Roxy Paine: Normal Fault
On ViewKasmin Gallery
November 4 – December 23, 2021
Roxy Paine is best-known for his metal sculptures that resemble craggy trees, but since 2013 the artist has been exploring the potential of the diorama. The exhibition Normal Fault at Kasmin Gallery features thirteen relief paintings and one small diorama, all created in 2021, exploring ecological and geological systems. The diorama, entitled Access Panel, simultaneously resembles a basement crawl space that is overgrown with cobwebs and stalactites and a portal into The Upside Down world. In comparison to Paine’s previous dioramas, which depict semi-sinister spaces such as an airport security checkpoint or a corporate meeting room, these new works are playful, at times smartly evoking science museum infographics of the pre-digital era. The exhibition celebrates nature’s astounding systems and contends with darker themes: the inevitable disruption of natural processes by human activities, the political fault lines around climate change, and the earth’s eventual destruction.
The opening work, Green Cave, is a lush Edenic scene consisting of layers of small square pieces of lime-green colored epoxy. The material appears as if it was pressed through a wire-mesh mold to create a checkerboard pattern. The result is a shimmering optical effect that suggests a pixelated photograph, but the viewer remains aware that this work is made from an assembling of tactile pieces. I couldn’t help but think of bead building sets, Legos, or embroidery. With these associations, Paine seems to share with us a joy of the artistic process, of working with materials to create things. Green Cave sets an almost magical, exploratory note for the works that follow. The only purely green work in the exhibition, it can also be seen as a reference to paradise lost.
The geological term “normal fault” denotes the vertical movement of rock masses in which the mass above the fault-line slips down. The large relief paintings Topographic and Stratigraphic no. 2 also have scientific titles, referring to the surface of the earth and the study of rock layers, respectively. Composed of sculpted and textured epoxy, these works feature a bright 1970s orange-brown-green color palette. Topographic blurs the line between an aerial view and an abstraction. A variety of patterned forms in different shapes and sizes are laid out and layered upon one another. Epoxy and pigment resemble organic materials—the edge of a leaf, the contours of an island, the tentacles of coral and the patterns depict natural and commercial materials—bricks, shipping containers, cracked earth, cellular forms, the plant, and human vascular systems. Stratigraphic no. 2 presents a cross-section of geometric and organic striations—fungi, cauliflower, stripes, grids, chevrons, orange sand, and crumbly brown soil.
In contrast to the empirical views that organize Topographic and Stratigraphic no. 2, natural forces appear disturbed or out of control in Large Green Pools, Digital Fungus, Small Sun, and Large Sun. In Large Green Pools, neon-colored toxic waste bubbles up from the mushroom-filled soil. In Digital Fungus, a rose-colored mold proliferates, threatening to fill every inch of the landscape beneath it. Large Sun and Small Sun feature bulbous tangerine spheres swollen with rapidly multiplying bacteria or cells. Although they are relatively small in size and brightly colored, the Suns have a creepy, sinister presence. They bring to mind the uncontrolled spreading of disease, a reminder that the pandemic is also an ecological event. According to the Kasmin press release, the Suns also represent “the eventual absorption of the earth in space.”
On the opposite side of the gallery is the relief painting Gros Ventre. A more traditional landscape scene of gravely gray mountain slopes dotted with evergreens, it feels a bit out of place among the more abstract, vibrantly colored works. However, it depicts the Gros Ventre Wilderness near Jackson Wyoming, not far from Paine’s studio, which served as the inspiration for his consideration of the interplay between natural forces. The mountain ranges in the area, which are cleaved by faults, are prone to landslides. The wilderness around Jackson is also a historic site in the preservation movement: the drive to protect the land from private development led to the establishment of nearby Yellowstone National Park by Congress in 1872, sparking a global national park initiative, and Gros Ventre is part of Bridger-Teton National Forest, which was created in 1904.
In the exhibition’s final room, Paine ties environmental and political themes together in a series of flag paintings. It’s impossible to look at these works without immediately filtering them through Jasper Johns. Paine revives the trope with an engaging use of texture. Using epoxy, he builds up a sculptural surface to a far greater degree than Johns, creating a crackled, chocolate-colored background that mimics soil, submerging the flag in the earth. In Fungal Flag no. 1 different varieties of red and white fungi form clearly defined stars and stripes. In Fungal Flag no. 2, the stars and stripes have begun to dissolve, reclaimed by the sticky mud. In Earth Flag, the soil appears pure, barren and gooey. Furrows ready for planting loosely form the stripes of the flag. The consistency of the dirt, created with a combination of epoxy, fiberglass, lacquer, and oil paint is evocative and ambiguous, straddling the line between a muddy, fertile field and a decadent sheet of brownies. The brownie-flag, a reference to two hallmarks of American civilization, is effortlessly absorbed into organic matter.