The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2014

All Issues
SEPT 2014 Issue
Art In Conversation

ROXY PAINE with Will Corwin

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Will Corwin has spent the last three years ferreting out Roxy Paine in his various habitats—upstate in Delhi, New York, and in his Long Island City and Maspeth studios—watching the progress of various works of art and attempting to develop a taxonomy of the various strains and tropes into which his ideas fall. Together in numerous discussions the artist and his interlocutor have sifted through the strata of meaning that the artist has laid down over time. Paine’s works oscillate between the overwhelmingly familiar and the disarmingly foreign. On the one hand he presents things exactly as they are, and stands back to enjoy the inherent impossibility in a field of perfectly replicated Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms sprouting from a wooden gallery floor, while on the other hand he reconfigures the fundamental definitions of what we think we know and then conjures up objects—or even better—has robots make them in front of us—and labels them “painting” or “sculpture,” forcing the viewer to reconfigure their perception of what those things really are.

Will Corwin (Rail): “Checkpoint” is the centerpiece of your current exhibition Denuded Lens at Marianne Boesky, [September 4 through October 18, 2014]. It presents a security installation in what we might guess is an airport; an 80-foot gauntlet of X-ray machines, full-body scanners, and even plastic tubs for shoes and laptops is meticulously rendered in wood and skewed to fit the 18 feet of a stage-set-like constructed perspective. “Checkpoint” is a diorama, but it’s a fraught one. Instead of aiming to educate the viewer about the unknown, it demands introspection. What is your history with the “media” of dioramas? What was the first diorama you ever came in contact with?

Roxy Paine: The first one that I can remember was a diorama in Holland, near Scheveningen, a town by the sea. They have a diorama there that’s in the round—you actually come into the center of it through a tunnel. It’s the sea, sand, and ocean, the painted backdrop is of the water and the sky. I remember the absence of a focal point. It had a gray, cloudy sky, which is typical in that area. I remember it had a starkness to it. It was unusual to me in that it was a recreation of a place that you could just step outside and see.

Rail: Was this your first interaction with hyper-banality?

Paine: [Laughs.] Well, maybe it was an influence on my hyper-banality.

Rail: Do you remember your impressions of it?

Paine: I’ve always been melancholy, even as a kid, so I think I felt a certain synchronicity with it, a certain harmony, even as a kid.

The other earliest dioramas I can remember are the ones at the Museum of Natural History. What really struck me was the transformative and mind-altering qualities of them, and the displacement aspects. The mechanisms of illusion are not really hidden, you just poke your head inside or at an angle and you see the lights and where the wall ends. It’s almost hallucinatory with the illusions, but the means by which these effects are achieved are easily discovered and revealed at the same time as they are functioning. I don’t often hear people talk about how mind-bending they are, but for me they create a feeling that I’m under the influence of a psychoactive event.

Rail: They are a very rudimentary form of time-travel and space travel.

Paine: Yes, and I also see them as time capsules, reflective of the scenes within as well as the concerns, preoccupations, and biases of the time in which they were made.

Rail: Looking back on some of your earlier drawings from 1994, “A Diorama for an Art Gallery,” “A Diorama for a Drug Dealers Apartment”—

Paine: I wish those had been fully realized at the time, and not just as drawings. I wouldn’t necessarily do those specific ideas now—I think the current iterations of the dioramas I’m working with are more indicative of my thought process now, but they would have been very interesting to have done at the time.

Rail: There’s a dichotomy between what you’re proposing in those early drawings and what you’re proposing with “Checkpoint” and what the Natural History Museum is doing with it’s display of, say, animals of the South African plains. The dioramas in the museum seek to educate, and you’re taking this mode of educational display and using it as a kind of mirroring apparatus. Where do you position yourself between mirroring and educating?

Paine: It’s definitely not educating, because I’m completely anti-education—I dropped out of high school and then dropped out of college as well, so clearly I have something against educating people.

Rail: Institutional education!

