By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 1, 2009
The problem with most sculpture gardens is that they're more "garden" than "sculpture." They risk making the major works of art they contain come off as fancy yard ornaments. Art shown inside museums doesn't run that risk.
Roxy Paine, a 43-year-old New Yorker who grew up in McLean, is a rare sculptor who has got the problem beat. In a few days, Washingtonians will get access to a major new commission he's just finished in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. It belongs outside, in a yard. It's a full-size tree, 45 feet high by about the same around, leafless and formed entirely of polished stainless steel -- something like 16,000 pounds of it, welded together on site from 37 different components that came in on three trailers.
Set against the live trees already in the garden, Paine's piece has the strangest effect: It's grander and more impressive than them, but also so much deader. The trees, in a sense, critique the human artifice -- "That's the best you can do?"
But the art also seems to flatter trees we might otherwise ignore -- "I wish I could be live like you," says the stainless version.
Paine's new piece is part of a series he began in 1998 that he calls "Dendroids." (He's got two other major series he works on: "Replicants," which includes one owned by the Hirshhorn, features perfect plastic versions of wild-mushroom fields; Paine also makes robotic artmaking machines, such as the automated paintingmaker shown at the Baltimore Museum of Art a few years back.)
When a bunch of Paine's "Dendroids" went up in New York's Madison Square Park for several months in 1997, they were spellbinding, both for art-world insiders and casual strollers. They set up stunning tensions between nature and nurture, life and death, the real and the facsimile. As the seasons and the weather changed, those tensions changed as well. A bright summer's day made Paine's works seem more potent than their natural prototypes, since a real tree can't blind a stroller with the sun's reflection off it. At dusk under clouds, the sculptures almost disappeared into the murk reflected in them, while the real trees kept their presence.
Washingtonians should be witnessing the same changes, although our new work won't have quite the impact of the New York ones, because the other monumental sculptures that surround it make it more a riff on art than on nature. On the other hand, the piece also gains from being set in Washington, city of symbols. After all, it's titled "Graft."
In theory, that title simply refers to the botanical act of making two plants grow as one. One side of "Graft" looks like a tree that's tall and straight; the other side looks like a different species, gnarled and bent in on itself. Or Paine's graft might be between a young tree, healthy and clean-limbed, and an older sibling that needs the youngster's help to stand up and survive.
But since Paine's piece is only half a mile from the Capitol, "graft" takes on more than pastoral meanings, and a rift down the middle inevitably speaks of splits along party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans are sure to see themselves as fine and upstanding, and their opponents as hopelessly twisted. Or Washington viewers might choose to note that the straight, young half of the piece faces the Capitol's Senate side (think Michael Bennet) and the ancient side points to the House (and to Charlie Rangel).
Or maybe "Graft" gives us a view of the early, clean-limbed days of our democracy, set against the mess it has become -- or at an ingrown past and the promise of a more upright future.
Graft by Roxy Paine should be fully installed at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden before the end of this week, and can be viewed from a distance until then. The sculpture garden at 600 Constitution Ave. NW is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Call 202-737-4215 or visit http://www.nga.gov.