Whitehot Magazine

November 2010, Interview with Roxy Paine

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Roxy Paine, Distillation, 2010
Photograph by Jeremy Liebman
Courtesy, the artist and the James Cohan Gallery


Interview with Roxy Paine

Roxy Paine is soft-spoken and laid-back while his artworks are bold and provocative. Speaking together during the final installation his latest exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery in Chelsea, we discussed this new show in detail. As Paine’s outdoor sculptures spring up in more cities throughout the country, becoming familiar additions to many sculpture gardens, the lack of a “natural” setting in this gallery exhibition marks a different way to view and interpret his large-scale, at times genuinely overwhelming, stainless steel structures.

Alissa Guzman: Let’s begin by talking about this new piece in particular. The last piece of yours I covered was Maelstrom (2009) on the rooftop of the MET Museum. Is this new gallery installation the next in the Dendroid series?

Roxy Paine: Well, there’s been a couple of others in between, but this is the next evolution of that piece.

Guzman: Can you talk about how is this work is conceptually different or specific?

Paine: It’s called Distillation, and it is playing with a lot of ideas from alchemy. One of the central precepts of alchemy, “solve et coagula,” means to dissolve and join together. What’s interesting to me about alchemy is not necessarily to be an alchemist. I’m very interested in the fact that distillation, invented by alchemists, and alchemy being something we normally think of as a superstition, as magic or a pseudo-science, became one of the core principles of modern science. You take an organic compound and isolate elements from it. What is interesting to me about this is that the categories that exist in our brains, that we feel so concrete about, are really built on shifting ground. This piece is about natural and lineated systems flowing into one another and becoming a conflagration, where the borders between them are very unclear and impure. It’s a meditation on how we see purity.

Guzman: Are you questioning the notion of purity?

Paine: Yes. I mean, I don’t think there is such a thing…

Guzman: But we really want there to be! [laughing] We’d love there to be purity.

Paine:Yes! Exactly, in our brains. There are a lot of elements in this piece that hearken back to that idea of seeking purity, like the kidneys in it that are the purifying organs. The piece is about the impossibility of that quest.

Guzman: Did you design this piece specifically for this space? I’m used to seeing your work outside with nature, juxtaposed against it. This piece feels more like something existing in a basement, and it definitely feels like it’s meant to be in this space.

Paine: Well the original drawing I did without a space in mind.

Guzman: Is that usually how you work, drawing before you have an actual space for the piece?


Roxy Paine, Distillation (detail), 2010
Photograph by Jeremy Liebman
Courtesy, the artist and the James Cohan Gallery

Paine: I usually do the drawings, and the idea always exists before there’s a space. In this case when this show was being planned it felt like a natural thing to try and do this piece in this gallery. At that point I did make the model with this space in mind, drawing out the borders of these rooms and trying to make it work. Obviously parts of the piece strike through the walls, pieces are tucked up against the ceiling.

Guzman: Were there certain aspects of this particular space that you tried to emphasize or did you try to work with the space as a whole?

Paine: It was important to me to utilize the whole space, and that it not feel completely contained by the space. Even through there are aspects that are about being constricted, the piece is also coming through the wall here, going back into the office, and it starts out by the reception desk. Actually it goes all the way to the front door, which creates this feeling of not being a simple object in a space that you walk around and look at, but something that’s really more permeating throughout the space.

Guzman: I know you’re inspired a lot by nature, by the industrial and the natural, so do you feel like this piece utilizes this interest differently because it’s indoors and it isn’t directly surrounded by the natural world? It definitely has a treelike quality but it also feels very industrial.

Paine: I feel like this is where my ideas are at this moment, even if I had an outdoor space to work with right now, it would have been a similar piece just with different resonances. I think the ideas would have been the same. I have become increasingly interested in architecture, and how the architecture of a space relates to the work. I’ve actually never been that interested in the purely lush natural setting. I think it’s more interesting when you have the overt human modification of the world around it.

Guzman: What I liked about Maelstrom was that while you got very drawn into what the piece was doing to the actual roof of the MET, it was also set against the irresistible background of Central Park.

Paine: Yes and the treetops, but then it was also surrounded by a canyon of buildings. Getting back to the idea of purity, I’m not interested in a romantic idea of nature existing in a “pure natural setting.” I’m more interested in the collision, in how everything is jumbled together.
Another way of looking at this piece is as a conflagration of discrete systems. You have the arboreal, which is the tree, you have the industrial systems, which is the pipe work and valves, you have the neural systems represented by the neurons, you have the mycological, represented by the mushroom forms, and you have the vascular system which is representative of the body. Each of these systems also represents a distinct way that the world is framed, that we frame the world, that we try and understand the world.

