Roxy Paine: Normal Fault
November 4 – December 23, 2021
After 30 years largely spent in New York (especially Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he first emerged as a radical, risk-taking artist in the early 1990s), Roxy Paine relocated to Wyoming and Montana three years ago. The American West has long been important for Paine, personally and artistically, and its impact is pronounced in his impressive, exceptionally pertinent new exhibition Normal Fault, featuring 13 relief paintings and one wall-mounted diorama.
Freely combining representation and abstraction, Paine’s thoroughly hybrid, nature-based paintings of rugged landforms, sweeping vistas, sedimentary layers, fungi, soil, mountains, a cave, the sun, and moon, among others, are fashioned from decidedly non-organic materials including epoxy, resin, urethane, stainless steel, lacquer, and oil paint; fabricated nature both describes and transforms nature for real. Heavily built up, manipulated, three-dimensional surfaces suggest the shifting shapes of actual landscapes, but also human interventions in those places. These works also appear pixelated—analog versions of digital images—while they are often seeded with all sorts of disparate information. Throughout this arresting body of work, nature and humans, things macro and micro, ancient and relatively contemporary are fused. Often there is a hint of sublime, consciousness-altering, perhaps ecstatic experiences in and with nature, for instance with Green Cave (all works are 2021) showing a large, majestic cave “sculpted” by natural forces over millions of years. Still, that sublimity is undercut by brazen artifice. With hundreds, maybe thousands, of epoxy nubs, this cave is hugely pixelated. Its bright green (actually multiple greens) color makes it alarming, perhaps even toxic.
The vividly colored Topographic, with varied and intricate components, posits a view from on high (like from an airplane or satellite) of a vast landscape with multiple landforms including escarpments, mountains, and plateaus; it also resembles an eccentric map. Look closely (Paine’s paintings reward patient, concentrated viewing) to discover images of veins and arteries, magnified cells, tree leaves, and bricks; tiny things loom large in these sizable works. A cluster of oil drums sits atop what looks like cracked, sun-baked earth; Montana, like so much of the West, is currently severely afflicted by global warming-induced drought; this is one of many times when Paine’s paintings evoke ecological mayhem. Stratigraphic no. 2 suggests sedimentary rock layers dating back hundreds of millions of years (Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and other romantic and sublime painters of the American West paid particular attention to the structures and layers of mountains and cliffs.) In Paine’s work, the layers are formed from eclectic visual information, including a 19th-century map of Manhattan, an early visual representation of computerized data, tangled wires on a construction site or in a dump, and many others. With both paintings, Paine merges natural processes and the human effort to order and master the world.
These new works by Paine are engrossing, but also challenging and, at times, unsteadying, with their clashing systems of information and deliberate ambiguity (what looks like tawny sandstone could just as easily be a section of carpet, and what purports to be the sun, with many tiny, painted circles and dots, could just as well be bulging fungi in both Small Sun and Large Sun.) In Large Green Pools, mushrooms, fashioned from industrial materials and painted different colors, protrude from what again resembles cracked earth. Irregularly shaped, seemingly wet green “pools” may allude to Yellowstone’s famous Emerald Spring, but also have a creepy antifreeze look. Fungi, or rather faux fungi—and recent research suggests that mushrooms may well have emerged on Earth 715 to 810 million years ago, much earlier than previously thought—are growing in a landscape altered and heedlessly spoiled by humans. With his many nature/culture, nature/human amalgamations, Roxy Paine has been focusing on the Anthropocene since well before that term became commonplace. In light of current crises linked to obdurate fantasies of human exceptionalism, his work is downright visionary.
Which brings me to the flags, but, before them, to the work that immediately precedes them, the one diorama here, Access Panel. A section of the wall opens to reveal an elaborate, truly scary rendition of dry rot. In place of the internal workings of a building, such as a plumbing lines or electrical fuses, dendritic strands branch out as bulbous pods descend from above on thin strands in this fungal network. As with all of Paine’s dioramas, this one is exacting and precise. It is also searingly metaphorical. In this era of political, economic, ecological, and medical crisis, there is a great deal of dry rot going on, especially in the US: our faltering democracy, far-right extremism, resurgent racism and sexism, deadly misinformation campaigns, anti-science wackiness, grifter politicians with a lunatic bent, assaults on elections and the January 6, 2021 rampage at the US Capitol are gravely threatening cherished democratic values: America rotting from the inside.
In the next room are the three paintings based on the American flag. In each, the flag—one of the most famous cultural symbols of all—is partially obscured by Paine’s renditions of fungi and earth. In Fungal Flag no. 1, the most legible of the three, red, white and blue fungi grow on the familiar stars and stripes. The same goes for the even more ragged and organic Fungal Flag no. 2, now with dark earth partially obscuring things. Dark, cracked soil covers the flag entirely in Earth Flag, leaving just a hint of the stars and the stripes. Very deftly, Roxy Paine has situated humans and their constructions, including the United States, in relation to ecological disaster but also to far older, and far more powerful natural forces of growth and decay, transformation and entropy.
One last point. Given that Roxy Paine is so identified with sculptures, this exhibition of paintings may prove surprising for some. If so, it’s worth considering that painting has long been fundamental for Paine, stretching back to Viscous Pult (1990), a kinetic sculpture in which three paintbrushes flung ketchup, motor oil, and white paint at the gallery’s window (the gallery was the seminal, artist-run Brand Name Damages in Williamsburg). Paine’s many mushrooms, including edible, psychotropic, and deadly ones, are painted, as are the poison ivy and weeds in his tabletop constructions Bad Lawn (1998) and parts of Desolation Row (2016). Two of his art-producing machines have made paintings, Paint Dipper (1996) and PMU (2001). While he has often incorporated painting into sculptures, now the ever adventurous and explorative Paine has incorporated sculpture into paintings, with dramatic results. His new works are complex and riveting. The vision underpinning them is both welcome and apt.