Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Transforming stuff into art

 A week ago, if I looked at what is on my desk, I would see a computer monitor, a keyboard, a plastic water bottle, a scotch tape dispenser, a cup filled with pens, a small Buddha, a stapler and a land-line telephone. I didn't imagine these objects outside of what they are and what they are supposed to do.

But now I can conjure up a whole new life for these things. Maybe, I can cut up the clear bottle into small trapezoids, punch two holes in them and string them like fish scales on an aqua-colored fishing line to make a necklace. When the multicolored pens run out of ink, perhaps I can slice them into small tile-like squares and create a mosaic.

Frankly, I am not about to become a home-crafter. Maybe when I retire. But after going to "Second Lives: Remixing the Ordinary" exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design , in which artists transform known objects into art, I couldn't stop myself from doing the thought experiment. Although the show opened September 27 and is closing April 19, I never made it the 10 blocks from my home to Columbus Circle to go before. I have no idea why. But, boy, I am glad I finally did, to the show and to the new museum, the opening of which coincided with the show's opening. (The museum itself is for another posting.)

Each piece in the two-floor MAD exhibition makes visible the process of creativity and stretches the imagination. The artists take objects--foil from liquor bottles, gun triggers, guns, white plastic spoons, black rubber combs, shopping bags, dog tags, tires, plastic eyeglasses, spools of thread, clothing labels, LPs, phone books, quarters, jigsaw puzzle pieces, old wood, rusty steel, buttons, safety pins--and turn them into images, sculpture, jewelry, furniture, light fixtures, you name it.

But the joy of creation is not the main inspiration for the works, made by 54 artists from throughout the world. War, politics, environmental concerns, identity and value, are some themes the art addresses. Do-Ho Suh's "Metal Jacket" , for example, appears to be a suit of armor comprised of American dog tags. The "Hope Throne" is constructed from "discarded, buried, and rusted weapons used during the brutal civil war that gripped my country, Mozambique, from 1975 to 1992," says artist Gonçalo Mabunda on MAD's website.

The press material says the "focus of the exhibition is neither on sustainability nor recycling," but points out that the "works can be catalysts for thought about these issues." A pyramid by Jill Townsley, above right, constructed from 9,273 plastic spoons and 3,091 red rubber bands seems to suggest a certain wastefulness in disposable utensil use. With time, a wall video shows, the rubber bands snap and the pyramid falls apart. Plastic spoons may be convenient for our lifestyle, but the pyramid scheme eventually self destructs.

"Textile Worker" by Teresa Agnew, above, composed of labels from clothing, thread and backing, brings attention to laborers in global markets. When I first saw the piece, I was blown away by the ingenuity of the use of the labels to create the image. But then I concentrated on its content, thinking about the difference in culture between the sari-clad woman making the clothing and the ultimate consumer wearing the labeled, designer clothes. I also thought about the hardships of textile workers compared to the lifestyle of the garment's purchaser. In the image, though, the seamstress, is concentrating and dedicated to her work, implying that her labor should be respected, not pitied. But given the downfall of the world economy, and reductions in consumer spending leading to job losses internationally, I now wonder what may have happened to such jobs.

Another example of sheer genius in using a disposable item to make art is the portrait of "Madam C. J. Walker", by Sonya Clark. The artist took plastic pocket black combs, removed their teeth in some places and kept them in others, to weave together a black and white pixelated plastic tapestry of the first African-American woman to become a millionaire. Madam Walker made her fortune by developing hair products for black women.

Clark says on the museums website: "The comb takes on more significance than its obvious reference to Madam Walker’s business since it carries with it complex layers of associative meaning: The black plastic combs evoke a legacy of hair culture, race politics, and antiquated notions of good hair and bad hair…. Combs are tools in as much as they order the fibers that we grow… when a comb has missing teeth, there is evidence of a struggle."

The exhibition offers many amazing pieces of repurposed art: Liquor labels, tapestry. Safety pins, a necklace. Old spectacles, a chandelier. A pile of auction catalogues, a sculpture of the Buddha's head. Quarters are welded together to make a chaise lounge. Scrap steel and wood, beautiful furniture. Spools of thread=Mona Lisa.

Artists in the past have taken castoffs or overlooked items and turned them into art. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp dubbed a urinal "Fountain" and submitted it for showing at the Society of Independent Artists exhibition. In 1942, Pablo Picasso took a bicycle seat and handlebars and it became a bull's head.

But "Second Lives" shows artists from our time using the materials of today to invent an art that speaks to us now and going forward into the future. Go before it closes. Or at least visit the website. You will never think of your stuff in the same way again.
(Images courtesy of the Museum of Arts and Design.)


  1. Great subject, I have been championing a local artist that I first met at his final year school show . His name is Renaud Delorme and he created a portrait of Francis Bacon that was made of black & white pieces of thing and parts of things, plastic, metal, rubber and any thing else he could find.

    It is a masterpiece and I advised him not to sell it and I would work with him to get the piece excepted in to a Museum collection.

    The artist's current work does not have the same impact as it did when he first created with the Bacon portrait. The artist said that it took him three months to create the first portrait and his current technique is much more simpler and he is able to create artwork that is selling as fast as he can make it.

    I would love to see the show you blogged about or see a video of it, If anyone can make a video of the show at MAD and post it on the web, I am sure you would find good audience.

  2. In the exhibition, the museum had a variety of videos of the artists making their works. Perhaps you can contact them and ask them to post the videos on the web when the show is over.

  3. Nice post of the exhibition. how much do you think that the innovation of using second hand material contributes to the success of its artistic value? Would a traditional material of similar textual character achieve the same sensation? Let me rephrase, if someone uses the idea again of the labels from clothing, thread for a different subject, do you conceive it as of the same quality (if it is good) or a fad?

  4. Artists have been using the same media, i.e., oil, tempera, wood, ink, paper, marble throughout history, innovating with their visions all along the way. So, to answer your question I would say that if someone used clothing labels again in a work of art, the "success" or "quality" of the art would depend on what the final product looked like, not the material itself. What is so interesting about Agnew using the labels in this case is the relationship between them as material for the image and what I presumed was the subject matter of the piece. I have no idea if another artist has used labels before in a similar or different context. That is a question for the curator. But the show and the history of art has obviously many examples of artists using the same media for very different results. But you ask a very good and provocative question. Thank you.