Guzman: And you want all these different systems combined into this one piece or into one system?

Paine: Yes, I’m interested in the mixing of these systems because we are increasingly about specialization, each person has one micro specialty, but at the same time you have these massive groups coming together. People can travel so freely throughout the world. You have constant filters, people, and cultures meshing in ways they never would have five hundred years ago. Which gets back to the tenet of alchemy: dissolve and join together.

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Roxy Paine, Replicant, 2010
Photograph by Jeremy Liebman

Courtesy, the artist and the James Cohan Gallery

Guzman: Can you talk about your decision to include the Replicant piece in the front gallery? Obviously they are two separate pieces, but do you want Distillation to be seen as its own piece and the Replicant as its own piece, or did you choose to show them in relation to each other?

Paine: Well there was a debate in my brain about whether or not to put the Replicant piece in, but I think it’s a nice counterpoint to Distillation. I think they each in a way eliminate the other. The Replicant is also a bit of a mental palate cleanser [laugher].

Guzman: [laughing] The aesthetic in each piece is so distinct that it’s really nice to have the super detailed, small piece, the Replicant, that you can get very close to, as opposed to Distillation, where you are constantly looking up and being enveloped by it. Is this then a new installation of this Replicant piece?

Paine: This is actually a new piece altogether. I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half, and there’re about eighteen different species of mushrooms here.

Guzman: Are they all poisonous? They are certainly all beautiful.

Paine: Some are poisonous, some are merely unpalatable, some are hallucinogenic. In previous works it has been one species, a grouping of only hallucinogenic mushrooms for example, and this is, in a way, a conflagration itself. It brings together all these different species and forms.

Guzman: I’m assuming all the colors are accurate to the actual mushrooms? It’s a really beautiful palette too.

Paine: Yes, they are quite accurate, but there are some liberties taken. [laughing] I can’t exactly take credit for the palette.

Guzman: But visually now you can!

Paine: [laughing] The combination, yes. These would never exist together or near each other and certainly not on a white wall, in nature.

Guzman: I’ve heard you talk a lot about your strained relationship with nature from growing up in the suburbs. Being from the suburbs of L.A. which have their own tortured relationship with nature, I’m curious if you are interested in how nature interacts with cities?

Paine: There was an aspect of the Replicant pieces when I started them where I was in the city, and I felt often like not being in the city, so there was a kind of longing for a more natural interaction in them. When I first moved to New York I thought, I’m just going to be here for five years, but you can look at this whole city as a very organic structure and system, and you can understand nature through the dynamics of the city, through the complex systems that developed from placing some many individual entities and species in one compact place.

Guzman: Talking about New York City, you were an artist living and working in Williamsburg in the early 1990’s?

Paine: Lets see, I moved to Brooklyn in 1987 and in 1988 I started a collective gallery called Brand Name Damages in Williamsburg.

Guzman: I know you’ve talked about how the bottom had fallen out of the art market that time, and about the energy that was there because of that, and I’m curious if you see that now with the recession?

Paine: I think it’s healthier for a young artist to grow up in this kind of atmosphere than in a boom time when artists just go into big commercial galleries right out of school.

Guzman: Healthier because they can actually focus on their own work?

Paine: Yes, it has to be more about ideas than about selling out your first show.

Guzman: What do you think about New York City as a city for young artists? Do you think it’s still a good place for young artists to come? I don’t know if you heard the comment Patti Smith made at Cooper Union this summer.

Paine: No what was it? I’m sure it’s good!

Guzman: She said essentially that young artists shouldn’t come to New York City anymore because it has closed itself off to the poor and the struggling, which to a certain extent is true, but it also feels like she was being a little nostalgic about her own experience and time. You’ve been working in the city for so long and very successfully, do you feel like it’s still a good place for young artists?

Paine: It does seem strange how gentrification seems to continually grow, and there does not seem to be an ebb and flow where one place becomes more expensive while another area becomes less expensive. It seems like everything is just getting more expensive! I think this makes it very difficult, but if I were a young artist still I don’t think there would be any other place I would gravitate towards other than New York City, maybe Berlin, even with these changes. There is always a way to make it work.


Roxy Paine, Replicant (detail), 2010
Photograph by Jeremy Liebman
Courtesy, the artist and the James Cohan Gallery

Roxy Paine, Distillation (detail), 2010
Photograph by Jeremy Liebman
Courtesy, the artist and the James Cohan Gallery



Alissa Guzman

Alissa Guzman is a culture critic living and working in New York City.

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