Sculptor Gabriel Orozco Has a Circular Worldview, But He Damn Sure Takes You Places


Want to find a practical method for addressing a metaphysical problem? A 2012 video by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco suggests a way forward. Looped footage of the artist throwing and catching a boomerang at the edge of
a swimming pool, the work and its title (Solvitur Boomerando) adapt an ancient technique proposed by the Greek philosopher Diogenes. When told by another sage that the notion of motion was unreal, Diogenes stood up and walked away. “Solvitur ambulando,” he spat out: “It is solved by walking.” For Orozco, an artist of subtle yet pointed allegories, problems are also routinely solved by practical doing. But it’s just as important, he tells us, to avoid having our “solutions” fly back to smash us in the face.

Orozco’s club-throwing meditation is revisited in a new show at the venerable Marian Goodman Gallery in midtown.
It is, in fact, presented in clapboard 3-D — affixed to the walls like a tumbling throw in frozen stages. An exhibition that includes a dozen boomerangs carved from raw plywood, the installation also features newer works that turn out to be vintage Orozco, despite their freshness. These unassuming pieces include three icon-like gold-leaf and tempera paintings, nine brooding graphite drawings, one blurry machine application of oil paint on canvas, and three trademark incidental sculptures of the kind the artist regularly makes to reveal magic in the ephemeral and the commonplace. In his time, Charles Baudelaire ID’d Constantin Guys as the quintessential modern painter. In our own virtual-spectacular age, Orozco is the sculptor of everyday life.

Orozco forages for art materials from the natural and manmade worlds the way Noma chef René Redzepi scours the
Danish coastline and forests for moss and algae. A purveyor of found objects, lightly treated materials, breath-on-the-piano photographs, and universal motifs,
Orozco has proven expert in seizing
what we think we know and turning it to expose its hidden facets. In large-scale installations and discrete pieces, his method recalls the WWII aviator-poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: He’s an epiphany bomber. The Mexican’s armaments include — among others deployed during a 20-year run as the poster boy for philosophy-art — sculptures carved from river rocks, photos of cloud-covered puddles, installations made from catalogued beach detritus, a classic car cut up and put
back together as a missile, and a Venice Biennale exhibition consisting of a single empty shoebox (the latter’s lone presence inside a huge pavilion remains the artist’s most oracular-spectacular piece).

It all adds up to the triumph of allusive logic (perception’s preferred lingo) and circular symmetry. If regular doses of
Orozco land you back at the forest and shoreline, the experience always takes you deeper inside the pine barrens and farther down the shell-strewn beach.

As much a partial description of our
current global culture as it is of the natural world, Orozco’s present show continues the artist’s evolving explorations of movement and accident, in addition to plumbing the recursive poetry of these elements.
The new works advance through opposing binaries, like a tense storyline with heroes and villains. There’s craft and the ready-made, the organic and the manufactured, the natural and the industrial, the airborne and the grounded — together they illustrate Orozco’s way of understanding the world through the steady force of dialectical drift.

Consider, in this light, the artist’s
boomerang installation: A group of crude wooden cutouts based on Orozco’s personal collection of Oceanic hunting implements, their frieze-like arrangement represents, among other things, both the flight of an ancient manmade tool and the Icarus-like nature of our daily challenges to gravity (odds are 1 in 8 million that a passenger will be killed on a flight, but of course that doesn’t keep us from obsessing). Like certain brainy thrillers — Antonioni’s Blow-Up comes to mind — we know we’ve been here before, pondering humanity’s landlubber status as we see objects mock-hurtle through fake time and space. But this and that moment are never the same. It’s tempting to invoke the pre-Socratics with a mixed metaphor: You don’t have to be Heraclitus to know which way the stream flows.

Similar philosophical and physical
paradoxes accrue in a neighboring room Orozco has sparingly designed to propose a set of contradictory questions. The gallery houses a fuzzy ink-jet “painting” of the earth taken from Google Maps on one wall; a salvaged ring full of cobbler’s templates on another; a wall-mounted shelf with the artist’s iPod decorated with semicircular vinyl stickers on a third; and, in the middle, a pedestal with an ashtray adorned with a map of the world and containing a commemorative replica of Sputnik 1, the first successful satellite launch. The austere arrangement swirls with the sort of hoarder’s logic that jumbles certain brilliant antique shops and animates a few nonlinear anti-museums (think L.A.’s Museum of Jurassic Technology), yet what it proposes is essentially a casual take-it-or-leave-it experience. The artist provides a number of dropped connections for viewers to take in: patterns, networks, degradations, mappings. Then one may pick up on the conversation and riff away, or — cue Dionne Warwick — walk on by.

Anti-Cartesian thinking is also the subject of the exhibition’s last room, which houses a number of graphite and tempera works on gesso and linen. Paintings and drawings the artist makes as continuous exercises in his demonstrated preference for the circular over the geometries of right angles and perspective, these works tend toward airy red, blue, and gold disintegration (the paintings), or the dense webs of obsessive compaction in black and white concentric circles (the drawings). Furthermore, Orozco’s pictures dim and lighten according to the expansion and contraction of their forms, much as the artist implies other things in the universe do — say, art, knowledge, economics, technology, and (why not?) theories on climate change. For Orozco, the circle is never
a Platonic ideal. As the artist said in a
recent interview, objects in motion that are constantly subjected to accidents and collisions “tend towards a circular form.” Like positing that skinny teenagers will eventually grow fat and die, this is both perversely true and tragically common.

Take a step back, though, and the artist makes it clear that he has reached some somber conclusions. What were once
eye-and-mind-pleasing insights about
the state of the world have made way for fuzzier ruminations and ominously dark drawings. Orozco’s view of art is, of course, also a cosmology. In his most
recent exhibition, it’s still all things great and small — but brought down to earth with a realist’s revulsion for uplift.

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