Gabriel Orozcoby Benjamin Clifford
MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 12 – OCTOBER 27, 2018
For years, the famously peripatetic Gabriel Orozco shuttled between homes in Mexico City, New York, and Paris. These three cities shaped Orozco’s practice in the 1990s and 2000s: their urban landscapes were his expansive working environment. Recently, he added Tokyo and the place he has been for the last two years, Bali, to that list. Orozco relocated there to learn from the island’s stone-carvers, and the sculptures that have emerged from this collaboration make up the bulk of Marian Goodman’s current exhibition. The show also includes several recent paintings, works on panel and canvas that are equally significant, if fewer in number. Indeed, what emerges most clearly is Orozco’s sustained attention to the relationship between sculpture and painting, object and image.
The sculptures, called Dés (dice), were made from local stone in both Bali and Mexico. There are nine in the first room alone, carved from a soft Balinese limestone, while the second and third galleries contain works executed in Mexico from black marble and two varieties of porous volcanic rock, recinto and tezontle. Each sculpture begins as a cube measuring thirty centimeters on a side. Orozco uses a compass to draw a standardized composition of interlocking circles on each face of this cube. He then begins to carve, allowing the drawing to guide his work. The results are more varied than one might expect from such a systematic approach: although cylindrical forms predominate, some of the carvings are compact and symmetrical, while others emphasize negative space, and still others, structured by sweeping oblique curves, seem to split the difference.
In addition to the Dés, each gallery contains one or more paintings. The first that a visitor will likely encounter is called Orbit’s Trace (Primal), and, as hinted by the Primal subtitle, it serves as a point of origin and a key for the rest of the show. This red and blue composition is carefully structured, a complex series of linked circles and curves arranged according to a grid pattern. It is also almost identical with the drawing that Orozco uses in carving the Dés. The sculptures thus appear as if deduced from this painting, developing its composition into various three-dimensional variations. Orbit’s Trace is also closely related to the other recent paintings in the show. Although they are more complex and incorporate references to Japanese painting, Post-Impressionism, and Matisse, the other paintings are derived from similar orthogonal arrangements of circles.
This compositional format has been central to Orozco’s painting since the early 2000s, when he began working on canvas for the first time since the 1980s. In the use of primary colors and the rigor of its composition, Orbit’s Trace particularly recalls the earliest efforts, like 2004’s Prototype and The Samurai’s Tree. When Orozco first showed these works, he was met with critical consternation and even hostility. He had made his name in the 1990s with conceptualist, photographic, and object-based propositions: a photograph of oranges arranged on market tables, a plasticine ball rolled through the streets, an automobile sectioned and reconfigured, to describe just a few. Paintings in the hermetic tradition of Mondrian or Malevich seemed retardataire from an artist supposedly on the cutting edge, committed to direct intervention in the experience of urban life.
There was, however, more shared by Orozco’s paintings and his conceptualist or object-based activities than was appreciated at the time. The paintings have roots that extend back into the 1990s, and their use of geometric abstraction interrogates the relationship between a closed planar image and the real social spaces that most interest Orozco. For example, early experiments with the grid format used in his paintings did not take place on canvas, but on transparent acetate. These works, executed as early as 1995, superimpose Orozco’s geometric structures over real space, assimilating whatever environment the art object inhabits. Another project from the mid-1990s laid out the same grid structure on lightboxes inspired by advertisements found in Kwangju, South Korea. Orozco’s later works on canvas retain a measure of this porousness to contemporary lived experience.
In the works that make up the show at Marian Goodman, Orozco proposes a different way to deal with the relationship between world and image. To create a Dé, Orozco projects the two-dimensional geometry of his painting onto an object that already exists in three dimensions, an inversion of the conventions of linear perspective. Orozco carried out a similar operation in 1997 when he created the seminal Black Kites—a human skull covered by an irregular graphite grid—which Orozco describes as “volume made graphic” and “object made image.” The Dés, however, call attention to the fact that such translations are never easily and comprehensively made. The form of the sculptural object responds to the two-dimensional schema guiding Orozco’s carving, but the traces of that image are in turn distorted by the unpredictable final form of the sculpture. Here the relationship between object and image can only be described as an uncertain negotiation.
Orozco’s own ability to inhabit and move through the world operates according to a similarly ambiguous logic. In a recent talk at the New York Public Library, the artist stressed the important role of improvisation in both art and life. And certainly, to work between continents and across national borders while maintaining a coherent practice Orozco must submit his own artistic instincts to a kind of translation that operates largely in improvised acts of negotiation. The varying texture of local stone, the colors of a specific landscape, the ephemera of regional commercial culture—Orozco’s work finds its enduring vitality in the slippages and incongruences that emerge from these factors. Through them, even potentially familiar art objects like the carvings and paintings at Marian Goodman acquire something of everyday life’s unpredictability.
- Quoted in Ann Temkin, ed., Gabriel Orozco: Photogravity (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1999), 148.
Benjamin Clifford is a PhD candidate at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.