Interested in the link that man has produced between nature and technology, Roxy Paine is known for creating robotic-looking stainless steel trees along with faux fields of poppies and wild mushrooms. Often placing his life-size sculptures of plant and biological life in environments they would likely inhabit (Central Park for instance), he asks his viewers to question the assault of mechanized reality on the natural world.
For his newest work, however, Paine installed a monumental, uninterrupted piece (titled Distillation) inside the gallery setting. Meandering around corners and shooting through walls, the glistening, branchlike limbs and construction pipe tubing take up almost every inch of available space. As visitors duck under towering rods of steel, the entire piece looks like a replica of a fallen tree, inhabiting its plot of floor as an impostor.
Like a beached whale, Paine’s sculpture is a manifestation of vast organic movement and eerie unnaturalness. Metallic, twiggy appendages transform into red pulmonary arteries; diverging into offshoot paths, they split and reorganize into tiny, intricate webs. This sculpture includes valves from chemical plants, tanks used for food processing, and glass vessels from the pharmaceutical industry. Produced in varying levels of finish–from sand blasted steel to matte paint–these modern instruments are paired with a mélange of life sustaining systems, including replicas of neurons, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a pair of kidneys.
Although Paine’s early work (leafless trees and ultra-smooth boulders placed in public parks) was beautiful and surprising to stumble upon, the effect lasted only for a moment. The artist’s intent to create a jarring rift between mother nature and industrial technology was made abundantly clear at first glance. The choice to integrate his recent sculptures within the art institution (the Met roof garden for example) has opened his work up for broader interpretation.
Along with Distillation, Paine has painstakingly crafted lifelike imitations of various toxic plants and fungi, along with framed India ink sketches, and a small model of his steel sculpture (displayed in two adjoining rooms). Attached directly to the wall, at least 50 hand-made (and remarkably believable) poisonous organisms sprout, exposing delineated ribs that are meant to carry spores beneath the mushroom’s cap. Even as they grow horizontally out of the wall, instead of vertically, these life forms appear powerful, daring viewers to eradicate them. Chosen because of their detrimental effects on the human digestive system, these specimens personify nature’s unwillingness to be oppressed.
The shifts Distillation makes between powerful industrial piping, vascular anatomy, and plant growth can be read as Paine’s attempt to display the polarity between nature and artifice. He offers up a colossal view of the compromises man has made in the quest to regulate nature with machinery.