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Two contradictory visions inform Roxy Paine/Second Nature.

A substantial number of Paine’s sculptures are obsessed with expressing the symbolic potential of natural models. On the other hand, he builds machines that reproduce the vagaries of man-made actions. For all their conceptual differences, these seemingly opposite approaches share a determination to organize or quantify the randomness of life through presentations that are meticulous in the extreme. Each envisions art as an isolating, redefining, and aesthetising formulation capable of rehabilitating the spoiled utopia we call home.

The earliest sculptures in this show give you a clear idea of where Paine comes from, and by contrast with his newer work they are much more humorous, ironic, and occasionally, sophomoric. Model Painting provides a “build your own” abstract expressionist painting kit, with generic brush stroke gestures cast in polymer and displayed in a tab frame, like the ready-for-assembly pieces of a model airplane kit. Conveniently numbered yet denuded of color values, they are the sculptural equivalent of a blank stare — familiar but impenetrable. Similarly, Blob Case (No. 8) riffs on the way museums present objects for display. Here, multitudes of neutral-hued polymer splats are precisely positioned behind glass on pins, as if they were exotic bugs or rare butterflies.

The freestanding Poison Ivy Field thoughtfully places the detritus of the typical exurban environment (weeds, poisonous plants, trash, syringes) in an elegant glass-and-wood vitrine. The banality of this marginalia, meticulously fabricated with attention to the minutest detail, creates a sense of familiar ubiquity (what Houstonian cannot identify a similar patch of conveniently ignored hardscrabble close by their home?), but the museum case gets in the way. Like quotation marks, it distances the scene, placing it beyond the certainty of first-person singular creativity and into the disjunctive categories of post-modernism.

This tentativeness drops away as Paine abandons the vitrine and allows viewers direct proximity. Crop is a painstakingly lifelike tableaux, an eight-by-six foot plot of “land” populated by opium poppies. Slightly oversized and hyper-real, like the slices of urban and rural landscape the English collaborative team the Boyle family has been duplicating since the late 1970s, Paine’s poppies are not shielded behind glass. They almost seem animate as they sway gently in the artificial breezes created by CAM’s climate control. But they remain copies, the more troubling for being prefabricated and nonfunctioning models of a naturally occurring opiate. More recent pieces, like Amanita Virosa Wall (Large) and Sulphur Shelf Wall are sculptures that adopt painting’s wall-bound position. Crop’s conundrum is between the beauty of natural forms and the dangers they can contain, but opium poppies are (merely!) narcotic; Amanita Virosa is a toxic, lethal mushroom. Cast in thermoset plastic, finished by hand-painting, and scattered across broad expanses of CAM’s walls, Paine’s installations trump traditional trompe l’oeil tactics by being faithful to the patterns as well as the appearances of nature, and by withholding commentary.

Paine’s word for his naturalistic simulacra and his machine-made copies is “replicants.” There is a visceral immediacy to his concept, a point that is driven home by his fabrication techniques. But like any good cook, Paine succeeds when his replicating recipes rise above formulaic reproduction. Decorous but inert, the formally creative but very unnatural Dry Rot shows how problematic this approach can become when form and content are not precisely synced.

Paine’s crystalline, too-perfect landscape dioramas offer the iconic equivalent of a no trespassing/no hunting sign on a farmer’s field. His “labor-saving devices,” on the other hand, are sleights of hand that broadcast art but “leave no trace of the human hand.” PMU (Painting Manufacture Unit) makes paintings. It is a stylized dipping unit that reengineers and standardizes the painterly gesture into a manufacturing procedure. The prototype of this machine (not in the show) was clunky, straightforward, and smaller in scale. Paine’s finished version is big and has a self-consciously beautiful, “I love robotics” design. His workstation incorporates space for a hypothetical, neverpresent computer operator into its design, thoughtfully building an ashtray and cupholder into its welded aluminum stand. But such anthropomorphic anachronisms — and the cartoonish critiques of worker/workplace that they suggest — are the least interesting part of Paine’s considerable design and production achievements.

PMU makes paintings by repeatedly dipping a linen rectangle into a vat of white paint. Overlaid with acrylic traceries and stalactite drips, PMU’s same-sized horizontal linen rectangles are indeed painterly, albeit in a way that that is closer to the art-into-life vision of Robert Smithson than any post-Greenbergian painterliness. With Paine’s machines, timing is everything. The process is computer-driven and precisely cycled. Only occasionally does the machine become “creative.” Most viewers will not see painterly action, only a static tableaux consisting of an inert machine and a partially completed painting, flanked by completed works.

SCUMAK No. 2 makes sculptures. It is devoid of cute worker creature comforts — or perhaps the hypothetical worker gave up smoking. All machine parts, including the conveyor belt, are painted an impersonal, clinical white, the kind of color choice you would expect to find on an exercise machine or an X-ray unit. SCUMAK’s time-based routine is measured in terms of days, and produces a series of brightly-hued gloppy sculptures (artificial orange at Brandeis University’s Rose Art Gallery; unnatural blue for CAM) by extruding liquid polyethylene onto a conveyor belt. As the glob dries, a cam jogs the conveyor belt so that the next extrusion misaligns slightly. After dry-time is completed, another pour commences. This progression of planned randomness gives the blobs a family resemblance. They are genetically intimate but not identical, like fraternal twins. Finished, they are placed on shelves, displayed like so many pies out of the oven. The dominating sense of SCUMAK’s efficiency is perhaps best located in the sound the extruder slot makes as it closes-a perfect match for the impersonal yet formally attractive blobs the machine produces.

In these and other gestures, Paine’s machines beg the question of exactly where art (and life) are located. This places him outside of the postmodern lexicon, in more traditional proximity to eighteenth-century philosophers like Jeremy Bentham and David Hume, who tried to locate and quantify the changing nature of identity in an industrializing world. But Paine seems more interested in questions than answers. Diagramming the artistic gesture, his machines are coups de theatre that prod us to locate where art resides, and to distinguish aesthetic body from artistic spirit. Paine’s art is emphatically more than the sum of its parts. It resides neither in the salable globule artifacts, nor the machine itself, nor even in the computer program that drives the machine, yet invisible and unlocatable, it permeates and animates CAM’s galleries.

Roxy Paine/Second Nature was organized by the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and remains on view at CAM through January 12, 2003. Christopher French is an artist and writer living in Houston. Images courtesy the The Contemporary Arts Museum.

Christopher French is an artist and writer living in Houston.

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