Published  19/11/2014

Roxy Paine interview: ‘The best ideas come out of long gestation’

Roxy Paine interview: ‘The best ideas come out of long gestation’

Roxy Paine’s Checkpoint is the latest of his meticulously crafted dioramas. He talks about how he fuses industry and nature in his work and why, despite the vast scale of some of his pieces, he still makes everything by hand

Coming off his latest show, Roxy Paine talks to Jill Spalding.

The internationally exhibited American artist Roxy Paine (b1966) is known for serial investigations into organic and mechanical systems that manipulate expectation with installations ranging from robot-produced paintings to polymer mushrooms, stainless steel trees and, latterly, wondrous and disturbing hand-produced dioramas. Paine’s signature skill of presenting reality a quarter turn off creates and disrupts illusions of familiar worlds – the natural world of plants and geology, and the industrial world of control systems – and gives them new meaning through transformation and translation.

Paine’s recent solo show, at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, introduced an uncanny, forced-perspective diorama of an airport security checkpoint supported by four smaller but equally elaborate works, all meticulously crafted from stripped wood, and addressing a human experience devoid of humans and frozen in time.

Jill Spalding: You were born in New York, started drawing by the age of nine, were making things by the time you were 15, ran away from school, determined your brain was more visual than verbal, and enrolled in Santa Fe College in New Mexico. The pull to an art education is clear, but what took you west?

Roxy Paine: I was always drawn to desert, the desiccation, the stripped-down nature of it, the sparsity of foliage – it’s like seeing the Earth’s processes laid bare. The north-east has always felt too covered over with vegetation.

JS: Why, then, did you drop out, hitch back east as a vagabond and land up in Brooklyn at the Pratt Institute?

RP: Well, I was 19. I felt a certain lack of stimulation out west and needed to be challenged by other people. I wanted an audience. And I was still only drawing, so I went to Pratt thinking I’d learn to paint. But painting teachers tend to create replicas of themselves, and that didn’t interest me. If I was going to be a painter, I wasn’t going to be that kind of a painter. In any case, I found myself drawn more to three dimensions, so I began working in ceramics – which meant more institutional time. In the end, I left, partly because of the teachers, but also because I had to support myself.

JS: What brought you to sculpture and, more particularly, installation?

RP: I was working in a metal shop and hanging around with my Pratt buddies. Opportunities for young artists were diminishing then, so a group of us decided to start a collective gallery – a storefront on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg. When our work wasn’t up, it was open to anyone who wanted to show there.

JS: You drew on your metal-making skills to fashion an art-making machine that splattered the gallery window with ketchup, white paint and machine oil (Viscous Pult, 1990). What were you saying with that installation?

RP: In a nascent way, it was about control and loss of control – a painting made by a machine and the toxic chemical stew that resulted from it.

JS: How did machines lead you to investigations with plants, food and architectural spaces? Those, like myself, who have followed your work for some years, approach a new show with an expectation of excellence, but not of subject. Who, having seen the robot-produced abstractions, would have anticipated the sculptural precision of the vitrines, the obsession with mycology, the investigations into dendritic systems, the drawing in neon, or the closely crafted dioramas? What can possibly connect machine-made art, slices of gelatinous head cheese [brawn], a floor planted with mushrooms, metallic trees, an electronic mugging, and inert objects precisely rendered in pristine sanded wood? Apart from the obvious answer that creative minds are always reaching for new expression, what drove these leaps?

RP: They all address ideas of control and translation.

JS: The idea, then, determines the form and technique?

RP: The idea has always been primary, which is not to say that all approaches are equivalent – just that the idea is the more important. The pieces will take whatever physical form is best to convey that idea. What interest me most are the conceptual ligaments that connect them.

JS: Would you expand on the dominant ideas?

RP: The idea of control versus non-control addresses order versus chaos and entropy, natural systems gone haywire and manmade systems run amok. Control – effectively the semblance or illusion of control – is a humanly constructed concept, and yet we are surprised when we encounter a system we have no control over, such as an earthquake or flood or hurricane. But we shouldn’t be because we’re on a planet hurtling through space and on tectonic plates that are constantly shifting. The other critical idea is translation – translation between two seemingly incompatible languages; systems and scales of time, geological forces and pipes, the power of government and the force of wind – translation through a great many filters and processes, through breaking things down and rebuilding them. This idea of translation was present in the machines and mushrooms, and has permeated all my work since.

