Garbage In, Garbage Art

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.

Last week, Erastes Cinaedi's odd work-in-progress moved from Ed Mell's trashcan to his mailbox. On Tuesday, Cinaedi dropped off the ultimate piece of junk mail.

Like anyone who's just received a hand-written invitation to attend an exhibition of his very own garbage, Ed Mell is puzzled.

"I feel a little violated hearing that somebody's been going through my trash," confesses Mell, shortly after learning of the upcoming show. "It doesn't matter to me, though, as long as he doesn't show anything I don't want him to."

Why Cinaedi would want to display any of his trash is still a mystery to Mell.

Listening to a brief run-down of the castoffs Cinaedi has amassed, Mell is first baffled, then amused: Aside from posters and some insignificant gallery material, virtually the entire inventory is made up of items left behind by other artists who'd shared the studio during the past two decades.

"I remodeled the studio last year and at a certain point just started throwing everything away," he explains. "I can rarely get myself in one of those 'throw-away' modes, so when I do, I just have to go with it."

And as for the mystery "chicken" picture? The work of artist Nick Gaetano, an old friend and roommate from the '60s who now lives in North Carolina.

"A chicken?!" Mell laughs. "If you put it together right, it forms a lion or a tiger, I forget which."

A remarkably good sport, Ed Mell initially worried that Cinaedi's garbage raids might have yielded personal letters or documents best left to the local art set's imagination. And so Cinaedi's invitation set off a daisy-chain reaction of phone calls.

Mell called Cinaedi.
Cinaedi called The Lodge co-owner David Camp.
And, for a second or two, fledgling gallery owner Camp almost called the whole thing off, realizing how close his art space came to misidentifying a major artist's work.

"I certainly didn't want to piss anyone off," says Camp, who agreed to let Mell screen the exhibit before the public sees it this Friday. "I'm new to this, and we thought this would be a fun thing to do. There's a certain pop culture/crass commercialism going on here, like irony upon irony."

Leslie Barton, Camp's partner, appears unfazed that Erastes Cinaedi's original vision--fuzzy as it was--has abruptly taken an artistic U-turn that leads . . . where?

An arty-looking young woman, Barton takes an optimistic tack. "The whole thing does seem to have snowballed into something else," she admits. "I don't know what exactly.

"I do know that Erastes never meant this as a dig," she continues. "And with Ed Mell coming down here to look at all the stuff to make sure there's nothing too personal, this kind of makes it into a collaboration between Ed and Erastes. No matter what, it's still Ed's garbage. To tell you the truth, I don't know what to expect."

Its merits as an art show notwithstanding, at least one observer sees "The Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Ed Mell's Refuse" as one hell of a case study for a law class.

"Visual artists have a unique set of problems," says Sam Sutton, who teaches trademark and copyright law at Arizona State University.

And so, it would appear, do people like Cinaedi, Camp and Barton--all of whom mistakenly had assumed that since Mell had discarded the art, he'd lost control of the property.

Did Cinaedi have the legal right to scavenge through Mell's Dumpster and keep anything he found?

Probably, says Sutton. "I don't think there's a property-ownership problem there any more than if he were to find a nut or bolt in the street and say, 'This is just the size I needed.'"

But aping foreign laws that have long protected European artists and writers, the U.S. earlier this decade enacted stronger laws governing an artist's "moral rights." Under those laws, which protect discarded works not meant to be seen by the public, says Sutton, a scavenger could neither exhibit nor resell, or even mutilate or reuse an abandoned piece of art.

Whether it'd be worth anyone's time or money to institute such litigation is another question; Sutton claims "intellectual property" cases are usually so complex that an artist could easily incur lawyer's fees of $5,000 before the case was even resolved.

Fortunately for all concerned with the trash-art exhibition, Ed Mell considers most legal actions a "negative energy drain"--something he'd just as soon avoid.

But as the dust finally settles on "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Ed Mell's Refuse," there's no avoiding Friday night's opening.

Already dithering over what "gallery drag" he'll wear, Erastes Cinaedi has issued a press release announcing, among other things, that the entire event will be videotaped for use in a future art project. And just in case anyone's wondering, yes, Cinaedi will be happy to autograph any trash you might purchase.

Ed Mell, who's expected to make an appearance himself, still can't fathom all the hubbub over his garbage but admits he's gotten a new appreciation for art's cutting edge.

"After this is over," he announces, "I'm going out and buying a shredder."

Contact Dewey Webb at his online address:


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