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”Directions—Gabriel Orozco: Extension of Reflection”

In Gabriel Orozco’s Sleeping Dog, a yellow canine reclines on a rocky patch of ground. A diffuse light creates spatial confusion, so the dog seems to rest almost upright against a vertical wall of rocks, its legs and snout all dangling down. Barely a glance is needed before the photograph raises some crucial questions.

Is the dog truly relaxed in this unnatural orientation? Or is the animal a prop that the artist arranged to suit his needs? And perhaps more urgently, is the dog alive or dead?

Whatever the answer—none is provided—the 1990 piece neatly encapsulates the mysteries that surround the works of Orozco, a 42-year-old Mexican-born photographer who has practiced his art during travels through the United States, India, Africa, Japan, and elsewhere. Sometimes, Orozco has shown a knack for capturing the visual poetry of fleeting coincidence; sometimes, he has actively created jarring tableaux to photograph.

In the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s latest Directions show, “Gabriel Orozco: Extension of Reflection,” it becomes clear that both of these approaches stem from a common impulse: In each of the more than 50 color images, the wily artist wants to let viewers in on a surprise or an oddity. A number of the works are visually compelling, conceptually inspired, or both. Others, though, are like a joke that falls flat: Orozco sees something or posits a notion that tickles the hell out of him, but he strains to connect his insight with his viewers.

Part of this failure has to do with the limitations of his rather gimmicky approach; part stems from the inability of the curators to compensate for these limitations in their display choices. Either way, “Extension of Reflection” makes for an intermittently tantalizing show.

One of its finest pieces is 1993’s From Roof to Roof. The photograph captures a flat, rectangular roof covered by a deep layer of rainwater. In the water, fast-spreading ripples overlap and rebound, creating a reverie of pleasing visual harmonies. The view would have looked different a split second earlier, or a split second later; Orozco had the good fortune to be there at that moment, but also the good sense to know that it was precisely the right moment to click the shutter.

Much the same combination of luck and talent imbues 1996’s Common Dream, a photograph of the odd, circular formation made by a group of sheep in an Indian desert. The exhibition’s explanatory material says that sheep of this variety often make this sort of shape in hot weather, because it allows the older, hardier animals to shade their young and keep them cooler. But the context isn’t necessarily required: The image succeeds remarkably on its own, with the contrast between the shaggy, tightly packed sheep and the barren, treeless plain where they stand creating an image of both formal and whimsical appeal.

For Waiting Chairs (1998), Orozco found a row of four interlocked plastic chairs in a grungy public space that appears to be a train or bus terminal. The chairs’ backs are pressed up against a marble wall, and on this wall, above each chair, is a gray circular blob. The marks, presumably caused by the rubbing-off of human sweat or hair-care products, memorialize the endless procession of people who have occupied those seats over the years. It’s a haunting—and haunted—image, remarkable for its very ordinariness.

Other images on view are overtly—even brazenly—manufactured. Some are stylish, such as 1994’s Ball on Water, for which Orozco assembled a stunning facsimile of a celestial orb using (if he’s not pulling our leg with the title) a pearl-like ball and a flat surface of water that reflects a wispy-clouded sky with a bluish-green tint. (I’m not convinced it’s water, actually: I’m thinking a polished automobile hood.) Others are provocative in a deadpan, conceptual-art sort of way, such as Sand on Table (1992), in which Orozco set up a wood table on a beach, then piled it high with a near-perfect pyramid of…more sand. And still other contrived images coast on the artist’s freewheeling sensibility. For the winkingly titled Five Problems (1992), for example, he photographed five stacks of stationery in a drugstore, each weighted down by a single potato.

More interesting interactions occur in the works where Orozco has made it hard for viewers to discern whether his subject matter is natural or contrived. In Lemon Distance Call (2000), for instance, Orozco has captured a piece of lime stuck in a pay phone’s coin slot—possibly the work of a cheeky vandal, possibly something the artist cooked up himself. Two Trash Cans Up (1998) shows several cylindrical waste containers whose light-blue plastic liners stand upright and inside out, creating gossamer alter egos that counterbalance the sturdier shapes below. Did the wind do it, or did Orozco? We’ll simply never know.

Much the same goes for the deflated soccer ball of 1993’s Pinched Ball. It’s unclear how the ball became dented and filled with a murky, almost oily-looking water, but it’s a surprisingly evocative and organic form nonetheless, one in which the water’s dark hue echoes the asphalt in the background and plays nicely off the ball’s black-and-white pattern.

This parlor game, as far as it goes, is diverting. But then sometimes, just when you’ve begun to warm to the uncertainty of Orozco’s works, he pulls the rug out from under you. Take the 2000 image in which a knife seems to stand upright in a way that defies the laws of physics. Orozco could have left it enigmatic, but instead he baldly reveals the secret in the work’s title: Knife on Glass. You have to wonder what made him give it up.

A bigger problem with Orozco’s approach to photography is that he’s all but boxed himself in. It’s hard for anyone—even an artist who travels the world with a camera always at the ready—to spot genuine, compelling coincidences reliably enough to make a career of them. As the Hirshhorn exhibition indicates, for every intriguing photograph of a sleeping dog or a sheep circle, we must sweat out an image of a bland green leaf or an uninteresting zigzag of dog urine in the snow. Even the promisingly titled River of Trash (1990) offers only a ravine cluttered with a smattering of litter—a scene that can easily be experienced in your nearest urban park.

Orozco’s backup tactic—creating his own scenes from scratch—offers a theoretically limitless supply of material, of course. Yet anyone who deploys it risks becoming self-indulgent, and Orozco proves no exception. You may chuckle the first time you see potatoes on a drugstore shelf, but such gimmickry can only carry an artist so far. Orozco tries the same schtick with tortillas stacked on their edges (1990’s Tortillas y Ladrillos) and with tins of cat food stacked on top of grocery-store watermelons (1992’s Cats and Watermelons). In other works, some of Orozco’s invented images seem barely worth the effort. What, really, is gained from seeing a piece of paper clipped to itself, set against a black background, and photographed (1995’s Paper Clipped)? In decades past, photographers have done wonderful things with curls of paper or even men’s starched collars. But Orozco’s version, made with an amateur-quality camera and a commercial developing process, wins no prizes for technical merit. And with no particular technical dazzle, such photographs often sag under the weight of their own banality.

These problems could have been somewhat eased by better curation. The show, which sprawls through two small rooms and one large one, includes too much chaff and appears to have no obvious organizational principle, whether thematic or chronological. After a while, Orozco’s offerings devolve into unexceptional images of flora, fauna, and landscape. (There are also a couple of outliers, such as a simple but elegant evocation of a Malian cemetery in mocha-colored sand.)

As it happens, the catalog offers several photographs that would have improved on the examples that were included in the show. Round Mirror Distance (2001) features a doughnut-shaped mirror lying on dull-colored ground, reflecting blue sky and tree branches. Like Paper Clipped, the piece relies on the simplest of aesthetic manipulations—but this time, the move results in an unexpected, resonant image: a hole in the Earth filled with sky. And Cat in the Jungle (1992) makes better use of the cat-food tin of Cats and Watermelons. Here, the cat on the label seems to peek out from a thicket of green beans on the labels of other nearby cans.

A more limited—and more carefully considered—selection of images would have lessened the sense of mediocrity that pervades the last third of “Extension of Reflection.” And a smarter organizational structure—one, perhaps, that paired obviously real and obviously contrived images in a way that enhanced the intrigue of the more ambiguous offerings—could have done more to spotlight the photographer’s sense of playfulness. If such a structure seems manipulative, it fits Orozco’s MO perfectly.CP