Garbage In, Garbage Art

The season's trashiest gallery exhibition? "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Ed Mell's Refuse."

Ever since the first Neanderthal scrawled on a cave wall and the second Neanderthal cribbed his style, artists have been "borrowing" from one another.

But when it comes to literally lifting a fellow visionary's work, Valley artist Erastes Cinaedi is the man to beat. For the past eight months, the self-proclaimed "recyclist" has cherry-picked his way through a garbage Dumpster belonging to noted Southwestern artist Ed Mell. This week, Cinaedi will lift the lid on the much-better-known artist's litter in an exhibit titled "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Ed Mell's Refuse."

But is one man's Dumpster-diving really anyone's art?
Cinaedi, who's never even met Ed Mell, thinks so. And apparently so do the owners of The Lodge, a new alternative art space on Grand Avenue and McKinley that will host this Friday's one-night-only exhibition.

An "interactive" installation, the show will allow gallerygoers to rummage through several cartons full of junk--mainly sketch pads, fan mail, gallery announcements, old books and other discarded ephemera--Cinaedi picked up during raids on a Dumpster outside the artist's studio in midtown Phoenix.

The piece de resistance, however, is a multipiece wall hanging Cinaedi originally hailed as an "early Mell": a termite-damaged series of 16 individual canvas cubes whose pastel-colored abstract designs bear little resemblance to the geometric desert landscapes for which Mell is now famous. (According to Cinaedi, the piece had been "confirmed" as Ed Mell's work by the artist's older brother, Frank, himself a local artist.)

Unable to configure the abstract Rubiklike boxes into any cohesive design (his best guess is that the boxes form the image of a chicken), Cinaedi plans to hang the boxes on the gallery wall and encourage guests to attempt to unscramble the picture for themselves.

Cinaedi, who lives just several blocks away from Mell's studio, stumbled upon the cubes last summer while salvaging some wooden molding poking out of the artist's trash bins.

Initially delighted by his find ("I guess it's the Gypsy in me," says the half-Romany Cinaedi. "You make do with what you've got."), the thrifty scavenger soon found himself disturbed by Mell's "wastefulness."

"I was aghast that an artist would do something like that," says the self-styled "trash-artist," who found the cubes neatly wrapped in deteriorating pages from a 1972 New York Times. "Obviously these cubes had meant something to him or he wouldn't have kept them for 28 years. At the very least, he could have donated it to [a children's art project]--they're always looking for something to paint over." Cinaedi shrugs. "I guess when you're selling your stuff for $20,000 a pop, you can afford to be wasteful."

That's when Cinaedi says he got the idea to mount the junk exhibition, selling Mell's cubes at $8.99 apiece and other garbage at a dollar an item. (All proceeds, he says, will benefit the Lupus Foundation, a disease with which Cinaedi was diagnosed last year.)

"Coming up with a catchy title for your work is the trick," says Cinaedi, who'd originally hoped to use a shorter, punchier title, until a friend pointed out that his first choice might be misinterpreted as a declaratory statement. "'Ed Mell's Garbage'?" asks Cinaedi. "Yeah, I can see where Ed might not have gone for that."

Just where Ed Mell himself fits into this detritus-strewn picture is something Erastes Cinaedi doesn't seem overly concerned about.

Or at least he wasn't until the middle of last week, when Mell finally caught wind of the upcoming show at The Lodge.

"I figured he'd be delighted and honored," says Cinaedi. "Wouldn't you be, if another artist were going through your garbage?"

Despite the geographic proximity of their respective studios, it's hard to imagine two artists whose lives and work are farther apart than Ed Mell and Erastes Cinaedi.

A native Phoenician whose retro-tech studio reflects the midcentury Arizona of his youth, the formally schooled Mell is a former commercial artist who parlayed his flair for precision and color into a career as one of the state's top fine artists. Today, his canvases and bronzes command five-figure prices and are found in many private and corporate collections.

By contrast, the Hell's Kitchen-born Cinaedi paints himself as a former male prostitute, counterfeit-money courier and drug dealer who didn't even pick up a brush (a paintbrush, that is--there was that brief stint as Jayne Mansfield's live-in wig stylist) until moving to Phoenix in 1986. Since answering his kitschy muse a dozen years ago, the flamboyant New Yorker has shown his colorful shrines and assemblages at a number of Valley galleries.

Working with religious icons, phalluses, dolls and thrift-store finds (his latest project is a series of decoupaged toilet seats decorated with themes ranging from 1950s girlie-magazine covers to Princess Di), Cinaedi's work has also sold in the five-figure range--if you include the figures to the right of the decimal point.

If Cinaedi's trash trek has a "bin there, done that" quality, that's because it roughly parallels the exploits of gonzo "garbologist" A.J. Weberman. A Bob Dylan fanatic who made headlines in the early '70s analyzing the contents of his idol's trash, the garbage snoop eventually broadened his horizons when Esquire hired him to write a cover story on other celebrity slop-pails. Weberman's astounding discoveries? Muhammad Ali had a taste for soul food (evidenced by empty cans of black-eyed peas, collard greens and corn bread crumbs); hippie activist Abbie Hoffman had a distaste for authority (a traffic ticket for hitchhiking, a copy of the leftist magazine Ramparts); and Neil Simon ate exactly what you'd expect him to eat--lox, bagels and a whitefish.

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