“I don’t love interviews,” Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco admits, looking a little apologetic. “I don’t mind talking about my work, but it’s easier if I’m talking about the work with a friend or another artist, then I’m the one who makes the questions. And I like it more if there’s a beer in hand.”
There are no beers to be found in the sanitised surroundings of Hong Kong’s White Cube Gallery, where Orozco recently had an exhibition of new paintings, so he settles for a calming pre-interview cigarette instead. And while the 54-year-old puffs away just beyond the gallery’s spotless glass door, I flick through a series of hefty, academic books that recount his rise to art-world fame.
Orozco’s career took off after he exhibited Empty Shoe Box at the Venice Biennale in 1993. As its title suggests, the work was literally an empty cardboard box – but art critics insisted it was far more than that. The Telegraph claimed that it was “cheekily suggestive of a heroic statue,” while historian Benjamin Buchloh raved that it had “an epistemological authority approaching the status of Duchamp’s first, pure unadulterated ready-made.” But while critics went into rapture, plenty of casual visitors gave the box a quick look, then sniggered and moved on. Others simply ignored it – completely unaware that it was part of the show.
That same year Orozco had a solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. One of that exhibition’s main attractions were groups of oranges (yes, the fruit) that Orozco had arranged in the windows of apartments across the road. So gallery goers entered the museum, then spent the whole time looking out the windows, searching for something they could find in any supermarket. Was Orozco encouraging visitors to find beauty in the everyday? Or was he looking to inject a bit of fun into the show, to undermine some of the seriousness that often accompanies contemporary art? Nobody really knows.
Some of Orozco’s art is more tangible than those early, ephemeral works. His two most photographed pieces now are Mobile Matrix, an 11-metre-long whale skeleton that he strung from the ceiling of the Museum of Modern Art in 2009, and the macabre Black Kites, a human skull that Orozco covered in a graphite checkerboard. These works have all the drama of a gruesome Damien Hirst installation or a shiny Jeff Koons sculpture, but they’re also underpinned by serious concepts about life, death and what we choose to value.
“I think my work has always been very serious,” Orozco muses when he returns from his cigarette break. “But I like to show work that doesn’t look serious, that looks easy or kind of childish.” There’s something of this spontaneous, juvenile feel to his latest series, a collection of 53 watercolour paintings that feature imperfect washes of paint that swirl over meticulously drawn geometric patterns and circles.
These pieces are something of a departure from Orozco’s earlier work because, for a start, they’re flat rather than sculptural. They’re also all relatively small – none of them any bigger than an A3 sheet – which makes a change from some of his room-sized installations. And as these works are all paintings, there isn’t a found object, such as a shoebox or skeleton, in sight. But Orozco doesn’t seem entirely won over by working on canvas. “Painting is painful,” he deadpans – and then doesn’t elaborate.
Whatever his feelings on painting, Orozco has always been interested in making art by hand. He drew the grid on the Black Kites skull himself and only hired a small team to help him sketch patterns on the whale bones in Mobile Matrix. “There’s always my hands at the beginning of the work, every work,” Orozco says. “I like to work directly in producing the idea or realising the project that I’m doing. Sometimes I need help, there are things I cannot do, and when I need expertise from certain people to do certain things, then I make a team. But in general I work alone. I like to work like that because that way I’m discovering new things by myself and I think that process is very important for creativity. Sometimes it’s more evident that you can see my handiwork in the final work and sometimes it doesn’t look like my hand was there at all – but it is always there.”
Another benefit of working solo is the freedom it gives Orozco to travel. He was born in Mexico, where he still has a home, but he also has a townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village and a pad in Paris. He and his family move, as the mood takes them, between all three. All of these properties have spaces where Orozco can work, but he’s adamant that he doesn’t have a permanent studio. As if to underline this point, these recent paintings were made in a rented at in Tokyo, rather than in any of his own houses.
“I’d travelled to Japan and I was always interested in Japanese culture and it was always important in my work in many ways,” Orozco explains. “And my wife was very keen on spending time in Tokyo. Originally we just moved there for six months – and we liked it and we’ve now been there for a year and a half. I wouldn’t live in any other part of Japan, but I love Tokyo the big city, but also the small streets. The everyday life is good – I like the food a lot. And it’s peaceful for me to work there, to be a little bit on my own, so I can do things that I probably would not be able to do in New York or Mexico or in London, which are very noisy places.”
The Far East inspired the works’ light washes of paint and subdued colours, but Orozco also dug into his own personal archive for other inspiration. “A lot of my drawings have had circles in since I was a kid,” he reveals. “I guess it has to do with my fascination with the planets and the solar system and things like that – I used to draw a lot of those things. Also I’ve always liked to play soccer and ball games in general, so I guess movement and games, sports, planets and orbits have always been something of interest, so I just keep doing it.”
So although these paintings may not be as big or as bold as some of his most famous installations, they are – to Orozco – a return to some of his very earliest interests. And on that note, it may be time for a beer.