Saturday, January 10, 2009

Repurposing Refuse

It comes as a surprise to some that my formal art education is actually in painting. Many first discover my work in printmaking and assume that I am primarily a printmaker. Those who have viewed my more recent "paintings" are well aware that the painting portion of those pieces is actually only a small element within a much larger construct.

It wasn’t until I was in the final semester of my graduate work that it dawned on me where my natural artistic interests were. My MFA thesis exhibition was actually comprised of paintings that connected with two works from my undergraduate thesis show. All of these employed fairly typical painting technique and realistic imagery, but they were composed of multiple panels that revealed only partial segments of larger pictorial schemes—with gaps in between the smaller panels.

By then, the painting was pretty much second nature. I always improve and shift my style a bit over time, but painting is not overly complex to me; it is just something I do. Yet from a fairly young age, the one thing with which I had often occupied my time was constructing things. I used cardboard, paper, styrofoam—whatever was on hand and free. Long before everyone had a personal computer at home and we were accustomed to typing PIN numbers into keypads after swiping debit cards, I was constructing three dimensional keypads and ID cards from paper for my cousins. These gave us special access as secret agents, as I recall.

There is something about the physical object that is essential to my artwork. Even with printmaking, the tactile quality of the blocks and plates is a part of my satisfaction. But it is not simply the construction of the objects (i.e. the enclosing structure of an altarpiece) that intrigues me. It is the interaction of images and objects within the works that most interests me.

It is only natural, therefore, that I have such a great appreciation for the work of Joseph Cornell (see previous posting). Even though Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp were the innovators who first placed everyday objects into artworks, Cornell became and remains the master of the technique. The key to the success of his assemblage work is in placing unlikely objects in an environment in which their interactions are not obvious but still seem natural. Cornell is often cited as tapping into the elements of childhood and nostalgia. It is, nonetheless, more complicated than that. His choice and placement of objects and images touches on some collectively recognized and seemingly unnamable qualities.

I had started incorporating assemblage-like objects into my early altarpiece works nearly a decade ago. They had a fairly specific and more obvious function at that time. In each of these you will find small glass bottles and jars that contain bread and wine—the elements of the Eucharist. Since the first series was concerned with personal saints—individuals who have influenced my art and thinking in one way or another—the Eucharistic devices made reference to the "great cloud of witnesses" and our connection to them within the Church universal.

I still use these elements in newer altarpieces, but other objects started to make their way into the works, too. Visually and aesthetically, I liked how the pieces were evolving, but often an artist’s work begins a process of transformation before he or she recognizes why. Furthermore, I was beginning the sketches for a new series of altarpieces, starting with objects I had found at flea markets and antique shops, before I discovered how they were driving the work conceptually.

It was about three years ago, while I was taking the train from Boston to New York, that the implications were exposed. While I do artificially age some objects within the altarpieces, I tend to find older objects that seem to reveal a story. They have an inherent beauty to them, based on their worn and battered state. Beauty is not even the proper term. Sublime is a more passable word for what I am getting at. Artists, however, have conflated the two words, using them interchangeably, and that has caused no end to the confusion that confronts those removed from art world conversations. So, when someone talks about the beautiful qualities of something any reasonable person would find to be truly ugly, realize they really mean the sublime. But back to the train.

For those who do not regularly ride the train I need to set the stage. Lining the tracks there is always an accumulation of debris that is both accidental and intentional. In the same way that you might see a lone shoe or a forlorn recliner in the median of a highway, inadvertently ejected by a passing vehicle, some items make their way to the train’s pathway as a pure mishap. Then there are items that were obviously deliberately discarded. Mattresses, for one. A filthy, ragged, full-sized mattress is not blown by the wind over a twelve foot high retaining fence. And the range of the discarded objects is truly astonishing. Their condition is decrepit, at best, since once they end up on the train side of the fence they might be stuck there for decades.

As these soiled and sullied items briskly passed me by, I was drawn to their "beauty." They each had a story and the odd juxtapositions of equally odd objects was as poetic as the best Cornell shadowbox. Abruptly, without warning, I recognized what my great attraction to the articles was. I wanted to pluck them from their despair and disuse and place them within a new context; elevating their status within an artwork. This garbage was a metaphor for the transforming work of Christ on fallen humanity.

Trash. Refuse. The discarded stuff of the world… It can all be made new. Christ came not just to save humanity from the trash heap, but to transform each person (item) into a new creation. God sees something beautiful in the ugliness. The blotches and bruises are not fully erased because they tell the story of grace. I might not always provide my viewers with all the clues as to why I choose specific objects, but the story of grace and transformation is there for any who wish to see it.

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