Whitehot Magazine

Orrico on the threshold: a review

Installation view, Tony Orrico, Signs and Symbols Gallery, New York

Orrico on the threshold
Signs and Symbols gallery
New York, NY


Who turned us thus around, so we,
no matter what, have the pose

of one who is departing? …

So we live, forever taking leave.

- Rilke 

“I am dancing with myself,” Tony Orrico laughs, speaking on the occasion of his latest performance and exhibition, A continued gesture towards us, at Signs and Symbols gallery, recently relocated to New York’s Lower East Side. A former professional dancer turned performance artist, Orrico’s current work continues to make use of the most basic tools of drawing—graphite, substrate, and guiding hand—in order to performatively lend to the medium a third and fourth dimension: spatiality and duration.   Yet, this work, composed through continuous choreographed motions, also contains at once a dancer’s memory of line and an attempt to mine the contemporary gestures of conflict, division and cultural apartheid that mark modern America. 

However, if Orrico is dancing with himself, his gesture is also a counter gesture: he is also dancing with an other. The silence of the room is unstifled by idle chatter, mindless chitchat, or the lugubrious, vicious muck of art speak or air kisses.  A solitary bottle of Bulleit Rye sits on a pine bench beside the lithe form of a spectator, her spine straight and rapt attention betrayed her background as a dancer.  Around the room hushed thong, old women and young men, sits, stands, leans above, and lies below a single turning form.  The only sound is the rhythm of a pencil on a substrate. I’ve arrived one hour into the private view performance of Supporting a continued gesture towards expanding sanctuary (2019), whose “sustain”—a leitmotif of the artist’s own vocabulary—would last long after my 90-minute sojourn between whisky and wood. The slender stranger leans over, whispering, without averting her gaze, “We danced together for most of a decade; I can’t help but admire the openness and commitment of his body to the work.”

Tony Orrico, mixed media

Orrico’s commitment to the transition between dancer and artist began in 2009.  After six years as a professional dancer for first Shen Wei Dance Arts and then the renowned Trisha Brown Dance Company, the artist knelt on his knees, sticks of graphite clutched in both hands.  This ‘circle’ work of which the most recent iteration Circle on Knees Reimagined (2018) appears in the current exhibition, presents as a tondo, begging comparison to a mandala or the devotional compositions of Buddhist monks. “I swing my arms in sync, back and forth, in a pendular fashion” explains Orrico, “striking the surface of the paper, which naturally leaves dots at the point of impact and long strokes in the follow through.”  Tracing the circumference eight times, the performance from which the austere, minimalist and highly rhythmic work results, last only eight minutes. It is, states the artist, his “shortest work to date, yet most collected.”  Yet brevity can have great import.  Those 480 seconds in 2009 informed the entirety of Orrico approach to his audience and the continuing of his performance practice; “This brought about the early realization that the work I would create would involve audience… the engagements would have no introductions or contrived formality [in order to] test how each action might earn the audience’s concentration, silence, stillness, or otherwise.”   

With the ensuring development of his practice, Orrico’s circular works expanded to the length and breathe of his body, with implicit Vitruvian dimensions, in his celebrated Penwald series, which has been performed at galleries and museums throughout the US and Europe, well before the artist had the opportunity to work with the durational aesthetics of Marina Abramovic, in the re-performance and retrospective of her work in 2010. However, it was a concept of ‘threshold’ taken from her tutelage, rather than endurance, which informed Orrico’s work. “What I learned from that experience, for three months, several days a week holding such space multiple times a day for hours, definitely influenced the trajectory of my developing work.  Marina speaks about meeting a ‘threshold’ … that has become an anchoring moment in most of my repertory of performances.  It’s a moment that seems to actually begin each work; it’s a promise of relief and deeper consciousness that lies on the other side of major discomfort and even disorientation.  On the other side, for me, is where the essence of the engagement is.”  

Installation view, Tony Orrico, Signs and Symbols Gallery, New York

            This engagement is not simply bodily—the point is not, or is not only, to push the body to the edge of collapse. Rather, in Supporting a continued gesture towards expanding sanctuary (2019), the central work of the current exhibition and that which I was fortunate enough to witness as a whiskey marinated audience member on a cold January evening, Orrico’s commitment extends towards an investigation of the power of gesture as a form of engagement with the suffering of others.  Our one common human experience is suffering,” explains the artist.  "I am considering more of the implications of gesture from person to person… holding, receiving, framing, identifying, supporting, underlining. In referencing images of people in these heightened states I am looking at their hands... coping inside of what they may be enduring." Composed on purposely provisional, seeming rickety structural support of thin wooden slats bound together with string and expanding foam, like the aftermath of an unsuccessful barrier, to which a continuous pathway of paper is attached, the work furthers Orrico’s consideration of the sculptural possibilities of drawing, not only through the spatiality of his own body, but space taking gesture of work per se.  Sourcing media images of the hand movements of individuals experiencing conflict or tragic circumstances—such as the anguish of a father and a daughter in the border crisis or the sorrow of individuals in the aftermath of a mass shooting—the artist composes the continuous choreography of the drawing, completed through obsessively repeated, constrained pirouettes over three hours, with graphite in both hands, not through a strict appropriation of each gesture, but through the formation of what he calls a counter gesture.  These consist of, he clarifies, “gestures that identify what I personally can perceive, being the only interaction that is actual and possible via the degrees of our separation in our experiences, as the most sincere way for me to access my own compassion towards their predicament”: gestures of coping, empathy, or support. 

Though the futility of the intention couched in this work remains obvious, the piece itself is successful in its own partial, rundown, DIY, quotidian poetry: a persistent visual precarity reflect the lives of those to which artist would reach out.  The solipsism of previous compositions falls away: Orrico is no longer dancing with himself but extending a hand to the thousands of victims of violence and solitary tragedy in contemporary society.  This is an effort of somatic understanding, an ode to the visceral helplessness inscribed in what Susan Sontag called, ‘regarding the pain of others’, without the simplification, agitation, or illusion of consensus that direct images of conflict and suffering might provoke.  He is dancing with an other, perhaps absent, elsewhere, or off-stage, but nonetheless, there, and not there: forever taking leave. WM


Brooke Lynn McGowan

Brooke Lynn McGowan is a writer and curator based in New York City.

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