IN THE EARLY 21ST CENTURY we are more than ever inundated with information and objects, some useful for a short time, some useless from inception, and all ending up in the dustbin: whether buried in digital files, stashed away in the attic, or in a landfill somewhere outside our immediate experience. Somehow all of our human productivity, all of our inventions and grand ideas, turn to dust. Or plastic.
The average American produces 102 tons of garbage over a lifetime, tossing out an average of 7 pounds per day1…a fact that we do not consider as we order a cup of coffee, stuff a Christmas stocking, or have the tires changed on our vehicles. While as a society we continue to grapple with how to manage our productive excess, all the artists in Luxuriant Refuse utilize the byproducts of consumerism by transforming them into art.
Beginning most notably with Picasso and Braque in the early twentieth century, many artists have strived to reflect the world around them, or at least to reference it in their work. These direct references to contemporary life often took the form of collage, which began as an off-handed addition to paintings in the early twentieth century and ended up as its own art form by the 1930s.
Mid-century, Rauschenberg introduced the idea of the “combine” as the ultimate break-from-the-past statement; and collage evolved into photomontage, where meaning (or meaninglessness) was derived from the juxtaposition of unrelated objects. Rauschenberg and others strove to reflect the modernity of post war America, commenting knowingly on the exploding American consciousness.
Today’s artists continue to include references to contemporary life and our excesses. JOHNSTON FOSTER, for example, describes his work as “a direct result of my immediate environment . . . (where) I am confronted with great deals of waste and consumption.” Johnston’s response to his environment is similar to AURORA ROBSON’s process, which is to take “materials from the waste stream” and “transform something problematic—like waste or pollution—into…something that gives people space for reflection and light.”
Often, the original use of an object imbues it with a sense of personal and emotional history that the artist repurposes into a new whole. For example, SHAWNE MAJOR’s medium is “objects that come from the detritus of real people’s lives.” Major sews the objects together to form sculpture or quilts, forming colorful and tactilely complex abstractions. Not until the viewer comes close to the artwork do the individual elements become obvious, often “evok(ing) a visceral response.” Major plays with this paradigm shift, creating beautiful arrangements of color and form out of mundane, junky material.
Similarly, SARAH FROST’s computer keys form massive constellations, hinting at the eternal human condition. Each key refers to our connectedness and communication. Each key also holds the residue of repeated individual use. Some are discolored with skin oil, nail polish, and dirt. For Frost, this physical memory captures sublime aspects of our existence and our membership in a vast interconnected organism.
BETSABEE ROMERO’s tires, which she carves with native Mexican imagery, also work on several levels. The tires themselves are a product originated out of colonial rubber production in the new world. The tires also hint at the freedom and dreams that the car has allowed all of us to embrace. For Romero, these cast off tires with their traditional Mexican imagery marry the past and uncertain future, and all the hope between the two.
PAUL VILLINSKY, as well, in his glove works and beer can butterflies, transforms “simple yet evocative” objects, thrown away cans of consumed beer and gloves lost on the streets of New York, into works of art in a meditational practice that transforms yet remembers. The gloves tell a story about the person who wore them, their work and their life. Alternatively, the butterflies’ cultural associations with rebirth mirror the ultimately hopeful impetus of his art.
Individual, personal interactions also inform GWYNETH LEECH’s work. Since 2008, Leech has been drawing on used coffee cups, where she records the date, place, and occasion on the bottom of the cup. In this way, Leech captures a personal “social moment,” while “up-cycling.” For Leech, transforming the used cardboard cup into a work of art marks a personal moment and exemplifies the “irrepressively inventive” human spirit. Simultaneously, the work evidences the cumulative impact of our consumption, and illustrates the totality of is effect.
The creative process is an important part of the work of all these artists. The act of solving a problem, making something positive out of something ostensibly negative, becomes important content. For ALISON FOSHEE, using pre-printed labels in her complex collages allows for many “ah-ha” moments, where the limitations and original use of the material is overcome by the creative process and results in a “sense of play…and joy.” This meditational, transformative process of art making is also apparent in ADELA ANDEA’s work, where thousands of finely cut pool noodles recreate an organic environment of glowing light.
The impetus to rejigger consumerist waste into a work of art is common among all the artists in Luxuriant Refuse. Through their choice of medium, these artists communicate 21st century concerns about history, individuality, sustainability, and the human role in the world. With tremendous creativity, humor, and self-examination, these artists re-present the detritus of our lives, transformed and renewed. Art making requires a series of creative choices, each one impacting and informing the next. By transforming junk into art, these artists illustrate a process that is within our grasp in our daily lives, empowering us by example to make every choice count. —MELISSA GROBMYER