Paine: Yeah, that’s more accurate. I never quite understood how to navigate through institutions, so I had to develop an auto-critical and auto-didactic approach to my work. With projects such as the specimen cases and dioramas, there is a clear employment and simultaneous translation of institutional modalities. Here, models are understood to provide knowledge and information—they are a lens to record, catalog, and display data. I am interested in these given structures as signifiers and taking those ends and folding them in on themselves. These dioramas are like folded spaces and elements in dialogue with our current episteme. Edification is still a potentiality even without education, even though there’s not a clear message to be taught. Given all this, the works become suspended moments and a pause to contemplate complexities.

Roxy Paine, “Checkpoint,” 2014. Maple, aluminum, fluorescent light bulbs, acrylic prismatic light diffusers, 14 ́ × 26 ́ 11 ̋ × 18 ́ 7 1/2 ̋. Courtesy of the artist and Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York.

Rail: Where do the complexities lie? You’ve stripped away the foreign-ness in this piece, stripped away the difference, but you’ve kept the entertainment side of it—it’s the excitement of the diorama without the usual data you’re used to receiving from it. 

Paine: Do I entertain you? Spaces that are “facts”—a fast food restaurant, a security line, a control room—tell us something about the processes of our contemporary world: the industry of food, inspection, or control. They are architectural spaces but they are also machines, they are systems. I am interested in translation—the translation of the languages of these systems into the language of wood and the language of dioramas. By translating, I hope to create a third language, a language that has ligaments connected to the sources but existing in a tenuous equilibrium, teetering between them. There’s an incompatibility and in this discordance is where the pieces actually become the questions they are asking. Questions, the right questions, are important to me because they open the mind. 

Part of what I’ve always worked with is a seemingly factual or fact-based situation—like the “Psilocybe cubensis Field” (1997) which is psychedelic and hallucinogenic, but without any amplification or exaggeration in the form or color. It’s the facts of this species: I’m limiting myself, restricting myself to that in order to create an altered state. I think of it as a banality-based psychedelia in a way.

Rail: What you’re talking about is the very basis of sculpture itself: replicating or reproducing something that has a meaning in a base object, not recreating the meaning though something like a Greek Choros, the god-as-person in stone. By replicating the mushrooms in an epoxy polymer, you are designating them to a particular species; do you feel that by doing so you are investing the replica with a psychedelic power?

Paine: Yes, the implication is that by naming it and presenting its morphology, other physical effects will occur. Perhaps it’s also akin to some kind of placebo effect. It is creating this very hallucinatory experience—this field of mushrooms growing out of the floor.

Rail: Do you feel the viewer needs to have the experience that these mushrooms produce in order to understand the piece?

Paine: No, I don’t think it’s necessary to have experienced mushrooms to appreciate the piece. There are other levels to the work which are about meditation within the repetition, becoming the mushrooms as I’m building them, understanding every permutation of the species, understanding every possible variation of form and growth in the mushrooms. It’s about a contradictory play between the rules of restraint and freeing your mind. 

Rail: Do you invent those mushrooms? Do you work from photographs to produce every one? Or do you create mushrooms as you go along?

Paine: There’s a process first of studying the species to such a degree that I can then become like a D.N.A. mixing table in my brain and be able to create unique entities that have the characteristics of the species but are not referring to, on a one-to-one basis, an existing mushroom, or one that has existed. If it was about finding a particular mushroom in the woods, casting that or taking a plaster mold from it, and then reproducing that, that would be a very different kind of project and occupation.  You’re a technician, but you’re really trying to get into the brain of the fungus, to become it.

Rail: Many of the pieces you’ve created—“Weed-choked Garden” (1998), “Bad Lawn” (1998)—have to do with poisonous plants, plants that cause pain, or that detract from the perceived natural beauty of a garden. With the psychedelic mushrooms, what are they as a signifier to human beings? Do they signify some abhorrent side of nature that invokes fear, or are they a gateway to the sublime?

