The Madison-based artist’s show “Tropicalia” is on display through February 2 at the Memorial Union.
If the possibility that neon can soothe has never occurred to you, step into Ben Orozco’s show Tropicalia, on display through February 2 at the Memorial Union’s Class of 1925 Gallery. The pieces that make up the show all riff on the shapes of leaves commonly seen around the Miami area, where Orozco was born. His family moved to Mt. Horeb when he was 7, but he still spent a lot of his childhood visiting south Florida.
The centerpiece of the show, “Tropic V,” uses 13 different leaves, all rendered through playful green outlines, and suspended within a metal cube-like structure, rather than mounted on the wall. The gas inside the tubes grows gently, and because of the way the piece is constructed, viewers can walk all around it, watching the rows of leaf shapes layer over each other in ever-changing ways.
Orozco, a UW-Madison senior, began making neon pieces a couple of years ago as a way to add a challenging physical dimension to his work as a graphic designer and photographer. It especially builds on the fascination he developed with photo editing in high school. “It was a really fun way to create different realities,” Orozco says. “I wasn’t really interested in traditional photography, I was more interested in being an art director and being able to make these realities. A lot of what I would do would be based around doing some studio photography and making it hyper-realistic, hyper-graphic, taking it out of what we feel was everyday and making it…just something of its own, kind of.”
Some of his previous neon pieces have suffused both wonder and deadpan humor into the iconography of the internet, including an “image not found” symbol and the eternally useful shruggie. In Tropicalia, Orozco sets out to create a whole environment from a few relatively minimal elements, and immerses visitors in an experience that’s at once playful and genuinely, restoratively verdant. In the doldrums of winter, it functions almost as a free service to public mental health.
The other two neon pieces in the show, “Tropic I” and “Tropic II,” are a slightly louder green than the centerpiece. But the only element in the gallery that approaches the blazing over-stimulation one usually associates with neon is the latter’s red outline of a plant pot holding a comparatively sedate philodendron. One whole wall of the gallery is covered in white-paper cutouts of the different leaf shapes Orozco likes to use, capturing the light from the rest of the pieces and further cooling down the overall effect of the show.
Tropicalia captures an affection for Florida, and wittily reflects the landscape of a state where destroying the exotic local flora and fauna is as important as celebrating and preserving it. Europeans and white Americans drained Florida’s swamps and developed the state at a rapacious pace that continues to this day, meticulously landscaping their highways and subdivisions with palms, cypress, and willows. Orozco knows both the Florida of scruffy, dense pine forests and the Florida of laborious suburban landscaping. He still associates neon most strongly with strip-club signs, which are also integral to his native state’s flora.
“It’s so weird down there…a lot of my influences don’t come from there, but they still have elements of sort of what I’d consider a very nice Latin style, very colorful, very bold,” Orozco says. “I was primarily drawn to the sort of tropical landscaping that you might see around a house. I think that’s why I like to do the philodendron. It’s something that you see in these huge bushes around houses, but up here you see it inside houses. At the Art Lofts, there’s actually a potted philodendron that I would walk by…so it’s kind of a strange token that I use to think about how I came up here from there as a bit of a transplant.”
Orozco also uses the show to express the clash between two-dimensional work—especially the tidy kind a graphic designer deals with in a software context—and the nether zone that neon occupies between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. Tropicalia‘s smaller two neon works are wall-mounted and allowed to appear flat, but Orozco deliberately placed the elements of “Tropic V,” the centerpiece, in a three-dimensional space so that viewers can see how neon actually twists in all sorts of directions.
“It’s actually not totally flat, which is the other beauty of this material, which is sometimes you have to go really three-dimensional if you want to make a two-dimensional image that looks very smooth and seamless…you really see how much of a mess it is back here,” he says. “It is kind of this balanced chaos.”
Orozco’s neon plants also have their own iconography, with shapes that get repeated and subtly varied throughout the show. He thinks of it as a language. The show’s smallest piece, “Tropic VI,” is just a small printed card that offers a key to this language, which combines real plants and made-up ones: “Jungle Tulips,” “Ferns,” “Inverted Grasses,” “Bird Of Paradise,” “Spanish Moss,” “Banana,” “Heliconia,” “Philodendron.”
It plays on both biological taxonomy and the thematic order designers find in symbols and fonts, but of course, the neon pieces can never be quite as clear-cut as the leaves are on. Like the place that inspired it, Tropicalia offers a landscape that’s neither entirely real nor entirely tamed.