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Mediating the Void Gabriel Orozco

Marian Goodman Gallery

From the apparent world to the subatomic, all forms are only envelopes for geometric patterns, intervals and relationships.

-Robert Lawler

In the front room.

After a few moments amongst the paintings in his recent exhibition at the Marian Goodman Gallery it becomes clear that Gabriel Orozco doesn’t intend to take up a dialogue with the history and medium of painting; he is painting not as a painter, but rather employs the format of abstract painting as a possibility for depicting his geometrical thought. The surfaces of Orozco’s paintings are fairly uninflected, paint here is read as a given or found term; it works within the context of a gallery space where a formal play between the paintings can be read inside the limits of walls, floor and ceiling.

Orozco presents various configurations of blue, red, gold and white fractal-like geometry of circles within squares at 2 different scales that create pathways for the eye to move both inside and outside of the frames. The relationship between part and whole is taut, a precision of hard edges and tangential meetings, which are no less considered than the larger spaces between both the circles and the canvases themselves.

Each individual piece is a variation on what appears to be a fixed composition. In Kytes tree , a 78 ¾” square, fragments of circles are cut from the overlapping forms of other circles, thus leaving a skeleton figure on a painting that is mostly a white field. The circles nearly lose their sense of wholeness as only slivers of them remain. Kytes tree holds the largest area of emptiness and so stands out among the group when one initially surveys the canvases to find the similar within the only slightly dissimilar.

Orozco’s geometry is organized around symmetry, yet the movement in his paintings is not. It’s a twist that allows him to play symmetry’s iconic value without static. As a gold circle catches the light it too furthers the iconic status and turns our attentions towards the question of a subject. Mandelbrot* comes to mind through the fractal patterning with its shifts in scale, which allude to a macrocosmic and microcosmic view as well as to the scientific. With his circular form Orozco manages a high wire act, which neatly skirts any utopian ideals that might align the scientific with a philosophical understanding or worldview.

Yet there’s a quality of offhandedness here amongst the edges that gives these works a surprising lightness, even raising the question as to whether a geometric language could become rhetorical. Thought is not invested here in the density of the material as allowed for by the juxtaposition of substances, which makes up the poetry of stuff on tables in back room. It seems that something else is afoot here, as Orozco’s repeated use of the circle tends to lead us somewhere beyond the discourse of alienation. Though he comes close to the vocabulary of ancient mysticism with the circle and the square, which speaks of the relation between infinity and the finite, it is not close enough to ascertain. Neither do these works posit a totalizing view – they create an awareness that what you’re seeing is just one possible moment. They locate the possibility of a singular unity within the multiplicity of overlapping unities that comprise experience. Like Duchamp’s door it is a manifestation of what can be open and closed at the same time.

The shifting structures of these similar and subtly variable compositions posit a multitude of possibilities as you move from one to the next. In the end it is not a single canvas that serves up consequence but the movement between them suggests the forming of new orders within the framework of the traditional.

The middle ground.

The middle room holds a series of drawings and a video projection where continuing variations on the geometry of his paintings merge and reemerge rhythmically on a flat screen. Here light emanating through the colors seems to be more in keeping with Orozco’s intent; as a time based medium it embodies the space between compositions and so locates a subject in the interstitial.

Orozco often sets up a straightforward dialogue with nature – rare in contemporary art, but seemingly essential to the development of his forms. In a leaf drawing a series of dots expanding the subtle structure of the leaf’s own veins mark out chance occurrences. In another drawing organized so that your eye tends to move from the bottom upwards a stack of NO ’s move and separate as they ascend: in the ever-widening space between the letters you hear the pitch of a voice deepen as you read. Taking off in unexpected ways from a repetitive sequence with an expansion of form Orozco insures that repetition cannot succumb to the decorative.

While contemplating the signature on the backside of these drawings and how it bleeds though to the other side illegibly, two gentlemen approach and comment that the work is ‘right out of “arte povera” ’ as if locating this point of reference eliminates any further need to consider what is before them. In a body of work especially resistant to branding the poignancy of the remark lingers. Orozco’s project undoes conventional categorization by clarifying that we are indeed in a time when the given is being reframed.

In the back room.

On two tables in various states of objecthood, plaster, insulation foam, plasticene, styrofoam, clay, tree bark, mdf board, moss and beer bottle caps, to name a few of the materials in this unlikely grouping, look as though they’ve migrated out of the artist’s studio. A single tree fungus stands up on a pedestal in celebration of its power to give scale to all the objects on the table and to create a universe from their abundance. A series of delicate circles and spirals in graphite marked on shells initiate a dialogue between surface and center. Next to them lay two surprisingly naked shells now seen not as shells simply, but as lush patinas not yet drawn upon.

A chameleon in habitation appears to be very much alive in this universe amongst the leaves and grass, his green color vibrating against the red clay bowl. Slowly the realization that his lime green contrasts environmentally instead of camouflaging the four-legged one renders him plastic.

