Whitehot Magazine

June 2009, A Tumultuous State of Affairs: Roxy Paine on the MET Roof

June 2009, A Tumultuous State of Affairs: Roxy Paine on the MET Roof


 The sculptor/painter Roxy Paine is often introduced as being “Virginia’s very own,” a phrase coined by one of his many critical champions. While Paine is internationally respected, it is none-the-less noteworthy that he is cherished by the happy suburbs of northern Virginia that nurtured his adolescence. According to Paine, his hometown, expanding and booming throughout the 1970’s, followed the grotesque habit of suburban America everywhere of transforming local farmland into track homes. Observing the alterations of his rural home, however, proved endlessly inspirational for Paine, and accounts for his deep interest in the intersection of the natural and the manmade, and in the landscapes that exist both before and after developers latch onto the land. These themes dwell deep at the core of his work—“a new, warped sense of nature influenced my thinking (New York Magazine, 2009).” The relationship between the developer and his chosen landscape can be seen as a metaphor for Paine’s paintings and sculptures alike; he considers the dialogue that necessarily exists between any maker and the objects he creates. His most recent work, Maelstrom, a seven-ton stainless steel sculpture, rooted visually into the roof of the MET museum, questions, through various juxtapositions, the nature of what it is we build, how these creations affect pre-existing natural systems, and the intentions of our additions.

Since in 1998, Paine has been working on the Dendroid series, sculptures of steel pipes assembled to form looming tree-like structures. Installing his steel trees throughout various parks country wide, Paine intentionally sets them within and against “natural” landscapes. In both installations I have seen—Split (2003), permanently gifted to the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, and a temporary installation of Conjoined and Erratic (2007) in Madison Square Park — Paine’s pipe sculptures appear as industrially misplaced trees, as well as unpredictable mutations nature sometimes indulges: one bright silver, perfectly still tree amidst the shifting colors of nature. Paine’s welded trees do not represent the “manmade” fighting against, or corrupting, what is deemed “natural.” Instead, they engage us in considering the necessary, though strained, interaction between the two. Though Paine says, “I’m translating the trees into the specific language of industrial pipelines (Bomb Magazine, 2009),” his work can also be seen to be translating pipelines into the complex fractal language of trees.

Maelstrom, though necessarily derivative of Paine’s previous Dendroids, represents a formal and conceptual departure. Though its sculptural form resembles branch-like structures, Maelstrom does not represent a standing tree but a tangled and confused web of pipes. Maelstrom focuses attention not on what it represents, but on how it has been constructed and installed. Whereas a piece like Split is beautiful in a clunky and awkward manner, Maelstrom is all joints, elbows, intersections, and connections. Walking physically through, around, under and at times over the pipes emphasizes the artworks shape, height, density and durability; its materiality takes on a heightened significance. A roughly welded joint directly overhead, pipeline numbering underfoot, the occasional reflection in a particularly polished branch, or the sense of being physically overwhelmed by woven steel, all emphasize surface and texture, parts and pieces rather than the whole. Most interestingly, it is a structure of contradictions. It is strong but feels fragile, it has been crafted with care and precision but feels careless or misshaped, and while it took cranes to bring the pieces to the rooftop, it feels as through a blustering wind could sweep them all away. Like a dormant computer, Maelstrom comes alive through human interaction. It sways and bounces slightly at the touch of curious hands and leaning limbs

The MET roof garden is an odd space for any sculptor to work with, being so site specific, and despite the disturbing manner with which rooftop artwork is treated as a tourist attraction, this location is perfect for Roxy Paine’s steel whirlpool. Instead of being set in the midst of nature as the Dendroids were, Maelstrom looms above it, reaching foreboding tentacles outward to the sky, the skyline, and the treetops of Central Park. Maelstrom contrasts itself starkly with the natural and the manmade. It threatens the elegant image of the Westside buildings while blocking and obscuring a perfect view of the park. There is no mistaking that Maelstrom is a sinister piece. In one definition, Maelstrom referrers to a “restless, disordered, or tumultuous state of affairs,” The title fits perfectly with the emotive feeling of the sculpture, and like a good band name it invites additional analysis. The current state of our country, our attempts to unravel and untangle the great mass of systems we have lived within for so long, seems greatly considered in Paine’s piece. The beauty of Maelstrom’s abstraction rests in the more malleable and complex possibilities of its interpretation. The uprooting, breaking apart, and hasty assemblage of social and financial structures that began in earnest last fall as giant networks collapsed into limp piles of meaningless assets, is caught within the branches and tangles of Paine’s work. Maelstrom questions what we as a culture have made, what we have destroyed, what we can repair, and what we might be able to learn if we consider our habits of creation.


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Alissa Guzman

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

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