JS: Following how these ideas unfolded, you moved on from the painting machine, and began enclosing work in vitrines. One of your most confounding works, if the funniest, was the Dinner of the Dictators series (1993-95).

RP: Those were the first dioramas. They manifested in specimen cases, and foreshadowed the ones I’m working on now. The idea of the vitrine was to encapsulate and frame a particular kind of knowledge – in the case of the dictators, their eating habits. There’s an absurdity to the piece, but at the same time it became about the knowledge contained in the case and what you viewed of the knowledge of that time; about how the world is interpreted and the way materials are perceived. I wasn’t as interested in dictators as in the shifting of the historical lens and what it means to shift that lens.

JS: Around the same time, you took on the large resin and polyester fibre Head Cheese Slices (1995). There’s no missing the humour and the sheer bravura of those works, but what else were you after?

RP: I wanted to show both the strategies of control and the removal of control – though it took 10 years to get it right. To me, head cheese is a disordered system – the randomly floated chunks of meat are a metaphor for chaos. And each slice is a unique composition, which you don’t control either. At the same time, it’s an organised product of the food industry. So that collision is what I was striving for, in that conscious/unconscious lineage of John Cage and the I Ching. Problem was, they still looked too composed so, 10 years later, working with a graphic studio in Florida, I took the logic to the next step. I made large moulds, made the chunks, deposited them randomly in the moulds, and then randomly sliced them.

JS: And got it right?

RP: Finally!

JS: What brought you to nature, a seemingly radical departure? I’m thinking of the Psilocyne cubensis fungus series. You made each mushroom individually, and “grew” them in clusters on the walls and wooden floor of the gallery. You’ve called them banality-induced pyschedelia.

RP: Well, they’re hallucinogenic! But, again, it was about systems – less about natural and organic, than about nature itself as a system. Like the machines, the mushrooms were part of my exploration of viewing the world through a systems lens. I wasn’t interested in the beauty of a mushroom, or in its form – casting a mushroom didn’t interest me at all – what interested me was fungus as another way of understanding the world. So I would take a species and view it through the lens of morphology. I would study every permutation of how mushrooms grow, how they propagate. I studied them for months, looking at them as a series of elements, at the range of their formal properties and the rules by which they are implemented. Then I used those rules to create a new way of looking at the species, as an organism mushrooming into a mycological system. Creating a field of 2,000 (two million – or 20 million, if I’d had enough lifetimes) tied into genetics, into creating a genetic mixing board in my mind. Morphology was one aspect of the idea; hallucinogens another – to get into the brain of the fungus and create a psychoanalytic event. Then there was the colour. I spent a great deal of time painting them, to the point that they became an abstraction of growth or, viewed another way, a large abstract painting. The third aspect was more complicated, involving disorder – an expanding entity compromised of fungal decay eating into the species.

JS: You kept revisiting robotic systems; I’m thinking of the SCUMAK series (1998) – one recently showed at the Museum of Arts and Design’s Out of Hand exhibition – which extruded random globs of resin that have entered collections as sculpture.

RP: As the idea of control developed, it manifested itself in more complicated machines that could calibrate motion to the millisecond, opening them to forces beyond human control and creating objects that are embodiments of the inevitable clash. The same program produces works where each is unique, creating a dialogue between what is proscribed and what actually happens. The more complicated the art-making machine, the more directly it speaks to control and conscious attempts at removal of control.

JS: You moved on to trees, fashioned of stainless steel, their antler-like branches silvered and denuded of leaves. Again, you confounded expectation; some grew kidneys, others plugged into city water systems. Maelstrom (2009), the largest sculpture ever installed on the Iris and B Gerald Cantor Roof Garden of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, threatened the leafy vegetation of Central Park with a swirled force of metal branches constructed from 10,000 elements. At the National Gallery of Canada, One Hundred Foot Line (2010) thrusts a single finger of a trunk 100 feet (30 metres) in the air. Conjoined (2007), at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, consists of two trees reaching for each other with an ambivalence suggesting both eternal yearning and helpless rotation by a severe weather event. How did trees carry your investigation forward?

