Art made from found or recycled materials has become a ubiquitous and varied form since its origins in the early 20th century, seen across the creative board from the humble outsider art of self-taught individuals to a line of superstars that includes Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg. Because it covers such vast territory, organizing an exhibition of contemporary examples acknowledging that variety while still having a central, focused idea behind it is a challenge.
Matthew McLendon, curator of modern and contemporary art at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, succeeds in that challenge. "Re:Purposed" has the work of just 10 artists but they cut a wide swath through the genre. He links them with three concepts: identity, index (which he defines as the "biography" of an object or material as it goes from valued to discarded to revalued) and environment. McLendon doesn't shoehorn the artists into categories, instead suggesting porous borders with shared associations. If you choose not to delve into the conceptual aspects, not to worry. The show has enough visual excitement to delight and engage even young children.
Nick Cave is famous for his Soundsuits, and three of them seem larger than life, fitted onto mannequins and mounted on platforms. Cave, a sculptor who works with fabric, fashions them for himself, though, wearing them in his performance pieces. (He studied dance.) Even presented as static pieces, they are alive with color and texture. They cover the entire body, even the face, and those in this show are fitted with large armatures. One suit, for example, is made from crocheted doilies with a headpiece of dozens of children's tops. The serious point about them is that they conceal the wearer's identity; we don't know the race or gender so can look at them without bias. They represent a form of escape.
You will think, at a glance, that famous glass sculptor Dale Chihuly is part of the exhibition when you see the dazzling, multipiece works of Aurora Robson. Then you realize they're made from plastic, specifically plastic water bottles. She describes her motivation as "intercepting the waste stream." She is serious about the environmental message in her art but they're first and best simply beautiful in the way she manipulates the hard plastic into delicate shapes.
A similar aesthetic of putting the message into an engaging package is Daniel Rozin's Trash Mirror. It's composed of hundreds of bits of detritus, each affixed to a small motorized platform that tilts forward or back, responding to movements of the viewer. I dare you not to grin when you experience it. I also encourage you to take a close look at the trash used to make it. I thought of all the store receipts, expired coupons, losing lottery tickets, candy wrappers and notes to self that litter our handbags, backpacks and car floors.
El Anatsui is a big name in the art world, and an opportunity to see more of his work in any context is a rare treat. Two of his "tapestries" are on display. They're made from hard materials — the foil we peel away from wine bottles, woven together with copper wire — but look diaphanous, ready to be draped around one's body. He was born in Ghana and works mostly out of Nigeria, and the materials he uses often are references to the European presence in Africa, things that were introduced and left behind. His inclusion is more than a marquee-name ploy. "El Anatsui typifies the global contemporary artist, one whose practice may be rooted in a specific location, but whose influence and reception is global. Trash, after all, is a global experience," McLendon writes in the catalog.
An entire gallery is devoted to Jill Sigman's Hut, a site-specific installation. The artist has created Huts in other locations around the world, each built with materials she collects in a particular place. She took several weeks to gather things for the Sarasota Hut, which has a circular design and can accommodate several people at a time. The vertical supports are bamboo poles, the floor is signage from a past Ringling show on a sheet of acrylic, walls are strips of fabric. Decorations include an orange wig found in a park, dried orange peel from the Tropicana juice company (which she used as stuffing for pillows) and a dead bromeliad from Selby Gardens. (McLendon made an interesting point that everything had to be treated with a week in quarantine and then a trip to a 20-degree-Celsius freezer for another week so no little creatures were introduced into the museum.)
"You learn a lot about a place through their waste," Sigman said in an interview during the installation. She also said that most of the components would not be returned to the trash heap. Part of her practice is to recycle all the materials after the work is dismantled.
Allusions to Dumpster diving resonate through "Re:Purposed," but it also includes an actual experience. Just beyond the gallery, in the Ringling's garden, is Mac Premo's Dumpster Project, a real one with one side cut away and roofed over with a canvas. Inside, shelves are stocked to resemble a junk store, though a highly organized one. The contents are from his old studio, and they wouldn't fit into a new, smaller one. Not able to part with them, he turned them into what they were always intended to be, individual components of art, only now all at once. He has catalogued them meticulously, too.
The comforting thing about this show is a lack of intention to induce guilt. It's meant to inspire and aspire. To find beauty where we never thought to look. As I write this, I'm about to throw a plastic cup into the trash can. Eventually, I'll go through with it. Just not yet.
Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.