12 October – 12 November 2022
White Cube Mason's Yard
The doodles, imprints, blots and stains that fill the pages of Gabriel Orozco’s ‘Diario de Plantas’ (2021–2) spread out in time as well as space and are, as such, less a matter of formal composition and design than growth and proliferation. Orozco began to make them in Tokyo, where he has been based with his family since 2017, in small notebooks that he found there; then he carried on making many more of them in Mexico, where he also lives and works. They have travelled with him as he moves between places, and they chart a period of time split mainly between Tokyo and Mexico City, where he has been working on the large public project that will transform and regenerate Chapultepec Park in the centre of the city. Only during the cumulative process of making them did they become something he could imagine as a set of diaries, and only once the notebooks were filled were groups of individual drawings selected from them. This dynamic of accumulation is important to remember when we think of what the ‘Diario’ is. Close to doodles at times or else elementary leaf prints, the drawings might seem to offer a stark comparison with the scale of the urban Park or even recent garden projects like the one at the South London Gallery (2016). But, of course, these are all trajectories that have developed out of his long-standing interest in nature and the natural environment that were already apparent in his work in the early 1990s. And while the ‘Diario de Plantas’ may seem modest, there’s something about their deliberately messy provisionality that, while certainly not fitting neatly into pat narratives of art and nature, prompt us to see the work of art driven by its own fragile ecologies and in relation to the precarities of nature.
A leaf print is – like a hand- or finger-print – the most basic form of image-making and the simplest and purest indexical operation, unmediated by traditional artistic conventions. The notebook paper that Orozco has used is soft and absorbent and offers a receptive terrain for the ink, gouache or tempera that often leaks through in patches to offer a starting point for the drawing that comes on the next side or next page. The process is ever-evolving and while much less systematic than Paul Klee’s ‘oil-transfer method’, whereby one drawing was traced onto another, also allows a notebook to become at times its own accidental printing press by default; just as in his Bali Notebooks (2017), he had also encouraged these kinds of transfer by applying large strokes of black ink on thin recycled paper. The prints in the ‘Diario de Plantas’ are the kind children make in which an inked leaf is placed face-down on the paper to make an impression of the veins on the paper. The vein structure is often intricate, but also, as the process reveals itself, also imperfect with overspills and mottled stains seeping through the porous fibres of the paper. Sometimes the leaves are like single specimens on a page, but mostly they are layered one on top of the other creating the effect of tangled vegetation. It’s as if the page is a site of humidity where the leaf prints create their own form of automatic drawing as a combination of graphic pressures and chromatic flows.
Using the colours and paints that Orozco regularly uses in his paintings, the ‘Diario de Plantas’ is abstract in the sense that it does not depict the natural world but rather exercise an unconscious mimicry of plant processes. Or at least that is the primary effect, with Orozco frequently superimposing looping figure of eights over the paint stains. These diagrammatic approximations of string theory – very much his own – suggest vibrating filaments that complicate and animate the energy fields beneath in a jungle of layers. Frequently they appear like small constellations, as if a microcosm encapsulating the universe in miniature; or else revealing the invisible internal structure of cellular life. It’s as if his normal graphic lexicon of circles has been partially suspended in favour of some kind of vegetal process of entanglement. Rather than forms arranged in a composition, then, the drawings appear to ‘de-compose’; as in nature, alongside growth there is also always processes of degradation and decay. In the process, the layers become something more like compost.
Seen in this light, the ‘Diario de Plantas’ allows a vegetal imaginary to take hold of the page. Orozco has named the work a diary but it is clear that he does not mean a diary in the conventional sense of a confessional journal, and certainly not of the artist’s intimate thoughts. The diary belongs more to the life of the plant than the artist, one might say. But they are also situated between the two in the sense that they are made over time and the pages are numbered and dated, marking out the days he produced them. This temporal dimension to the work records blocks of time but also breaks time down and recycles it as if it could be construed as pure organic material. We could not be further from the kinds of the historical journals written by botanists in their endeavour to understand plant species, like Charles Darwin’s many volumes of scientific observations in which he notably also included many leaf pressings. Rather than produce ordered classifications the ‘Diario de Plantas’ purposefully mixes and confuses different plant species. The traces of plants gathered from his gardens in Acapulco and Mexico City offer us the opposite of a taxonomy or system, and something much closer to what the poet Francis Ponge – who wrote so well about Georges Braque in his art criticism – had once described as ‘l’être végétal’ (vegetal being).
In some of his collages from the early 1990s, Orozco incorporated leaves that he found, like a ginkgo leaf, on the street in New York close to where he was then living, and his notebooks from the time are peppered with leaves and seed pods, stuck in with tape. In the recent ‘Diario de Plantas’, one feels a return to something of the rawness of these experiments with processes and things that fall beneath the threshold of what might be considered significant or recognisable as art. Nature’s debris from a street, or now, from a garden, continues to be generative not only as a material to make art out of, but as index of the processes of growth and decay that have been recently radically reconceived in philosophical approaches to vegetal intelligence or plant-thinking. Rather than simply apply such ideas to art, my point is that Orozco mobilises the idea of the vegetal as an artistic drive to make drawings that seem to produce and reproduce themselves organically rather than be subject to a set of aesthetic decisions. Each one of these works on paper may be small enough to fit in the palm of a hand, but each one also captures larger more complex structures in highly compressed form. And in turn, as paintings -in-miniature – which these works on paper surely are – the ‘Diario’ allows us to reflect on the inner working processes of Orozco’s art.
BRIONY FER FBA is a British art historian, critic and curator. She is a professor of History of Art at University College London. Her books include On Abstract Art (Yale University Press, 1997), The Infinite Line (Yale University Press, 2004) and Eva Hesse: Studiowork (The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 2008).
Gabriel Orozco’s diverse practice, which includes sculpture, photography, painting and video, explores philosophical conundrums through random encounters and spatial relationships. Using everyday objects in the contemporary urban environment, Orozco makes visible the poetry of chance connections, whimsy and paradox. He works with found materials or situations – a ball of clay, a deflated football, or an abandoned kite, for example – that are altered and then photographed to create surprising, often humorous scenarios from their simple, quotidian means.FULL PROFILE