RP: It was another way of looking at an organic entity, not for its qualities – its form, its age or its majesty – but as a language, with elements and rules. With the Dendroids [Paine’s tree-like sculptures], I was less interested in trees than in their dendritic structure, a system that’s all around us and inside us. I was looking at how a living entity, a creation of nature, can be seen to translate into an industrial entity, a creation of humans.

JS: It is staggering how much effort went into making their separate elements. Why not just make a reproduction?

RP: To convey the enormous complexity of when the tree is in the process of becoming abstract – when it’s translating from its natural to manmade condition – it’s critically important that I don’t take an existing tree and cast it. Since I want to create an entity that exists in an uneasy, in-between state, I have to first break it down to its elements and then reconstitute it in the language of industry by using the same materials and techniques used in petrochemical and nuclear plants – pipes, plates, rods, massive rollers, sledgehammers, grinders welders.

JS: so the Dendroids are metaphors for industry?

RP: We talk about nature and we talk about industry, but industry is part of nature because industrial systems are developed by humans.

JS: With the large outdoor pieces, to what degree do you take into account where they will be installed? Are you comfortable with how it will present in whichever place it will inhabit, or do you prefer a site-specific commission? I’m thinking of the contrast between Graft (2008-09), which lines up with other sculptures on a polite lawn against the wall of the National Gallery in Washington DC and Ferment (2011), which rises 56 feet (17 metres) on a hill overlooking the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

RP: I really don’t like the idea of piece being about one location. I’d rather that, due to its internal concept and formal logic, it could exist on its own.

JS: Focusing in on Denuded Lens, your recent show with Marianne Boesky, it anchors hand-rendered replications of mechanical objects with a 26 feet x 18 feet (8 metres x 5.5 metres) forced perspective diorama of an airport security checkpoint complete with body scanner, TV monitor, holding bins and conveyor belt. My first impression of the diorama was of a reverse gestalt; every signifier omitted a key piece of information that the brain struggled to fill in. The monitor was blank, the bins empty, the signage gone. The one exception was spookier still – the flap of the conveyor belt is curved to suggest a bag just passed through. Like the smaller works, it is made of wood and projects an absolute dryness, like the emptied shell of an egg, or bones bleached by the sun. Wood is the most organic of materials and yet all are machines, with no living properties beyond those set up by humans to safeguard and document humans. The literature says that Checkpoint is about the control of government over our lives. For me, its immediate impact was the unsettling feeling that the people it was designed to protect have already disappeared. The feeling that lingered longer stemmed from the dread of not discerning a human factor in work that can have been produced only by humans. What were you after with with this work?

RP: Translation – the translation aspect between different types of machine processing that filter dangerous components in to and out of traveller flow. Also, the translation between languages of two different systems to create a third language and force a new perception. Checkpoint is an architectural space and, at the same time, an investigation in to the industry of inspection. The language of wood, translated into the language of dioramas, translated into a signifier that folds on to itself to create a tension, a precarious equilibrium, and a discord where the piece becomes the very question it is asking.

JS: Checkpoint could have held the show by itself, but you included four smaller works, also of wood and meticulously crafted by hand; a megaphone straddling a chainsaw (Speech Impediment), a pinball machine embedding a chunk of granite (Intrusion), an elaborate mechanism with no obvious function (Machine of Indeterminacy) and a tabletop jumble of surveillance devices (Scrutiny). Are these separate investigations brought together in one show by their material and execution, or are they expressions of the same idea?

RP: I intended them to be in the same show. The diorama came first. The smaller ones are subthoughts – subsystems, which bring in offshoot ideas with the combinatorial approach of contrasting elements. All are about machine processing. Scrutiny deals with epistemological ideas within the diorama, but from a different perspective. The tools and devices are about acquiring knowledge and present a different take on knowledge. I wanted tangential options; I didn’t want it all tied up with a bow.

JS: Why was wood your material of choice?

RP: Wood, being an organic material, enables a reversal of my previous investigation. The Dendroids translated industrial materials into an organic language; here, I translate an organic element into an industrial language. Stripping down the wood gives it transformational potential. It’s a piece of wood, but also a cellular structure. Stripped down and voided of chisel marks, the wood pieces translate to machines.

