The Nelson-Atkins Museum serves up the work of sculptor Roxy Paine two ways.
In Kansas City Sculpture Park, a 22-acre offshoot of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, some 30 sculptures sunbathe year-round. Visitors to the park, who can picnic amongst works by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, and the duo of Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, have director emeritus Martin Friedman and the Hall Family Foundation to thank for building the collection, literally from the ground up, since 1989. In fact, when Friedman stepped down from his post in 2009, the Hall family asked him to commission one final work, and that’s where Roxy Paine came in.
Paine, who has exhibited around the world, first became known in the mid-’90s for his intricate sculpture Dinner of the Dictators, a vitrine filled with the taxidermied favorite meals of history’s most heavy-handed leaders, from Genghis Khan to Hitler. Shortly after, he became consumed with the idea of replication, from eerily organic-looking reproductions of mushrooms and leafy greens (Amanita Field, 2001 and Datura, 2006) to the replicate sculptural pieces produced by self-built art-making machines, or Scumaks (Auto Sculpture Makers), as he calls them. This obsession with the interaction between natural and man-made material, made Paine the perfect new addition to the Kansas City Sculpture Park, where the organic and the architectural meet.
Friedman selected a drawing of Paine’s in 2009, and in early April of this year, pieces of Ferment, a 560foot-tall stainless steel sculpture of a tree based on that drawing, were being brought into the park on four flatbed trucks. The towering piece, which was constructed in Paine’s Treadwell, N.Y., studio, is what the artist considers a “dendroid,” an appellation he gives to his many arbor-inspired sculptures. The title is a manipulation of the word “dendrite,” a derivative of the Greek word for tree and the scientific term for the branches of a nerve cell. Paine has long been fascinated with the linear extensions of rivers, veins, and in particular, trees, of which he has made 24 sculptures that are displayed around the world.
Ferment is sleek and leafless, a notable contrast to the white pines that share the particular clearing in the park that Paine chose as the sculpture’s site. Yet, its faceted construction of steel pipes, plates and rods, cut at different angles and welded together to form the cusps and branches, creates the illusion of life. Jan Schall, the Sanders Sosland Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Nelson-Atkins, describes Ferment’s design as having “a quality of analytical cubism, or even a stop-motion quality.” She adds, “It gives the piece an energy that moves all the way up, and as it catches the light in different ways, it shimmers.”
Schall explains that Paine’s work “asks the viewer to think about how nature and technology coexist.” This relationship, Schall notes, was something Paine began to notice when growing up in the suburbs, where he could observe how humans were manipulating nature. Now, “Paine is a transformer, he configures organic principles in technological forms and uses technology to create organic forms.”
Ferment took four days to put up, and Paine directed the intricate process using a 54-inch-tall model of the larger work as a constant reference. The model is included in the indoor exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins (through August 28), along with the original drawing of the sculpture and the scale models of four other pieces: Conjoined, 100 ft Line, Sod Billboard, and Distillation. The models, which are incredibly intricate works in and of themselves, are essential to Paine’s process—the artist always creates a drawing first, and then a model, before he can move into the colossal territory he is best known for.
The exhibition, titled “Roxy Paine: Scumaks and Dendroids,” also features one of the artist’s sculpture-making machines. The device, set up in the museum’s Bloch Lobby, is equipped with an extruding arm that periodically releases melted plastic polyethylene beads that are mixed with maroon-colored pigments. The melted goo-like material forms in piles, creating organically bulbous spill sculptures. Paine designed both the machine and its software, which tells the arm of the contraption when to start andstop and how much liquid to pour at one time.
The whole process is intended to mimic a factory assembly line, from which the artist is absent while a computer creates his work. Paine has even rigged the machine to produce 42 sculptures, a number he calculated based on the museum’s hours of operation and the exhibition’s running time. Some of the sculptures take eight hours to make, others 13, others 20, and so on. The unpredictability of when or how the machine will pour gives the exhibition what Schall describes as “a performative aspect” that really pulls viewers in. “People love to know how things happen,” she says, “with this Scumak, they’re part of it.” —Sarah E. Fensom