Paine: I’ve always been very intrigued by the relationship between plants or mushrooms and humans. It’s very gripping to think that humans, wherever they live, in any climate except the Arctic, have always found whatever plant or fungus is psychoactive in that area. It’s kind of incredible to think about how many people had to die to discover which plants were going to be edible, which were going to be poisonous, and which were going to get you high. It reflects something very innate and fundamental about humans. When you think about what the arguments often are, in politics, as in, we want to keep people from doing this substance because it’s harmful, it is exhibiting a willful blindness to our history. I think it would be more accepting of the reality to ponder our intricate relationship with these organisms.

Roxy Paine, “Carcass,” 2013. Birch, maple wood, glass, and fluorescent tube, 13 ́ 7 ̋ × 20 ́ 1/2 ̋ × 13 ́ 13/16 ̋. Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Chicago | Berlin. Photo: Joseph Rynkiewicz.

Rail: Do you think they were a catalyst for human development?

Paine: Absolutely. To advance or evolve requires breaking out of a habitual mode of thinking. And habits are also something innate in us, and we slide into repetitive modes of thinking. Drugs and psychoactive plants, especially used in a non-addictive way, have the potential of shedding light on a situation. You could imagine when a tribe or culture is faced with trying to solve problems it would be very important for the success of that tribe to have an alternative way of looking at an obstacle, a new approach. If humans had stuck with what was habitual, we would all be tending our herds, which actually might not be so bad. [Laughs.]

Rail: We’ve been talking about the dioramas, but what about the table versus the window. The table takes several forms—the lab, the investigation—in the newer pieces, like “Scrutiny” (2014), and also in older pieces like “Dinner of the Dictators” (1993 – 95). When did you first start visualizing the table as a tool for your art and how has it transformed over the various projects in which it’s been used?

Paine: I see parallels between the table and the field: the field is a place of openness in terms of engagement and the way the mind can travel within it. With the field, such as one for a sport or game, you have rules and parameters by which that game can be played on that field, or table. With my pieces and projects, there are parameters around the way the game can unfold and the way the mind can flow through, but they also allow for the element of potential, which can unfold in a great number of possible combinations and sequences. In terms of generating ideas I often start with the table. I have this neurosis that the work table in my studio has to be cleaned off completely at night—in the morning I have to come in to a completely open table surface.

Rail: Not to split hairs, but the decision to put “Psilocybe cubensis” on the floor instead of on the table and then thinking about another artist who does floor-based sculpture that the viewer can interact with, like Carl Andre, can you explain a bit about your choice to put certain things on the floor or on the wall rather than on the table?

Paine: Why the field versus the table? They’re two iterations that function very similarly for me. The floor becomes a big table, the table becomes a condensed floor.

Rail: Is there a convenience to the table? You put these out-of-control weeds on the table, which exerts a certain control over them.

Paine: That’s a good point. With a piece like the “Weed Choked Garden” (2006), the table provides part of the structural rigidity that the chaos of the overgrown weeds is playing against. There are also other elements of that structure and control in the piece. There are remnants of the grooves, the garden rows in the ground that indicate the attempt at order and control, which is still visible, but being eaten away.

Rail: What about translation on a different scale—artistic practice versus mechanization: you’ve said that you don’t want your work to “wear its labor on its sleeve.” On the one hand, the presence of the artist is suppressed by an almost Godlike craftsmanship in the woodwork—

Paine: Jesus was a carpenter.

Rail: On the other hand your presence takes the form of the choice of the mechanism or the algorithm. Are you, as an artist, shy about expressionism? You do drawings, but then when it comes to the big, really prominent projects, you invoke this perfectionist craftsmanship. You’d never take a hacksaw and make the “Machine of Indeterminacy” function like a Baselitz sculpture.

Roxy Paine, “Control Room,” (2013). Steel, wood, automotive paint, glass, and fluorescent tubing. 13 ́7 ̋ × 18 ́23/8 ̋ × 12 ́5 ̋. Courtesy of the artist and Kavi Gupta Chicago | Berlin. Photo: Joseph Rynkiewicz.

