In the early 20th century, Marcel Duchamp stirred up controversy in the art world by displaying what he termed "readymade" art — everyday objects, like the urinal in his famous Fountain, displayed under the auspices of fine art. While some critics denounced the idea as artistic laziness, proponents argued that Duchamp had reignited the debate over what constitutes art and forced viewers to see the beauty of items that would otherwise be overlooked.
A few things have changed since Duchamp's time, as evidenced by the juried group exhibition "Resurrect: The Art of the Reclaimed Object," currently on display at Mesa Arts Center. The 55 pieces represented include a photo of a discarded tin can, a prickly soy plastic basket, and a junk shrine containing discarded beer cans, used cigarettes, and a plastic-lamb lawn ornament. "Resurrect" is an intelligent show, peppered with tongue-in-cheek humor that Duchamp likely would've appreciated.
Take, for example, Lilyana Bekic's Life Is Splendid, a life-size Victorian bustle skirt constructed from Splenda sugar-substitute wrappers. Bekic's craftsmanship is extraordinary. Each butter-yellow wrapper was slit with a surgeon's precision and emptied of its contents before being flattened and glued precisely to a stuffed, period "bum roll," which ladies of the era used to accentuate their, er, assets. The Splenda wrappers are a social commentary on our modern-day obsession with body image. It seems not much has changed except the means by which we reach our weight goals. Victorian women shrank their bodies with waist-cinching corsets and accentuated the positive with stuffed rolls. Today, we have Splenda and padded bras. It's a clever piece; witty, yet intellectual.
If Bekic's Splenda skirt is the feminine take on reclaimed object art, Tucson artist Ira Wiesenfeld's Shotgun Rocker is its male counterpart. Welded together from such found objects as rebar, chains, a rusty tractor seat, and a double-barrel shotgun (note to self: avoid wherever this artist dumpster-dives), this functional rocking chair is something I imagine old Jed Clampett, of The Beverly Hillbillies, sitting in, spitting chaw and guarding his oil spoils from nosy neighbors. Wiesenfeld's weathered face and bushy mustache seal that first impression. "For me, the conventional rocking chair is a symbol of sedentary aging, while . . . the shotgun is a symbol of action," Wiesenfeld writes in his artist's statement. Subtle clues to his intentions are there: A metal tube formed into a calla lily is a symbol of death and resurrection.
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For me, the piece is an interesting contrast with another nearby work featuring chairs. As much as Shotgun Rocker is about aging, it also has an emotionally distancing component. The harsh, rusted black metals and the formidable shotgun effectively create a social barrier. I certainly wouldn't want to cozy up with the guy who owns this chair. But a few feet away, a collection of rickety wooden chairs melded together like a quirky version of musical chairs beckons guests to come closer. Titled Family, this work by Tom Shields is about human bonding — the feeling that we want to be closer to people we consider family, whether by blood or choice. The similarities between Family and Shotgun Rocker are merely surface, as their statements oppose each other. Their physical proximity in the gallery strengthens the impact of both works; though for me, the rocker makes a more powerful statement.
Not every piece was as successful. A cartoon-y chef with long, curling mustache and fluffy hat, constructed from found wooden objects and rusty silverware, stands inside a clock-like wheel in Rodgell Helm's What's for Dinner? Discarded rubber stamps of such animals as pig and ox mark time along the clock, offering up a bevy of potential meat choices for Chef Carlos (yes, he has a name tag). What's interesting about Helm's pieces is that he "baptizes" each one with water to make the entire piece seem as though it's always been together, effectively wiping away the history of each fork, spoon, or wooden stamp and giving them a clean slate. It's a quirky, tongue-in-cheek piece that certainly gives the viewer a chuckle, but the subject matter and construction — like Rik Nelson's tacky bottle-cap-and-tin-can Rooster Rampant — isn't quite able to transcend the feel of a backwoods craft fair.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the few pieces that deal with serious topics, such as California Dreaming #2 by Sandow Birk and Elyse Pignolet. Birk, who displayed his "Dante's Inferno" series at MCA in 2006, and his partner used soda cans, bendy straws, and other flotsam collected from California beaches to create a towering replica of an offshore oil rig. It's a visually stunning piece with a crystal-clear message: Offshore drilling is polluting our oceans, and so are we. A rusty coat of red paint that blots the surface of the gray rig is part design element and part commentary on the ecosystems that will likely be damaged by the drilling. The detail in the piece, from the toothpaste caps used to form dials to the lotion pump crowning the top of the rig, is amazing. Potentially hazardous items, such as used razors, recall the hypodermic needle scare of the '80s and show us just how much we're damaging our planet.
Found object art has come a long way since Duchamp's Fountain and the junk art of the '80s. No longer satisfied to just display readymade art as-is, today's artists recycle objects into socially meaningful art with a dash of humor. Resurrect is well worth seeing. It'll lighten your day and make you think, plus you'll be supporting "green" artists. And let's face it: Greening is as popular a trend as bacon. So think twice before you discard that soda can or pass up some beach flotsam, because it could potentially be a masterpiece. At least, Duchamp would've thought so.