From glue or tar dripped in a circular pattern onto a scored MDF board the eye moves off and onto another circle of gold and plasticene nearby, which then in turn leads to a skull sunk into plaster. Graphite drawn over both melds them into one surface and secures their autonomy within the ambiguity of the interstice. The formal play of the circles here creates pathways and so we move between one thing and onto another carrying our thoughts forward as we encounter this astonishing assortment of things.

Pizza dough lies underneath a pattern of black line triangles and squares on acetate overlays. So close is it in color to the neighboring shell whose broken top is complete with gold stars on bottle caps embedded in black plasticene, that it fits seamlessly into this group of plaster, shell and clay objects. That this is food suggests we could look at all these things as either edible or inedible. Other objects suggest similar attempts to classify and therefore to make sense of what lies before us, but Orozco’s co-mingling of categories, the organic, the inorganic, the made and the found, the precious and the dispensable are neither absolute nor random. In dislodging our preconceptions he subtly suggests both a need to reconsider the classification of things and the inadequacy of taxonomy.

Simple clay forms next to tree bark lie in a symbiotic relationship, each effecting and building on how we can see the other. The elongated white clay pieces echo the form of the tree bark; one is made of organic material and one is an organic material. Then white geometric forms drawn inside the tree bark initiate a play of circles that places the bark in the world of man-made things that the clay forms inhabit. Together they recall a funeral barque. Through formal manipulations a dialogue between surface and substance emerges, which allows Orozco to render complexity in positioning the pair. It is a not blurring of boundaries; there is precision here in the way he sets up and celebrates relationships.

A softening layer of dust, a ubiquitous material of inexplicable origin, covers a cube of charcoal grey foam from which an elliptical line is perfectly cut. The border between the two pieces is void and marks the time it takes for the dust to accumulate. Only the border allows us to perceive how the surface captures the slow build up of dust and to reflect that a void is not a vacuum. In quite other circumstances we might see the dusty foam and lament that the dust adheres to it with a determination not to be removed, or not see at all.

Though there are many things here made over a period of time the discrete thought embodied in each one prevents their accumulation from becoming overwhelming. As the formal invention here lies with the distinction and movement between things, it transports one object to the next. Each requires thought but also rewards it.

Bowls and shells are a mainstay of Orozco’s vocabulary. In Galaxy Pot a series of black painted plaster half spheres inside of half-spheres inside of other black spheres have been incised so as to reveal the white layer underneath. The thinnest of white lines thus drawn by Oroczo draws a series of circles inside of circles that bring to mind Kepler, whose model of the universe proposed a series of platonic solids inscribed in spheres inside of each other to calculate the distance between the planets. Like Oroczo Kepler was focusing on a precise rendition of the interstitial. Orozco’s obsession with the nature of that interstitial space, both when things touch and when they don’t, resonates throughout the exhibition.

His sensitivity to jarring and delightful material juxtapositions is expressed here over and over again, as if a proposal for a new taxonomy required us to see all of them all over again. Particularly peculiar are a series of styrofoam shapes with limbs. One is filled with clothes dryer lint in various shades and shapes of green and grey patches. Next to it is a by now familiar construction of black plasticene with gold Sapporo bottle cap stars stuck into orbs atop the belly of the weird creature that they create. These works called Contenedores — comprised as well of shells and clay with wood circles, moth wings and photos of the bottle caps shown from above—are made from things both mutable and exchangeable, the detris of daily life commingled with the symbols of another life. As objects it is their acknowledgement of the finite world of materials that opens up the awareness of what is infinite. They evoke coffins yet feel like bodies, as if the two forms have been conflated from a distant perspective where cycles of death and rebirth privilege neither.

There are games, games with balls which could be taken for life and played like a life, but Orozco’s detachment seems to indicate that he won’t move them, only that they could be moved. This latency ushers in hope. Nothing here is fixed; it’s simply filled with the joy of discovering how things are and for Orozco this means things in relation to one another both in the physical world and through time. Hand pressing 5 balls into a mass after drawing from 2002, a ceramic with graphite drawing, has the reflective presence of a skull, like in the Dark Age paintings of Jerome in the desert. Standing in front of the object allows for a kind of meditation; it talks about things that are beyond the scope of its simple presence.

After looking at all these objects the photograph La Insel de Simon initially seems to represent one of Orozco’s many bowls scattered throughout the room before it. After a moment the out of focus elements come forward and the form of a pregnant belly is seen protruding from the bathwater at an angle, like the half sphere in Galaxy Pot. Emerging it puts everything in the room into context – the context of life, not art and in this moment of recognizing life, memory is touched.

  • Seeks a measure of order in physical, mathematical or social phenomena that are characterized by abundant data but extreme sample variability. The surprising esthetic value of many of his discoveries and their unexpected usefulness in teaching have made him an eloquent spokesman for the “unity of knowing and feeling.”


Joan Waltemath

JOAN WALTEMATH is an artist who lives and works in New York City. She writes on art and has served as an editor-at-large of the Brooklyn Rail since 2001. She has shown extensively and her work is in the collections of the Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art, the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. She is currently the Director of the LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting at MICA.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 05-JAN 06

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