Arts » Visual Art

Beyond the Pail

Trash is elevated to new heights in this Cleveland Institute of Art exhibit.


Visitors to Timberline Lodge, a ski resort on Mount Hood in Oregon, might not notice that the supports are made out of telephone poles and that railway iron is forged into log grates. Recycling was definitely a priority in the '30s, when this famous Works Progress Administration undertaking was conceived, and it is also the impetus for a compelling new exhibit at the Cleveland Institute of Art called Trashformations: Recycled Materials in Contemporary Art and Design.

The exhibit is curated by Lloyd Herman, founder and former director of the Smithsonian Institution's Renwick Gallery. He discusses Timberline Lodge's recycled aspects in a fine exhibition essay accompanying Trashformations, which includes everything from a garishly improbable table hewn together from tin cans and V-8 tomato juice labels to a bare-bones chair constructed from a shipment of unwanted ax handles to a droopy-eyed elephant head executed in recycled kitchen utensils (the tip of the trunk), pans (the trunk), and pastry bags (the ivory tusks). The show is a must-see event, not merely because it demonstrates that self-imposed restraints can be liberating but, more importantly, because it offers convincing proof that innovative artists can take unpromising raw material and do interesting things with it.

Although the objects we encounter in our daily routine — pots, pans, bits of glass, tin cans, and colored plastic — have become so familiar that we are no longer aware of their existence, the roughly eighty works in this exhibit rediscover the forms and textures of commonplace objects. Trashformations does something that few local exhibits in recent memory have done: It persuasively argues for a democratic art which encourages everyone, not merely frequent gallery-goers, to reassess the materials around them.

In his essay, Herman methodically traces the history of this kind of art. He locates influences as far-reaching as Marcel Duchamp's "ready-mades" — objects (like urinals and bicycle wheels) that were torn from their original context and placed in an art gallery setting without significant alterations, folk art that places a premium on the vernacular and uses common materials to prove it; and the work of Joseph Cornell, who took cast-off objects like beads, china squirrels, bits of wood, and apothecary bottles, placed them in boxes, and thereby created poetic environments that jump-started a progression of associations in the viewer's mind.

There is also a strong strain of social commitment that runs through the essay and, by extension, the exhibit. Herman tells us that curbside recycling programs are a success, and typical suburban communities achieve participation rates around the 80 percent range. Creating art from the local junk heap is not only a way to explore new artistic territory, he seems to say, it is also sound public policy that cuts back on the natural resource damage that typically accompanies the task of manufacturing new products.

Ultimately, though, the environmental argument pales in significance to the artistic one. Quite simply, the artists here speak not in terms of their civic responsibilities as environmentally aware citizens, but rather of their expressive need to use junk in their art. One of the artists represented in the exhibit, Bird Ross, perhaps says it best: "I didn't choose the materials; they chose me. For me it is about using the most appropriate material." Translation: It matters not a whit that recycling is good for the country — the art requires it, and that's that. Ross's "North and South Meet and Move West," a fragile but map-like and thus cleanly logical vessel, is executed from discarded handkerchiefs, maps, postcards, book pages, and thread.

One of the exhibit's highlights is "Chrysalis Cabinet" by Barnstable, Massachusetts artist Stephen Whittlesey. This object at once evokes a piece of furniture, a canoe, and even the stage at which a chrysalis has yet to emerge as a butterfly. A hollow elliptical shape with a blond wood exterior is subdivided into rectangular compartments and attached to two corresponding shapes on each side — the effect being of three puzzle pieces that, when joined, form a smooth football shape. The artist dramatizes a clever analogy between a transformational process found in nature and one that he has initiated in his studio. Just as a chrysalis turns into a butterfly, the artist has turned an inchoate mass of salvaged wood into a unified object that is as pleasing for its solid workmanship as it is for its poetic resonance.

Whittlesey's conceptual sophistication is counterbalanced by folk works such as Isaiah Zagar's "A Day in America," a boldly colorful work fashioned from plywood, solid orange sheet rock, and mosaic. The mosaic touches in this piece consist of shards of mirror, chunks of patterned porcelain, and whole bottles and clay earthen objects. Zagar has captured the romanticized American melting pot idea by cramming variously shaped and colored objects together and relishing the resulting textural variations (solid geometrical shapes are often contrasted with the intricately patterned floral and fern-like shapes on the porcelain). Disembodied facial features, at the same time, suggest that the reality might not be as joyous as the multi-textured surface would suggest. Urban sprawl has psychological consequences: Human beings can lose track of who they are amid the bustle. All these eyes, noses, and lips jarred loose from their faces might point to the dark side of life in America.

But the lighter side also has its say. Jim Opasik's "Pan-A-Phant" is a whimsical creature whose pastry-bag tusks are a witty touch. Although it's mounted on the wall like a trophy, this isn't a hunter's delight — it's like a kid's (or a harried housewife's) view of a favorite creature. Likewise, Clayton Bailey's "Marilyn Monrobot" is an amusing send-up of our national fascination with that '50s icon. It's a female robot in stainless steel with a teapot head, enormous conical aluminum breasts, and a body fashioned from a restaurant coffee machine. The point in this piece is not to make fun of Marilyn — it's to make fun of those who turned this woman into an object (a robot) and then proceeded to admire the robot in lieu of the person.

Various writers have alerted us to the fact that, in days gone by, the medium an artist chose was dictated by tradition and technical limitations. Painters accepted certain prescribed methods and worked for their entire careers perfecting a style. Some artists worked only in wood, while others could devote their entire life to leather or clay. That need not be the case today. Today, as one writer has aptly put it, "everything accumulates, mixes, and is disposed of at an ever-increasing rate." This glut has resulted in new formal and textural opportunities for the alert creator.

The Depression-era architects and craftspeople who created Timberline Lodge in the '30s seemed to have an inkling of what lay ahead on this artistic road. Trashformations brings us up to date on what artists can create with unlikely materials. Far from trash, this is a show that belongs on top of the heap.

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