Paine: It’s an encyclopedia of all the ways to construct something or build something with wood. In “Machine of Indeterminacy,” where the piece is a conglomerate of rigid and fluid connections, it employs mechanistic methodology as well as arduous hand carving. This is a machine exerting tremendous effort but with no particular reason. It’s a good question: why not leave the chisel marks apparent? It’s about obsession, and bringing the same obsessiveness that one brings to the work conceptually to its methodology and materiality. I’m always refining whatever methodology and material I take on. It’s about transformation and applying the same rigor to the macro and the minutiae. Someone might perceive this as just a piece of wood or a piece of stainless steel, but I see it as chemistry, a cellular structure with great potential. Putting it another way, there’s a certain alchemical process with the wood pieces being stripped down. When you imagine a machine or industrial appliance, it has various colors, materials, metal finishes, and gloss levels. These sculptures are translations of machines, they are not machines.

Rail: You’ve called it a neutralization or a neutering.

Paine: A sort of stripping down or unraveling of an object. In a way, it is a denuding of these physical characteristics, and a simultaneous additive of wood as a sculptural material. It’s a way of removing what’s extraneous, so that they can be taken out of their normal context, and contemplated for what they signify—when you delve into the minutiae of angles and relationships and proportions, somehow they do become inadvertently beautiful.

Rail: Are the painting machines a formalization of the artist’s practice? And by painting machines I’m including “SCUMAK no. 1” (1998) and “Painting Manufacture Unit (PMU)” (1999 – 2000). What exactly do you accomplish by making a machine that creates a work of art?

Paine: It’s always about asking what it means that this machine is making art. What occurs when there is a series of displacements, such as the artist’s practice onto the museum or gallery, or the displaced moment of a creative act, the displaced moment between creating the program and beginning the work? Each machine sets up a language of elements and rules by which those elements are utilized. I create the apparatus, I create the system, I create the controls, but then it’s almost like that is the beginning of a second part of the process which is really about potential. For instance, the same program will always create two entirely unique works due to natural processes. That’s because thermodynamics, room temperature, drying, and cooling events are all natural forces present and not within the machine’s control. So there is this collision between industry and nature, and control and the uncontrolled that I find interesting.

Rail: Where does the art reside?

Paine: It’s in the displaced contradiction that the origin of those natural forms comes from mechanistic processes. It’s in the dialogue between what is carefully prescribed and what is naturally happening, and it’s in the translation of geologic forces into the form of physical paintings.

Rail: In the dipped paintings, how did you conceptualize the process of painting as something being dipped?

Paine: It began with a manual process.

Rail: Was it done by hand with the eventual intention of mechanizing the process?

Paine: It was a curiosity, it was an experimentation, it was a material investigation, but at the same time I was very much thinking about mechanization and automation—factory production and mass production as points or counter points. Things that are resistant to or antithetical to the so-called “creative mind” and colliding these ideas and seeing what comes from the collision between them.

Roxy Paine, “Psilocybe Cubensis Field,” 1997. Thermoset polymer, lacquer, oil, and steel, 41/4 × 328 × 222 ̋.

Rail: With “SCUMAK,” did the form come first or the machine to create the form?

Paine: Again, it was from the most simple beginnings of experimenting with a hot-glue gun. But it’s not like I was playing with a glue gun and thought of machines for the first time. It could have just been an experiment and remained an experiment with the material itself, but then it needed to be realized as a fully automated process.

Rail: The irony of this is that while you’re transforming painting—the institution—into a mechanized process you’re also mimicking a natural process. The “SCUMAK” extrusions resemble a process of accretion, a stalagmite.

Paine: The flow of lava. Yes, accretion and layers of molten material that are accumulating at a certain point. They simultaneously reference art and the history of art, but for me it would be very unsatisfying just to be having a dialogue with art history by itself, or the history of painting. I want to extend the dialogue to the natural world, the forces of nature, to the history of the factory, mass-production, labor-saving devices, and the idea that the manufactured object will free us from our manual labor and free us to have more time for the mind and creative pursuits.

