The parts in this Mexican artist's survey do not add up to a convincing whole.
Mon Jan 18 2010
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>2/5
Maybe I’m making too much of this, but judging from some of the reactions to Gabriel Orozco’s two-decade retrospective at MoMA, it appears that a number of people who like his work feel let down, as if the parts they admired all these years don’t quite amount to a satisfying whole. I can’t say that I share their disappointment, but then, I’ve never really been a fan of the Mexican artist. I can remember seeing his first one-person exhibition in New York in the mid-’90s, at Marian Goodman Gallery, and thinking, WTF. For that occasion, Orozco had nailed a series of transparent Dannon yogurt lids rimmed in blue to the walls—and that was it. They’re here, with a label assuring us that these otherwise dispensable bits of flotsam represent the artist’s courageous willingness to take risks. But since when has betting on the art world’s indefatigable appetite for supposedly edgy gestures constituted a long shot?
Mexico has a tradition of leftist artists, and for this reason, perhaps, a certain political import is given to pieces like Yogurt Caps—that their very disposability somehow speaks to the plight of the global underclass. This has always struck me as preposterous given the weightlessness of Orozco’s oeuvre. But other, more poetical explanations for his efforts are likewise unconvincing—the idea, for instance, that the lids evoke the O in the artist’s last name. As far as such gestures go, it’s certainly more economical than those oversize initials you can buy in card shops, but that’s about all. Still, I have to agree that Orozco’s work seems driven more by solipsism than social consciousness.
Whatever Orozco may be up to, there’s a hint of mawkishness here that sends some of the works veering dangerously in the direction of the Hallmark Store. My Hands Are My Heart (1991) looks like a valentine as Ana Mendieta might have conceived it: a rough lump of clay molded into the shape of the eponymous major organ. It retains the indentations of the fingers that shaped it, but in case we miss the point, it’s accompanied by a photo of the artist holding the object out from his bare chest, as if offering it in supplication to the viewer. Of course, the heart as a symbol has deep roots in Mexican culture and the Catholic faith that cradles it—the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Frida Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, Aztec sacrifice—but it’s hard to get past the pure sentimentality of this Arte Povera gesture. Are we supposed to feel ennobled by the artist’s spirit of generosity? At least Jeff Koons’s shiny stainless steel hearts possess the irony of an oppressive corporate presence.
Other pieces fall similarly flat: a car sawed lengthwise, its middle third removed, before being welded back together again; an empty shoebox on the floor that seems to be begging for coins to be tossed into it; a large ball of plasticine (a sculpting clay that never hardens) covered in dirt and grime. This last item had been rolled through the streets of Mexico City, collecting bits of debris along the way, presumably as a talisman of slum culture, but here at MoMA, it resembles a giant kneaded eraser. If this piece is indeed intended to remind us of those who dwell at the bottom of the economic pyramid, it doesn’t help that it’s perched at the top.
And therein lies the rub. Orozco’s very considerable reputation is based on the fact that he’s regarded as a pioneer of what’s often referred to as poststudio practice, a strategy that, as the name suggests, eschews the burden of the atelier for an approach that is site-specific and reliant on materials at hand. It’s also quite dependent on institutional support, which is why poststudio practice has flourished in an era when art fairs have proliferated and museum spaces have expanded worldwide. It’s instructive to compare today’s poststudio practitioners with the artists who arguably invented the genre in the late ’60s, like Robert Smithson. They went off to build earthworks in America’s Western desert in part because they wanted to get away from what they perceived to be the corrupting influence of the art world’s institutional and commercial system. No doubt they were being naive, but their work in retrospect retains an undeniable integrity, no matter how impoverished its form. Artists like Orozco, by contrast, set off for the very centers of power, bags lightly packed with the fig leaves of identity politics. In that respect, they shouldn’t be surprised that their work doesn’t hold up in the long run.
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