For all of the twentieth century in the cities of South and Central America, there have been artists and writers working with a small coterie of friends who have produced work of real originality and self-conscious importance. In literature, for example, the work of Borges or Julio Cortazar in Argentina, or the work of Clarice Lispector in Brazil, has displayed a mixture of intellectual rigour and pure playfulness. Slowly, this work has moved from the periphery to the centre; it was read by writers before it was read by readers, and was later adapted and devoured in Europe and North America.
Gabriel Orozco, who was born in Mexico in 1962 comes from a Mexican tradition which is educated, urban, sophisticated, deeply original and highly self-conscious. The fact that the world views Mexico as exotic, slightly unreliable, colourful, maybe even primitive, has nothing to do with Orozco. His willingness to make work which questions the very idea of tradition and the image, and also manages to be visually fresh, startling and arresting sets him apart not only from the idea we have of Mexican art but from his European and North American contemporaries who drearily hammer away at the questions, achieving deep dullness along the way, a dullness apparent now in every single gallery of contemporary art you wander into.
For Orozco, both nature and culture are terms that evaporate; instead, there are shapes and objects. Sometimes at the core of a piece by him is something organic, other times, it comes from memory, experience or art history. His work is both playful and exploratory like that of a child, and also filled with serious references and concepts like that of a highly educated adult. What makes it strange is that he has left out the middle part. ‘American culture,’ he says, ‘is based on the teenager. It is decadent, self-indulgent. So much self-exploration with no connection to reality.’
He likes footballs and things that are left over. He likes making constructivist paintings using circles and spheres, dividing them into quarters and painting them in primary colours. (For these alone, he deserves a medal.) He likes funny shapes that could be based on leaves, or bits of bones, or bits of the body. He likes pots, boxes, packaging, kites, urban decay and architectural plans. He makes tables with beautiful collections of stray objects. He has made some wonderful collages using banknotes and old airplane tickets. He has messed around with sports photographs.
While some of his pieces, including drawings, are delicate; other pieces are iconic. His ‘Ping-Pong Table’(1998) has water-lilies and water in the middle of it, as well as two ping-pong bats at each end and some ping-pong balls. His chess board has only knights. He has put the skeleton of a huge whale decorated with graphite into the lobby of a library in Mexico City.
His best known piece is probably ‘Black Kites’ (1997), done with graphite squares on a human skull. He left the teeth alone, but worked – it took six months - right into the eye-sockets, making a sort of meticulous mock chess-board out of what is, after all a ready-made, mass-produced object – the cranium.
He took a Citroen car in 1993 and halved it in size and then put it back together again. He has made ‘Yielding Stone’ (1992), a piece of plasticine his own weight which picks up the shape and texture of anything it rolls along.