Roxy Paine, whose new installation Maelstrom sits atop the Met Museum’s roof through October, has long fooled us with his hyperreal sculptures of plants, fungi, and trees. Real and “art” specimens were indistinguishable, except that his renditions never died—although he has captured luscious produce in a half-rotten state. He’s also dealt with modern art and commerce issues with his sculpture and painting machines that churned out “masterpieces” at the push of a button.
His stainless steel trees of recent years have ranged between elegiac mimicry, critique, and irony. Context is all important for outdoor sculpture. A corporate plaza provides a completely different subtext for a tree sculpture than does Central Park. And the trees themselves have evolved from believable structural imitations to far more expressionistic, allusive branch webs.
Maelstrom (slide show of the installation below) encapsulates the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of Paine’s work.
Paine put together a statement that lists five states in which the installation exists: a forest struck by catastrophe; an uncontrolled force of nature; a tree fragmenting/reforming; a metaphor for a neurological “storm”; and an industrial pipeline gone wild.
Maelstrom is less tree than coursing bramble, albeit of highly finished and polished stainless steel (Paine used industrial pipe; kudos to the crack welders who fabricated this work with amazing skill.) “Trunk” diameters vary greatly, from oil drum to wrist. While there are larger epicenters from which branches radiate, there is no one main trunk, and in that respect, it is reminiscent of a neural network.
Despite its gaudy, jewelry-like finish, the voracious, sprawling organism poses an undeniable sense of threat. Paine connected Maelstrom to the Met’s drainage network; a finer branch wends its way among the vines on trellis. These connections, with the implication that the network is inexorably taking over its host, are disconcerting.
And then there is the city that frames one’s view of Maelstrom. Different vistas offer backgrounds of Central Park, a jagged urban skyline, a steel gray sky, cottony clouds. The juxtaposition can bring to mind the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still, with the alien globe settling amiably on the Great Lawn. But just because it looks refined doesn’t mean it comes in peace.
Photo of Maelstrom by Sheila Griffin.