy, these pieces seem to whisper, what strange habits we indulge.
Roxy Paine: Farewell Transmission
May 2- July 1, 2017
293 and 297 10th Ave
New York, NY 10001