Nathan Orosco

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Borders, Labor, El Norte


In west Texas, two cities rise from the ancient seabed of the Permian Basin. The cities can be seen from miles away: they are the only disturbances on a perfectly flat horizon. From a long way off, the cities are stark and vertical, and they shimmer in the heat of the midday sun.


Those unfamiliar with the cities rarely think of one without the other: it isn’t Odessa and Midland, it’s Midland-Odessa.  But Midland-Odessa is oil country, and differences there are as clearly defined as vertical buildings above horizontal earth, as figure and ground.  The verticals in Midland are downtown skyscrapers, built with oil money.  The verticals in Odessa are gas flares, burning over refineries on the outskirts of town.


Nathan Orosco was born and raised in Odessa. He is third-generation Mexican-American, his roots in Texas as deep as those of most of the Anglos.  Growing up, he worked in his father’s repair shop, a laborer who fixed and painted the big rigs that serviced the oil fields. To be a laborer is to perform the most minor of alchemies.  A Texas oilman might accomplish the modern equivalent of turning lead to gold, but all a laborer manages is to turn sweat and strain into an overhauled truck engine, or a welded section of pipe, or a trench cut cleanly into red caliche clay.


In his installations of sculpture and video Orosco is still a laborer, now making stripped-down shrines to a border experience.  He is still an alchemist, now transmuting base materials (steel pipe, cast aluminum, grainy video shot with a small camera) into an outpost of that place where shifting identities become momentarily fixed before slipping back into flux. On a map, the border between Mexico and the US is geographically precise:  drive four hours west of Midland-Odessa, and it is a line neatly centered on a river that is both the Rio Grande and El Rio Bravo. Whatever we were before, when we cross the line we become, for a moment, nothing but the words and photo on our identity papers.   We are frozen for examination, like a gas flare in a video still.  And to cross without papers is to become no one at all.


The bridge linking Ciudad Juarez with El Paso links Mexico with El Norte, the north. But El Norte is a kind of mirage: like the illusion of water shimmering on a long, straight Texas highway, it is always in the distance, near the horizon-line, moving away at the precise speed of your approach.   When you cross the border to El Norte the border crosses with you.  It moves with you, until the border is not just a line between El Paso and Juarez; or San Diego and Tijuana; or Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora.  The border is Raleigh, North Carolina; it is Stamford, Connecticut; it is Pasco, Washington.  Countries are abstractions.  El Norte is illusion.  Borders and labor are concrete and real.


In the corner of this gallery is a mound of red earth.  It is Orosco’s weight in caliche, clay dug from the land around Odessa and moved north, molded by labor to its new surroundings.  Pipe flows from it, spreading horizontally.  Here and there, gas flares rise.  On the monitor, a sandstorm grows imperceptibly, until it obscures everything in an orange haze.


—David Drake