Rail: Mechanizing the creative pursuits, what does that leave time for?

Paine: Masturbation … and Hoarders re-runs.

Rail: You’ve at times gotten a bit of criticism from painters for earlier pieces like “Model Painting” (1996), “Model for an Abstract Sculpture” (1997), and the Display Cases—“Pigeonhole.” Would you say those are precursors to the “SCUMAK” and the “PMU”?

Paine: For some of them, they were simultaneous, but not precursors. But yes, they all do interweave conceptually. Those works each set out to look at different realms, but they have many commonalities of thought.

Rail: Those encyclopedic accumulations of brushstrokes and blobs, are they a critique of the facility of abstract expressionism? What is the idea of assembling every kind of brushstroke you can have?

Paine: It’s more about tendency or innate quality of the human mind to classify, to categorize, to name everything. It’s almost envisioning where that impulse has run amok or traveled unchecked, and seeks to go from classifying and ordering and naming every type of plant or mushroom or insect, to classifying every mote of dust on this table. It’s more about our brains and specialization than about one specific painting movement from the 20th century. 

Rail: Do you like painting?

Paine: I love painting. There are a lot of pieces which I consider paintings, like the “Dry Rot” (2001) fungus. They’re three dimensional, coming off the wall, but they’re firmly attached to the wall. They’re not rectilinear, but they function on one level as paintings on the wall. I spent a great deal of time and intensity painting them. Then there’s a series of, I call them “abstracts,” that are based on fungal modes of growth, crusts and jellies and so forth, but they’re not referring to one specific species, and they become these abstractions of flow, of growth, of an entity that’s expanding on a wall. So there’s been a lot of pieces that I consider paintings.

Rail: How do these relate to drawings like “Every Shoe in the New York Times”?

Paine: I did a whole series of drawings in the ’90s that were taking that day’s New York Times, and choosing an entity to search for, like an ear. I’d find every single ear that existed in that day’s New York Times, and then I would draw them and redraw them in ink. They would be enlarged, but all would exist in the same proportion to each other that they existed in the newspaper. It created this sort of floating field of that entity. It’s about extraction and distillation. Distillation has always been a very crucial idea to me in the work. If you think about the process of distillation, where you’re taking a larger, more complex organic entity, like a brew—it’s a very complex organic soup, then by heating it, you’re separating it out according to different molecular weights. Alcohol is only one thing we distill, also the process of taking crude oil, and fractionating it, which is a form of distillation into 50 different compounds, from wax to diesel fuel to kerosene to precursors of different plastics. The drawings you spoke of are like taking this fermented soup; looking at the newspaper as that fermented soup; then by a chemical process extracting the one component you’re interested in from that soup. It’s cataloging, characterizing, and classifying. It’s about focus and the way the brain works when it is thinking about one entity in the world: you suddenly see that entity everywhere. I see it as akin to when you’re hunting for mushrooms; there’s a point when you’re walking in the woods and you don’t see any mushrooms, but then when you are able to tune in, they suddenly appear. It’s about perception. It’s about how the state of mind that you’re in directly affects what you perceive in the world.

Roxy Paine, “Dinner of the Dictators,” 1993-1995. Freeze-dried food, place settings, glass wood, dehumidifier, 427 1/4 × 118 1/2 × 50 ̋.

Rail: A lot of your aesthetics are based on a certain secret knowledge that via the medium you’re using becomes an aesthetic representation, like in “Intrusion” (2014) or the “Erosion Machine” (2005). How do the algorithms that you use as a basis for these pieces generate form?

Paine: That came out of the whole thought process of control and absence of control, and of seeking a different means of removing the direct control. There’s a whole lineage of that thought process that is interesting to me; the Surrealist’s Automatism, John Cage and the I Ching, but in this case the idea of removing the artist’s control, by taking a certain set of facts and data to create these forms that echo and reflect this natural process of erosion in nature, was compelling to me.

Rail: In the translation between these data sets and the process of erosion, did you find yourself preferring certain sets despite the seeming non-correspondence between the initial information and the end result?

