Roxy Paine is a sculptor with installationist sensibilities. Some would call him (that's right "him") an installation artist with sculptural sensibilities, but they would be wrong, and if they have a problem with that, they can talk to me about it. A lot of people know him from the piece he had on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum about a year ago. I, unfortunately missed that, but this is in the same "Dendroid" series as the Met piece. "Distillation" is one continuous, sprawling, stainless steel sculpture, branching from the front door of the gallery all the way into the back storage room. It starts by the front desk with a large tank that looks like a water heater, which then connects to a big glass beaker in the next room, filled with some powdery yellow substance. From there it grows into a wild twisting metal form that in some places literally runs right through the walls and floor of the gallery. In some ways it looks like a giant water pressure or ventilation system, with all the valves and tanks, and meters placed at various points. In another way it looks kind of like an enlarged metal cast of some creatures circulatory system, with what appear to be hearts placed in various thick tangled sections. It also looks like a tree lying on its side with gnarled serpentine branches and twigs reaching across the room. In one case a group of mushroom heads sprout from an extension. But, in other areas it's hard to tell if we're looking at branches or veins, or synapses. Is this monstrosity animal, vegetable, or mechanical?
In an adjacent room a wall is covered with very delicate mushrooms, and other strange wormy fungal forms, laid out in kind of a loose spiral shape. They appear to be actually growing out of the wall. It's paradoxically repellant and quite beautiful in a tactile sort of way. I'm assuming this is a separate piece, and it would be pretty interesting on its own. It's soft porous material compliments the hard steel surface of "Distilation", but it pales in comparison to the giant piece that takes up about 80% of the gallery.
The first association I made from this huge steel structure was to John Chamberlain, I guess I was responding to the twisted metal and the organic/mechanical highbred aesthetic. But, the more I thought about it I realized that , at least aesthetically the art historical president for this kind of twisting mass of a work that reaches from one room to the next dates back to the high Renaissance and the Sistine Chapel. I know that sounds like a stretch, but indulge me on this. The roots, and soul of this kind of work can be found directly starting with the era of Michelangelo, leading up through the Baroque, and culminating in late Rococo sculpture and tapestries much more so than with anything post minimalist. It's just the materials that point to late, and post modernism. Frank Stella has shown similar sensibilities in his recent work, but that's a different story. The reason I'm focusing on this aesthetic is that it's a direct reflection of the content of the work (as any good art is). What looks at first like organic machinery transforms into a kind of industrial alchemy. Paine is identifying with the long tradition of the artists role as sorcerer or magician. The title of the piece is "Distillation", and you start to wonder what it is that's being distilled, and where can I get some.