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    Trials and Trabajos
by David Ebony
 
     
 
Toilet Ventilator
1999
 
Installation view with Pinched Stars, 1997 (left) and Four Bicycles -- There is Always One Direction, 1994 (rear)
 
Elevator
1994
 
Traffic Worm
1993
 
La DS
1993
 
Cats and Watermelons
1992
 
Ping Pond Table
1998
 
Atomista: Making Strides
1996
 
Yogurt Caps
1994-2000
(detail)
 
Black Kites
1997
 
Gabriel Orozco, June 4-Sept. 3, 2000, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 South Grand Avenue, Los Angeles, Cal.

In Gabriel Orozco's work, trivial things take on a certain greatness. Even toilet paper serves an exalted purpose in Toilet Ventilator (1997). In this work, long strands of the stuff flow from rolls attached to the whirling blades of 10 overhead fans. Fluttering in a gently hypnotic twirl, the strands appear as white satin ribbons casting a cool, celestial breeze and a soothing spell over a large gallery space. The work is one of 100 pieces by the artist in his first U.S. museum survey, currently on view in Los Angeles.

Curated by Alma Ruiz and accompanied by a catalogue with essays by Benjamin Buchloh, Molly Nesbit, Gabriel Kuri and others, "Gabriel Orozco" contains a broad selection that includes many of the artist's major sculptures, photos and installation pieces produced over the past decade, plus several recently completed videos. The show is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through Sept. 3, its only U.S. appearance, before traveling to the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City later this fall, and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Monterrey, early next year.

Darling of the international art set for much of the past decade, the 38-year-old Mexican-born artist has had a number of museum exhibitions in Europe. However, since an in-depth overview of his work has never been presented in the U.S. until now, there is much at stake for Orozco here and in Mexico, where the exhibition will include early works that have never been shown abroad. This is a pivotal moment for Orozco. In a way, he may seem to be on trial. Does the work live up to its formidable reputation? Did the homeboy make good? Will Orozco remain in the forefront of the international vanguard after the show closes? Will he continue to be respected as one of the most influential artists of the day? Or will his efforts be shelved as works by a former flavor of the month?

Since his European museum shows and numerous gallery exhibitions have received extensive coverage from the international art press, Orozco's works may seem familiar to some U.S. museum goers. One of the revelations of this exhibition is to discover the surprising number of objects and images Orozco has produced that have become recognizable icons in a short span of time. Among those is La DS (1993), a Citroën DS sports car that the artist sawed lengthwise in thirds before removing the center section and reconstituting the car as a kind of useless object of veneration. The work's title, when pronounced in French, means "goddess." It's hard to say if this goddess is one of beauty, motion, speed or transportation.

Other striking works on the theme of human transport include the absurdist construction Four Bicycles, One Direction (1996), with its eight tires that spin like an overgrown cousin of Duchamp's 1913 Bicycle Wheel, and Elevator (1994), a truncated lift cab whose disorienting proportions might prove illogical even for a modern-day Alice in Wonderland. Among the photos, who could forget Traffic Worm, showing a monstrously oversized gray plasticine snake stopping traffic in Cairo, or the witty Gatos y sandias, a photographic image of cat food cans sitting atop watermelons (like wild animals in the forest?). Elsewhere, there's Melted Popsicle, whose stream of milky white set against a gritty background could be a nod to tachiste painting or Arte Povera.

Orozco could not have constructed his singular cosmos without the precedence of artists and writers such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, André Cadere and Jorge Luis Borges, whose impossible dream spaces perhaps only Orozco, among contemporary artists, could realize in three dimensions. The improbable quatrefoil Ping Pond Table (1998), for example, frustrates players who try to avoid a lily pond situated in the center of the table. An oval billiards table, Oval with Pendulum, offers another kind of infinite irresolution. In L.A., visitors are invited to play these games in each of two rooms. One was lined with photos from the Atomists series, large colorful digital photos in which images from London Times sports pages are overlaid with colorful geometric shapes, and the other was filled with Until You Find Another Yellow Schwalbe (1995), a kind of motorbike love story.

The walls of the largest gallery, cooled by the zephyrs of the Toilet Ventilator (1997), were hung with Yogurt Caps, one blue-rimmed, clear plastic cap on each wall. Rather than a nihilistic, neo-Dada gesture, the hanging of these abject works lent breathing space to a room filled with a considerable quantity of sculptures and works on paper. Like a window, or perhaps more accurately, like a camera lens, each cap helped to focus attention toward the center of the room, where the cast aluminum Pinched Stars and other pieces were displayed on the floor.

In this show, as in other exhibitions of the Yogurt Caps, the effortlessness of the work is balanced by obsessive and labor-intensive pieces on display elsewhere in the museum. If some detractors see a kind of preciousness in the work, it may be due to Orozco's extraordinary ability to convey the fragility of life and the fleeting experience of living, not only in terms of human triumph but also in its tragedy. A work such as Black Kites (1997), a sculpture -- or "skullpture," as the artist has indicated -- made of a human skull bone covered with small diamond shapes rendered in graphite, could illustrate the point.

Overall, the exhibition makes a convincing case for a youthful artist's extraordinary contribution to contemporary art discourse. Reproductions and verbal descriptions cannot quite capture Orozco's unique blend of off-handed nonchalance and obsessive focus, major attributes of nearly every work. For those lucky enough to see it, or rather, experience it, this exhibition could have far-reaching repercussions.


DAVID EBONY is associate managing editor at Art in America magazine.