Paine: Yes, there are certain data sets that are extremely boring. With the stock market data that I used, there are periods that are very flat where there’s not that much activity. The variance occurs within a much narrower spectrum which yields much less variability in the forms that might be created. I guess the data sets that I’ve sought out are those that have greater variability. The period that I chose for the stock market data was from 1999 to 2001, a period of volatility with the tech bubble and the corresponding crash. I want to make clear that I didn’t want the rock or the piece in the end to be a one-to-one illustration of the data: as in looking at a certain spot and saying, “that’s September 2000.” It’s more about variability within data and how the confluence of repeated points causes a magnifying effect. The contradiction of taking something that is dry and factual, and transforming it into an evocative canyon network is part of my intention.

Rail: Are you trying to create an inclusive set that implies both a natural aesthetic and human activity in one larger whole?

Paine: It’s not equalizing, but rather drawing parallels between human activity, and the forces of nature, like the stock market which is not a rational activity. It’s a complex manifestation of human nature, and thus of nature itself.

Rail: “Intrusion” (2014), replaces the game surface with a section of a granite formation outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, which is indiscernible, to a certain degree, from the results of the erosion machine. How does containing the geologic topology in this envelope of a game instill meaning and how did you choose that specific formation?

Paine: It was actually a formation I drove by, and I became obsessed with it. This was about 2008, I had a 3D scan done of this formation, which was great except that it was a terabyte file—a massive chunk of information. For five years or so, I couldn’t do anything with this information, you’d try and open it and it would crash the computer. Computers have gotten a lot more powerful and finally I was able to deal with this data. I started to use it as a kind of raw material, and as components and elements that I could manipulate and play with sculpturally and virtually. It refers to that place, but it’s been completely cut apart and re-assembled, so its relationship to the place is very removed.

Rail: When you say cut apart and reassembled, do you mean resized to fit in a pinball machine or completely manipulated and re-configured?

Paine: Re-configured. It’s about seeing this entity not as a beautiful landscape, but as something to be broken into component parts and reconstructed, which is interesting to me not only as a manifestation of my own psyche, but of the human psyche in general.

Rail: So you wouldn’t recognize it necessarily. But fitting it in the pinball machine, what is the game that is being played?

Paine: It’s a game of time; taking two very different conceptions of time and combining and colliding them. The geologic formation represents a conception of time, deep time, the time of billions of years; the formation of this igneous rock, its upheaval, its erosion and submersion and exposure to the elements. That conception is collided with the briefest of moments: the time of a human playing a game with a device. Its function is a meditation on time and it has a quiet to it partly because of the stripping away of all the lights and the mechanisms and the bumpers and the flashing. All of that is brought to the stillness of this rock formation that exists and existed long before humans.

Rail: There is no game. It’s made of wood, there’s no flipper, there’s no way to play the game.

Roxy Paine, “SCUMAK (Auto Sculpture Maker),” 1998. Aluminum, computer, conveyor, electronics, extruder, stainless steel, polyethylene, and Teflon. 163 × 96 × 48 ̋.

Roxy Paine, “PMU,” 2001. Aluminum, stainless steel, computer, electronics, relays, custom software, acrylic, servo motors, valves, pump, precision track, glass, rubber, 110 × 157 × 176 ̋.

Paine: So really, the piece is no fun.

Rail: Unlike something like the new table-based piece “Scrutiny” (2014), which is replete with all these measuring and recording instruments that are also unusable, by virtue of being wood, but also have nothing to look at. What is the focus of the piece?

Paine: “Scrutiny” is a cataloging of different ways we can know an object or an entity.  It’s a catalog representing very different ways of measuring, weighing, understanding the vibratory aspects of a specimen. All of these are extensions of our senses—sight, sound, hearing, taste, smell—but we’ve come to develop more and more sophisticated ways of quantifying our senses into absolute values or values for comparison. It’s about this aspect of our brain that seeks to understand an object in every possible way. It becomes a metaphor for the way a human can be subject to incredible scrutiny from every possible angle, or the way that humans can suddenly be drawn by hysteria and ill-meaning people to scrutinize something they had never thought about before. It could be thought of metaphorically as an examination of the mob mentality that exists in the human instinct.

