Gabriel Orozco is one of my very favorite contemporary artists. He makes cryptic objects that manage to be strange and resonant without ever falling over into weirdo, wow-cool surrealism. He's made a cross-shaped, four-person ping-pong table, with a pond stuck in the middle to function like a golf course water hazard. He's made an amazing oval billiard table. He's taken an exquisite Citroen DS, a '60s icon of streamlined automotive design (she's La deesse -- "the Goddess" -- to French car fanciers) and surgically excised its middle third. Orozco's anorexic goddess is now a one-seater, barely three feet wide.
At the sprawling 2003 Venice Biennale, a piece by Orozco may have been the best in show. He filled a large gallery with an immaculately crafted plywood object that looked like the full-size maquette for a 1950s architectural pavilion. That's precisely what it was: It exactly reproduced an amoebic concrete form designed in 1952 by Italian architect Carlo Scarpa to give shade in a garden just outside the gallery. Scarpa's piece still stands crumbling in the Venetian damp, even as Orozco's worshipful maquette gives it new life inside.
Rather than finding numinous weirdness in the world of dreams, like Dali and his ilk, Orozco constructs cryptic objects that feel almost normal. They read as the standard trappings of a world that happens to be marginally different from our own -- a world, for instance, that happens to find use for plywood replicas of decaying garden structures. Orozco's installations seem to represent a gently alternative normality, instead of some kind of abnormal, molten underbelly to the world we know.
Washingtonians rarely get the chance to see Orozco's objects in the flesh. But in a newly opened show in the Directions series at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, curator Phyllis Rosenzweig has gathered 34 color photographs by the Mexican artist. (Orozco was born in Mexico in 1962 and trained there, but over the last 10 years he has become a player on the international art scene. He now splits his time among Paris, New York and Mexico City.) The very best of Orozco's photos capture the trademark sense of modest abnormality that lights up his most ambitious works of art.
A wonderful picture called "Turista Maluco" -- Portuguese for "Nutty Tourist" -- shows an empty outdoor market in Brazil, with a mess of tables knocked together from scrap wood. On each of those 30 or so tables, Orozco, clearly the "nutter" of the picture's title, has delicately placed a single orange. There's no decipherable sense to the artist's gesture. But neither is there any portentous, high-flown nonsense there, full of orotund symbolism begging to be doped out. There's just the modest buzz of strangeness that you get from swimming in a foreign reality you don't quite understand. (The recent movie "Lost in Translation" captured how distance and jet lag can generate precisely this kind of quiet dislocation.) Orozco's talent is in building such delicately foreign realities. The virtue of his best photographs lies in how directly they record them for us.
Another strong photograph in the show is called "Breath on Piano." It shows just what its title says it does: The fog of someone's breath on the black lacquer of a closed piano. But it doesn't so much record the look of the breath itself, which is pretty much banal, as point at the moment just before, when someone -- presumably that "maluco" artist once again -- took the strange, seemingly pointless step of exhaling on a musical instrument. The strangeness isn't really in the image at all; it's in the world it records, made strange by the artist's intervention.
Instead of trying to look good themselves, these photographs just point at some peculiar condition in the world that Orozco has brought about. There's a sense, in the best of these pictures, that any photograph, taken from any angle, with any equipment would do the trick, so long as it adequately recorded the look and feel of the subject at hand. Orozco uses a point-and-shoot, then gets his pictures commercially developed. He has said he likes to think of a camera as a shoe box: It lets you store up interesting bits and pieces of the world as you come across them. And it's the interest of those bits and pieces, rather than the appeal of the pictures you take of them, that matters.
Unfortunately, Orozco's photographs only occasionally live up to the high standards of his sculptures and installations. Many of them take a much more standard, hackneyed tack. In many of the pictures at the Hirshhorn, Orozco prowls the world for built-in, unaltered moments of epiphany, just as street photographers have done for about a century.
A comical little flock of sheep gathers in a tight circle, heads together and rear ends pointing out at us. A simple desert hut looks like it's been lit up by a disco ball as dots of sunlight pierce its burlap roof. A gully in some Third World country is strewn with such a fine array of trash that it looks as though a ticker-tape parade has recently passed by. Orozco has hunted down and captured moments of visual poetry in the everyday. This is all right, I guess, except that it puts him in the camp of almost any photojournalist who takes weekends off for arty picture-taking.
Some of these pictures leave you wondering if they aren't just attractive commodities, designed to help fund the artist's more serious, less salable projects. All of them are striking images, and that's what makes them fail.
These pictures are striking because they point back at well-established notions of what now constitutes an arty picture -- at ideas of the acute photographic eye and the "decisive moment" -- rather than avoiding artiness in favor of a more direct encounter with the world.
Orozco's weakest pictures are full of wackiness or whimsy, even explicit "poetry," that is deeply familiar to us. Whereas when he's at his best, Orozco finds ways of crafting, and then recording, truly novel worlds.
Directions: Gabriel Orozco, Extension of Reflection is on through Sept. 6 at the Hirshhorn Museum, on the Mall at Seventh Street SW. Call 202-357-2700 or visit hirshhorn.si.edu.