They say that fairies dance around them by moonlight. We know that shamans and free-thinkers take hallucinatory trips under their influence, and even a sober-minded gourmet will pay fantastic prices to savour certain species. It's a pretty good resumé for one of the lowliest life forms on earth - the various genera of fungus known as mushrooms. No other form of vegetation has exerted such pull on the human imagination (both figuratively and psychotropically). But at the root of the plant's cabalistic power lies the most commonly known fact of all: the wrong ones can kill you - very fast. Roxy Paine's sculptural reproductions of mushrooms manage to address these mysterious attributes in the most matter-of-fact way, without the least trace of mysticism or romance. He simply draws parallels between the plant's curious power to transport people to heightened realities and the curious power of art.
Far from indulging any blurry hocus-pocus, Paine's meticulous art most closely resembles the work of those model-makers employed by natural history museums to create dioramas and pedagogical displays. The realism in this craft, though startling, is actually incidental - it's the precision and accuracy that matter. The attention to detail in Paine's pieces - down to the individually delineated ribs that carry spores beneath the mushroom's cap - produces an atmosphere of magnification, like a response to a scientific imperative to reveal nature's secrets. And indeed, you can learn a lot about the species Paine focuses on, given that the artist has researched each one quite carefully. But despite all of this, what is more attractive is not what is most explicable about these plants, but what is most bizarre - the magic, not the science.
Paine's wall installations not only reproduce individual specimens of the three varieties he's chosen, but recreate the eerie habits of the species as a whole. In Amanita Virosa Wall (Large) (all works 2001) ghostly white mushrooms spread across their territory like an occupying army. The fact that each specimen is shown growing in an unnatural orientation (horizontally rather than vertically) only doubles their scary sense of tenacity. (It also helps to know that this particular genus is sometimes called 'Destroying Angel' for the virility of its poison.) The Sulfur Shelf Wall also colonizes space, but in a more parasitic way, as though its doughy yellow masses were sucking the juices out of the gallery's very architecture. And Dry Rot is creepy simply because it looks too Sci-fi to be true, emanating in concentric rings of faecal brown, flecked with wormy structures and other unpleasant innards.
This play between the polarity of nature versus artifice might be tiresome by now, but if Paine's sculpture is poised to fall directly into that trap, he avoids generalizations by limiting himself to specific cases and eccentric reversals instead. For example, the fact that he models his show on an infestation rather than an installation sets off associations of other amusing inversions. Mushrooms feed off decay and promote decomposition, whereas art is concerned with the opposite factors of construction and recomposition. The artist is trying to make something that will last; the life cycle of the fungus is fleeting. Art works often try to attract the largest possible audience; mushrooms are hermetic, never even producing a flower that might attract attention.
Paine's overall project as an artist also follows this dialectical bent. He's well known for a series of automated machines that produce abstract paintings and sculpture, a body of work that looks like the yang to his hand-crafted, representational work's yin. It's a dichotomy that can feel suspiciously conscientious, covering all bases from abstraction to representation and nature to technology. Its studied deliberation draws attention to Paine's practice as an artist, rather than to the objects themselves, and that's probably necessary because the objects themselves are an image of death in more ways than one. Precisely because it is so brilliantly produced, Paine's sculpture shares not only the precision but also the sterility of a scientific specimen. His project forces one to consider the way our fascination with something like the mushroom can both propagate the original magic and also kill it.