Whether we’re artists or not, we all have stuff, many kinds of stuff, lots of stuff, sometimes to the point of invasive proportions. As a creative person, can you really follow Marie Kondo’s advice? What if tidying up all that stuff means you let go of an object or textile that would be perfect for your next project? Of course, if you’re truly creative, you’ll improvise. And maybe the results would be even better with a different saved treasure. Still, there’s something about all that stuff that inspires people to make art, keeping in mind that the definition of art has greatly expanded and diverged from its classical meaning.
When I was growing up, my immigrant family used to fix and mend things or find someone who could. We reused rather than throw them away. The onslaught of plastics and what to do with them hadn’t yet hit us as hard as it has today. We weren’t aware of the devastating consequences on marine mammals and birds. I started going to a recycling center in Berkeley in the 1970s, separating glass by color and cans by metal. But now we know even that isn’t the solution we once thought it was, as several countries have decided to no longer accept waste from the Western world, despite whatever revenues it might bring in. According to a 2018 national waste management report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit government watchdog organization, the U.S. accounts for 4% of the world’s population but produces 30% of the planet’s waste.
We can still recycle, but certainly not everything. What are we to do, for example, with the constant barrage of junk mail that floods our mailbox? Brooklyn-based artist Jaynie Gillman Crimmins’s response is to create art with it, rather than let it accumulate in a landfill. At first glance, some of her pieces strike me as floral-like mandalas. Closer examination reveals what I sense is a meditative process of putting together thousands of shredded paper strips with great care and aesthetic attention to color, shape, and pattern.
On her website, Crimmins explains what she does: I fabricate objects with meticulous handmade details that are counterpoints to the banality of their materials. Repurposing marketing tools from consumer culture, I shred and create with solicitations, safety envelopes and catalogs that are difficult to recycle because their inks have high concentrations of heavy metals. Deconstructing these materials reshapes their formulaic messages into narratives of personal interest…Rolling, folding, sewing and fabricating the shreds into intimate sculptural reliefs produces works that explore surface and texture, becoming meditations on consumerism and waste.
Crimmins also explains why she works in this way: Nothing seemed to make it into the trash in the apartment of my Eastern European grandparents. Discarded clothing became crocheted rugs. Old curtains became aprons. Leftovers became the ingredients for new meals. Nothing was wasted, everything possible was reused. Castoff items became novel and compelling in their metamorphosis. Combining this sensibility with the shredding of junk mail illuminates the physical acts of deconstructing and repurposing. The power of transformation, frugality, ingenuity and handmade quality drive my practice.
After I learned about Crimmins’s efforts to create beauty and interest out of rubbish, I went to “New World Hoarder,” an exhibit at Northern California’s Mendocino Art Center featuring Larry Fuente’s extravaganza. I wanted to find out more about his art, for it has even graced the cover of National Geographic (April 1983).
For some five decades, Fuente has focused on producing a body of work that is characterized by an obsession with surface ornamentation. He takes great delight in encrusting identifiable structures with beads, plastic baubles, pottery shards, buttons, and mass-produced items of no inherent value, transforming the ordinary into unique objects. He once spent five years covering a 1960 Cadillac sedan with one million brightly colored beads, sequins, buttons, plastic lawn ornaments, and other items. The side panels have the soles of shoes glued to them, like a trail of walking footsteps, which he calls "Lost Soles."
The Smithsonian American Art Museum has one of Fuente’s creations, Game Fish, in its permanent collection in the Renwick Gallery.
Fuente maintains an 8,000 square-foot warehouse of projects in various stages of production and destruction, with enough “art supplies” to endlessly create new ones. Because of the laborious process of applying often tiny pieces, he labels what he does as “tweezer work.” According to a write-up at Mendocino Art Center, this is what he says about himself:
Calling myself an “Artist” is not something I am terribly comfortable with. It feels like a judgment call that I prefer others who view my work to make. I will occasionally identify myself in that way as a matter of convenience and to save myself from having to explain. That said, I do make “Art.” I’m comfortable working in many mediums. I paint, I sculpt, I build, I modify, I record. I write and I enjoy playing music and dancing. I have a basic knowledge of how things work and how they are made which can be very helpful when I want to move a dream or vision I have into the realm of reality. My curiosity is boundless and I can become fascinated by nearly any topic. I feel drawn to “beauty” and realize it can be found almost anywhere that a person will take the time to carefully look.
In addition to the Cadillac parked outside the Mendocino Art Center, there were many pieces on display inside. Fuente’s aware that there are people who find certain works offensive, but he has stated it’s not his intention to offend anyone; it’s just that religious icons/objects are the easiest and often cheapest things he finds in second-hand stores. In most of his oeuvre, the titles are a humorous play on words.
Fuente’s is not your typical stained glass because the shapes and colors are the result of affixing objects on the back of the glass rather than soldering pieces of stained glass.
Don’t know what to do with all those old pens and pencils? Fuente created what, from a distance, appears to be impasto-thick stripes of pigments.
Don’t know what to make with all those bullets? Fuente says, “Bullets are pretty, so shouldn’t there be something better to do with them than ripping people in half?”
Do you have a drawer full of mismatched cutlery? What could all those spoons, forks, and knives become?
Whether this kind of art appeals to you or not, it certainly draws your attention to look more closely and examine what it’s constructed with and how. It also makes you realize that there is such an incredible abundance of stuff everywhere with which to indulge creatively. Just as there’s no limit to the available “trash,” there’s no limit to the imagination. There are people all over the world who are shaping stuff from our throwaway culture into something we can gaze at and reflect on. I’ll close with one of them, artist and tinkerer Blair Somerville on the South Island of New Zealand. He collects “junk,” especially when it’s rusted, and creates interactive automata and rustic sculptures while operating The Lost Gypsy Gallery since 1999. A short video on the website offers a peek into his world of curios and curious objects.
And if you’re interested in how waste material can be used architecturally, there’s an article in Smithsonian about creating houses with plastic bottles, beer cans, and newspapers.
Questions and Comments:
What throwaway stuff do you work with and why?
What other artists embrace this reuse/repurpose-it philosophy?