Rail: Do you see the data sets and the collection of data as forms of control?

Paine: Of course, knowledge is a form of control. By knowing, we can take action or measures, but more importantly it makes us feel that we’re in some kind of control. If you can understand the mechanisms of a disease, you can seek to provide a remedy for it, so you have some way of controlling this thing that hitherto seemed uncontrollable. But I’m actually more interested in the way we gain comfort in the illusion of control. We tend to have a belief that we have more control than we do. It was such a surprise for us to find out that we have no idea what happened to the Malaysian jet that disappeared off of Australia—we think we should at least know something about a man-made object that’s flying 30,000 feet in the sky and carrying 300 people. At least we think someone must know, but no one does. I’m interested in the limits of control and our knowledge. We think about chance—three months ago, if you had wanted to buy stock in Malaysian Airlines, you might think, now’s a pretty good time because there’s no way another Malaysian jet is going to go down, the chances are so slim and people are freaked out now. What was the chance of a Malaysian jet being above Ukraine at the exact moment when a separatist rebel had an anti-aircraft missile? What are the chances of two jets from the same airline going down in the span of several months in completely different circumstances in completely different parts of the world? Control, we have the illusion of control. We have a lot of data and a lot of information, but there are huge and surprising gaps.

Roxy Paine, “Every Ear in the NY Times on February 28, 1996,” 1996. Vinyl, paint, pencil, and ink on paper, 19 × 24 ̋.

Rail: In pieces like “Checkpoint” you place the concept and institution of control in a diorama setting. What is the function of elevating this dark and banal interlude?

Paine: It’s about perception and it’s about how we frame information and knowledge—it changes the way we perceive it. Continuing the dialogue about control, this is about a certain “machine” that human beings use to control other humans, or protect humans from other humans who might want to wreak chaos.

Rail: Does it kind of romanticize it? When most people remember a diorama, they remember this idea of wonder—of looking at something foreign, different, or historical that had some significance. By instigating this constructed perspective in “Checkpoint” you are forcing all the objects in the space into lines of perspective and contracting the space to follow a perceived 2D visual geometry and perhaps achieving a sort of magical status. I see a certain nostalgia and romance in the presentation of this banal space.

Paine: It’s definitely not romanticization or nostalgia; it’s about transformation. For me, this is a base element, there are certain elements in society—there are certain elements that I find more base than others. A security checkpoint is not an inspirational or aspirational space, this is not a space that elevates dialogue or elevates human thought. This is a place of complete standardization for gathering and monitoring information. I guess on the positive side, people would say it protects and provides security and comfort. You could certainly make another argument that it’s about the government expressing power, and reminding people of its power over you. I’m not putting this piece forth to say “question all checkpoints, or security lines now,” but to question it as an expression of power. Getting back to looking at it as this base element, it was something I wanted to be trans-mutated and alchemically transformed. If it exists as a space that’s not about contemplation or the higher realms of human thought, then to try to make it into that. Maybe it’s a futile effort, but it’s an interesting attempt to try.

Rail: What would be its opposite?

Paine: You mean how to turn something spiritually elevated into a base place? Perhaps turning a Buddhist temple into a parking lot. Unfortunately humans do things like this all the time.

Rail: What would be your reaction if a Natural History Museum wanted to place it in their galleries?

Paine: I would be okay with it as long as there wasn’t some attempt to make it what it’s not. Actually if I walked into the Museum of Natural History and saw this, I think it would raise a lot of questions. In some sense it’s idealized, the forms are all reconstructed and made into shadows of their ideal. Maybe some people would just take it at face value, but enough people would find it a means through which to contemplate and question why is this there and what it means that it’s in this place, during this time, with other visions of constructed reality.


William Corwin

William Corwin is a sculptor and journalist from New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2014

All Issues