JS: What about process? When you embark on a new project, has the idea for it been gestating through iterations of past projects? Or does it suddenly hit you, bounced off something you’ve just seen or read?

RP: It can happen both ways, but the best ideas come out of long gestation. They usually start with a sentence or a prior work, then a rough, small sketch. Then I’ll put it on a shelf and maybe bring it back a year later and, if it still interests me, I’ll make a more developed drawing, and then that may sit for a while.

JS: Do you use computers to model?

RP: I’ll use the computer to help visualise an idea, but only after sketching it. The drawing always comes first. A computer can be useful later to figure out problems of tension or measurements and it’s helpful in visualising a project in 3D, but I don’t want the computer mediating the initial idea.

JS: Which factors determine size and scale?

RP: It depends completely on the piece – a certain scale is needed for a particular situation. If I work outside in my studio upstate, the scale will be bigger. In the early work, cost was a factor. Those first Dinner with the Dictators dioramas, I probably would have built larger, but for the cost. With the Dendroids, it depended on what scale the piece needed. Occasionally, the smaller ones that I made to go inside ended up outside, which was a little weird to me, because I’d have made them differently if I’d known.

JS: What has determined your choice of materials? Why metal for the trees and polymer resin for the mushrooms?

RP: The idea controls the materials – for example, the idea of translating the language of petrochemical plants dictated stainless steel pipes. There are practical considerations as well. I don’t like having to fix and maintain work!

JS: It used to matter deeply to you to realise a work by yourself; you now have a crew. Is that because of the growing size and number of commissions?

RP: I still build my own work but, given the scale of the larger projects, I have to work with a team. I began with one assistant and now I have five – still a small group. I wouldn’t want more, though, because then you’re a manager.

JS: The installation itself must have been daunting – one of the Dendroids consisted of 15,000 elements – did you have dress rehearsals in the studio?

RP: Usually, but with one of the very large ones, we had to install it on site – it was exciting, to say the least!

JS: Given the scale of the dioramas you’re working with now, will you be farming out parts of them out to fabricators?

RP: No, I’ll still be making them all by hand in my studio. The fabricator model wouldn’t work because there’s so much figuring out to do and so much work involved. It would cost a fortune for one thing, but more importantly, you’d feel it immediately.

JS: So you won’t be taking advantage of the new technology to 3D-print some of the parts?

RP: Not at all, and for the same reason. I’ve tried experiments with printing, but they come out poorly, without the depth that I’m looking for. The categorisation and craftsmanship is something that exists conceptually in the work – you need to experience every possible condition of the wood, every technique I apply to it – lathe, hand-carving, milling machine, master cabinetry. The pieces don’t exist as blueprints. It’s important that I build the elements, see how I respond to them, see how the next element should be built. It’s a constant feedback, which you would lose completely with printing.

JS: Your work has been notably devoid of the human form. The only exception I know of is Incident/Resurrection (2013), a work exhibited front and centre in the window of the Paul Kasmin Gallery that broke with everything you had done before. It was figurative, made of neon tubing, and it moved.

RP: It was an anomaly. The break was deliberate, partly a reaction to being associated for ever with dendritic systems. I was feeling trapped, so I made a conscious decision to return to a prior way of thinking, to recharge the batteries. I stopped the Dendroids and went back to only drawing, to paper and ink and to a more immediate relationship with myself and my work, and let it go where it might. Incident evolved out of an event that had happened to me: I was attacked and struck in the street. So it was about that, but also about human interaction with nature, the inner conflict that arises when rational behaviour conflicts with the part of us that’s still ape. I made line drawings first, but neon felt appropriate. It’s important to me that the works don’t reach the same endgame.

JS: Looking back over your by now considerable body of work, do you think each investigation stands alone, or is each a part of the same exploration? And if so, what would you say is the overarching idea that connects them.

RP: The dominant idea is translation; translation between structures or systems that are seemingly incompatible.

JS: And going forward?

RP: It’s still the idea I’m most interested in, as well as making those cubbyholes in our brains more permeable.

JS: What’s next for you?

RP: I’m going to stay with dioramas for a while – I feel I’ve only just scratched the surface!

• Roxy Paine: Denuded Lens was at the Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York, from 4 September to 18 October 2014.

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