On ViewWhite Cube
Gabriel Orozco: Diario de Plantas
October 12–November 12, 2022
“I aim to disappoint,” Gabriel Orozco warned in a 2006 interview, in response to controversy about his abstract, geometrically structured paintings. At White Cube, “Diario de Plantas” starts in a very different place, with a series of fifty notebook pages bearing prints and improvisatory drawings made from leaves of plants collected in Mexico and Japan. Uniting Asia and the Americas in a simple activity—pressing inked leaves to paper as children are often taught to do—it nonetheless advances Orozco’s larger projects, like the renovation of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, even as it remains rooted in his body’s agency and therefore early work like his signature My Hands Are My Heart (1991). Orozco attends not so much to botanical morphology as to the effects of touch, to how colors drip and seep through the porous papers, heightening our attention to these everyday effects, and to the bright red chop marks that punctuate the stains and tangles. Improvisatory marks within the skeletal mesh of leaf veins inspire a reflexive impulse to sharpen our focus, but Orozco doesn’t encourage prolonged optical immersion; the installation itself involves abrupt shifts in placement and scale, with regular arrays of diary pages interrupted by larger images of flora and fauna to suggest the vicissitudes of a walk through a garden. Keeping us moving, Orozco enlarges the prints’ leafy tangles and textural effects into larger images with dense, textured fields, and he combines them with grids of circles and squares to generate images with sculptural presence. In the interview cited above, he concludes that only after expectations have been disappointed does poetry become possible.
The “Diario” extends an ongoing body of watercolor collages that culminated in a 2020 exhibition of elegant, nature-based abstractions in New York, but at White Cube the pictorial impulse predominates. After moving to Japan in 2015, Orozco studied Japanese prints and visual culture, and he cites the importance of Matisse’s works influenced by Japanese art. The two artists share an interest in sculpture, in lending mass to flattened forms, and the gridded circles that link Orozco to early modernism arise from this impulse. Reviving but pushing beyond the flat geometry of Mondrian, Orozco incorporates the Dadaist play of Duchamp, conflating the modernist grid with a postmodern chessboard, open to spherical rotation. The abrupt jumps in scale in the background of Lobster (2022), for example, like many patterns in his abstract works, diagram the “knight’s move” in chess, a jumping diagonal motion that introduces the third dimension and centrifugal rotation. His circles embrace both the vanishing point and the “gravity point” where we stand, avoiding the closure of a fixed point of view—open, as Matisse recommended, to what’s behind us, and to growth.
While the leaf prints in Lobster assume the form of appendages and inner anatomy, creating a hybrid natural form, Crab (2022) suggests a puddle of leaf debris, with gridded circles submerged in enlarged textures. Shifting background colors create an overall field from which we barely disengage, in a gestalt process, the centralized image of two superimposed crabs. Frog, Turtle and Dragonflies (all 2022) also challenge our attention, with Frog’s delicate green silhouette both formally framed beneath a grid of white circles and obscured by floating leaf fragments and imprinted veins. These hard-won images of nature seem mysterious, culturally elevated, informed by both observation and tradition, but also more like scientific specimens compressed on microscope slides than denizens of a garden.
In a press release, art historian Briony Fer talks of an “effect of tangled vegetation,” of things that fall beneath our attention because of their sheer complexity. Orozco confronts this tangle in Pepper Plant (2022) and Pineapple (2022), food plants important in both Asia and America, and his deep affinity for vegetal growth yields more distinctive forms. Pepper Plant features three vertical stems with branching leaves and peppers, which open up the symmetrical grid structure and allow patterned shapes to play hide-and-seek amid shifting background colors and leaf debris. Pineapple, more severe, totally abstracts its backgrounds into regular grids of interlocking circles, and the fruits, as though in response, grow into ingenious mechanical constructions of gridded units. Its distinction seems to embody Orozco’s ideal of expansive, organic growth (and it’s tempting to read something Mexican in its angularity). Some might regret the loss of the subjective tension of the overall fields, but in it Orozco pushes to full resolution, in organic form, a mode of attention he’s long pursued. British poet Charles Tomlinson admired poets who “penetrate while refusing to merge” and discerned a “separating vision” in Georgia O’Keeffe’s various Jack-in-the-Pulpits—“oddly literal in their strangeness and isolation.” In Pineapple, Orozco abandons immersive improvisation and leaves us, like O’Keeffe, to confront the strangeness of natural forms, working through grids and leaf debris to a poetically enriched attention.