Recycling Art Povera
Recycling Art Povera
(Review appearing in Gallery & Studio, vol. 4 No. 5, summer 2002)
We have always been impressed by the industry of those homeless people, as as those domiciled but desperate individuals, some quite elderly, who eke out a marginal existence collecting and redeeming empty bottles and cans. Seeing them around the city, hauling their bulky hoards through the mean street in rattling bags on their backs or in rickety shopping carts, wee have often wondered if we would be quite so spirited and resourceful in the same situation. One thing is certain: No one can call these people lazy; no one can say that they are unwilling to work for a living.
Thus we find it despicable for more reasons than one that our new mayor, Bloomberg, the same cavalier billionaire who also wants to limit library services, though he himself has never suffered for want of a book or a buckplans to do away with this cottage industry of the destitute by cutting back on recycling.
By the same token, we can only commend the example of aesthetic ecology set by the participants in the excellent exhibition “Art from Detritus, 2002,” which took place recently at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, 445 West 59th street. The show was curated by the estimable Vernita N’Cognita (aka Vernita Nemec), an artists who attended her first recycling conference in 1993 and was inspired to found movement by staging the first Detritus Art exhibition in Portland, Oregon, the following year. Since, she has mounted more than a dozen exhibitions of “art created from trash,” as she puts it with a refreshing lack of euphemism, in Kansa City, Pittsburgh, and New York City. A self-confessed pack-rat who claims that she cnnot bring herself to discard anything, N’Cognita works in a studio in lower Manhattan piled high with “security envelopes with patterned insides, dead roses, cat food cans, broken goblets, plastic packaging forms” and all manner of other… well, garbage that she transforms through her peculiar form of aesthetic alchemy into lyrical, even beautiful, works of art.
Perhaps because she is also a dancer and a performance artist, Vernita N’Cognita’s pieces are especially graceful and poetic. Her contribution to the most recent Detritus exhibition, for example, took the form of a long, vertical collage created from pasted-together sections of patterned security envelopes onto which she had inked fragmented images of mountains, birds, and human figures, creating the effect of a rumpled Chinese scroll. Like all of N’Cognita’s work, it was simultaneously elegant and funky.
William J. Whalen’s large assemblage “Serve Yourself Jesus” was another high point of the show, comprised of a gallon wine jug affixed to an auto radiator containing a crucified heart, a goblet, and a plate of communion wafers. Like such California beatnik funk assemblageists as Edward Keinholz and Bruce Connorswho were, in fact, precursors of the Detritus movement, along with the Art Povera artists of ItalyWhalen’s found object pieces are marked by an iconoclastic wit. Here, the piece de resistance is the spigot which, if the gallon jug were filled, one could presumably use to serve oneself a cup of wine, symbolizing the blood of Jesus.
Even a partial listing of some of the works in the show reveals the wide variety of materials that Detritus artists transform in innovative and vital works of art:
Briani Babani showed an amazing untitled structure created with myriad bits of tightly rolled tape combined to create a uniform, cell-like surface as intricate as a honeycomb that bowled us over for its sheer compulsiveness.
May De Viney juxtaposed shoe forms, their bottoms covered weirdly with astroturf, a badge hanger, and feathers to create a whimsical configuration called “Digital Vision.”
Marlene Bremer titled her piece “Brassiere,” since it was created with recycled bras. The literalness of the title, however, belied the mystery of the piece, with its poetic suggestions of a lacy, exotic flowerperhaps of the man-eating variety?
Cathy Hunter celebrated a well known woman sculptor of the 1960s who opted out of the art world stardom to pursue her unique vision in seclusion, in an impressive work in corrugated cardboard entitled “Homage to Lee Bontecou.”
Fred Gutzeit used a discarded work glove as the canvas for a meticulously painted neoclassical fantasy entitled “Work Glove Dreaming.”
Alan Rosner played off the kinship between barbed wire and cactus thorns to create a striking visual/material metaphor in his found metal sculpture “How the West Was Won.”
Ed Herman put together random objects, including steel pipes, a plumbing piece, and a large clamp to create a ruggedly impressive wall sculpture called “Ecco Homo XIX.” In her piece entitled “Nesting Habit,” Stephanie Rose Bird evoked the sense of an alternative ecosystem in her fancifully fragile assemblage of vegetable stalks, gums wrappers, letters shredded paper, and shells.
And Kazuko Miyamoto made what could be construed as the quintessential Detritus statement (albeit with shades of Neo-Dada) in “Homemade,” a three part sculpture created exclusively with crumpled and tied plastic garbage bags.
“Artists have always recycled, but now they do so with greater consciousness of the public message conveyed by their choice of materials: paper, plastic, glass, steel and aluminummaterials we used to throw away,” Vernita N’Cognita has stated.
But that our elected officials could be half as creativenot to mention public spiritedwhen it comes to solving some of the environmental and human issues that plague our city.
Ed McCormack, Managing Editor
New York Notebook of Gallery & Studio, vol. 4 No. 5, summer 2002