Gabriel Orozco, the 50-year-old Mexican-American artist, debuts a much anticipated exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum this week. The show’s title—Asterisms—is a word that refers to the recognizable patterns that constellations form when viewed from the earth’s surface. It couldn’t be a more appropriate term to apply to the work on view, and for that matter, Orozco’s diverse body of work as a whole.
Orozco is a dynamic figure. Each major exhibition of his work has contained new surprises. As an emerging artist in New York City two decades ago, he caught the attention of the art world with Yielding Stone, in which he rolled a ball of modelling clay from his studio to the gallery, picking up dirt and debris until the ball weighed hundreds of pounds. The next year, in 1993, he unveiled the now-classic La DS, a Citroën that seems to have had its middle section surgically removed, without a trace. In 2006 he (and a team of 20) recovered and reconstructed a massive whale skeleton in the Tate Modern. His work is lyrical, almost riddle-like, dancing at the edge of the famous question, "what is 'art.'"
Asterisms is, like Yielding Stone, a study of a universe normally ignored: human-made detritus. At the Guggenheim, Orozco has carefully curated two collections of objects—each numbering around 1,200 pieces—recovered by the artist. The collections come from two locations. Sandstars was collected on Orozco’s walks through Isla Arena, a wildlife preserve on the Baja coast—the same beach where he extracted the whale skeleton for his 2006 installation. On a series of walks through the reserve, which is a mating ground and cemetery for whales, Orozco began collecting pieces of human refuse—lightbulbs, buoys, and other industrial trash—caught in the tidal currents and deposited along the shoreline. In the Guggenheim, he’s organized the pieces by color and type, creating a perfectly arranged taxonomy of trash. Running alongside the installation, large format photo collages document each individual piece, right down to the diversity of chewed gum, in pictures.
The second collection comes from the fields at Pier 40, on Manhattan’s west side, where thousands of soccer games and other outdoor activities take place on nice weekends. Orozco visits the fields to practice one of his hobbies—throwing boomerangs—and began the process of collecting and cataloging the things he found lodged in the astroturf. Astroturf Constellation[/i] is far more granular than Sandstars, dealing with tiny pieces of junk food bags, frayed pieces of soccer balls, beads and unidentified threads, all carefully arranged in low vitrines on the gallery floor. Like constellations, the objects form patterns and shapes beneath the glass.
There’s something immensely pleasing—especially for those who enjoy things organized neatly—about the ultrafine detail of Asterisms. Like the title suggests, it contains traces of untold universes and galaxies, which would have gone unnoticed but for the artist’s eagle eye. Orozco is the son of a Communist muralist, and has said that his work tries to avoid the romance of that medium. In an interview with the Economist, he says, "I come from a country where a lot of art is labelled surrealist. I grew up with it and I hate that kind of dreamlike, evasive, easy, poetic, sexual, cheesy surrealist practice. I try to be a realist."
Asterisms is realism, for sure, but it also shows Orozco speaking in poetry, despite himself.
The show is on view until January 13, 2013.