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August 11, 2013 9:51 pm
Until now, I had thought Gabriel Orozco’s circle paintings the least compelling element in a mildly interesting oeuvre. A champion of the ready-made, the Mexican scored points for knowing that finding an object wasn’t enough. Over the years, he has chequered a human skull, recomposed a Citroën so that it resembles a racing car, and made sculptures out of yoghurt pots and plasticine. Often he takes photographs of both natural and staged phenomena in such a way that they are lent a numinous power.
Whatever he did, his commitment to composition made him the arch-formalist of the post-Duchampian band. Rare is an Orozco without elegance and equilibrium. Nevertheless, his circle paintings were empty, decorative, digital diagrams whose anti-art message was weary 20 years before Orozco ever set finger on a keyboard. They announced him as a master of the “infra-mince” (super-tiny), Duchamp’s phrase for an art that had no ambitions beyond being itself.
Now, however, curator Briony Fer has performed a remarkable re-evaluation of Orozco’s work. Her starting point is a painting entitled “The Eye of Go” (2005). Typical of its genre, it is a computer-generated pattern of black circles that proliferate across a white ground. The structure comes from a repetitive motif of a central circle with four smaller circles poised on its cardinal points but frequently one is missing, or too big, or too small, so that the effect is of an infuriatingly elusive symmetry. Stare long enough and a logic starts to emerge. Stare longer and it evaporates.
So far, so limited to a conceptual conundrum. But Fer has surrounded “The Eye of Go” with dozens of other Orozco circles. Here are circles as gestural watercolours, collages, computer-generated drawings and painted acetates. Circles are photographed in rooms, in the sky and on puddles. They are painted on to plane tickets and swirled into targets, traced in pencil with a compass on to an inky hand-print and carved on to stones found in Mexican rivers. They shine out of a light-box and swoop and swerve in poetic, stuttering arabesques across a board of cedar wood.
This dazzling formal parade captivates both eye and mind. Displayed as disparate elements of his overall oeuvre, Orozco’s circular works have always been read as just another aspect of his elaborate game. (Orozco was a champion chess player in his youth.) Indeed, it is said that the knight’s move – two steps forward, one to the side – is the origin of the enigmatic quadrille that the sphere performs in “The Eye of Go” and dozens of other incarnations.
Such an obsessive concentration, however, demands more rigorous engagement. What do his circles mean? How seriously should we take them? In the sumptuous catalogue, the artist refers to them obliquely as “instruments”. This, according to Fer, means that they act to “defamiliarise . . . to draw attention to . . . how something is made”.
On one level, they do exactly that. Painted on a photograph of an anonymous cabin, so that its circumference measures the diameter of the building’s wall, the circle announces itself as a secret geometry hidden within the humdrum architecture. Printed in “knight’s move” patterns across a photograph of autumn leaves, it declares the artist as king, able to impose his will on nature. Painted on straight-sided acetates, they act as “other” to the material’s angular transparency.
But this is not a show about gnomic artistic statements. There are too many circles, doing too many things, in too many different mediums.
Fer posits that such ubiquity makes the circle a neo-Marxist emblem that highlights the “the way brands and logos . . . colonise everything, everywhere”. Perhaps. But in the end, the shape itself – its curve perfect however many times Orozco slices it this way and colours it that way – wins out. It’s impossible not to see Orozco now as heir to abstractionists such as Mondrian, Malevich and Albers who believed that geometry was the path to Utopia. The master of art-lite may quarrel with this lofty interpretation. But no one knows better that circles have a life of their own.
‘Gabriel Orozco: Thinking in Circles’, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until October 18, fruitmarket.co.uk
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