SF Recycled, the current exhibit in the Salt Lake Art Center’s Main Gallery, features artwork created out of materials from the solid-waste transfer and recycling center in San Francisco. Using old or found objects to create fine art is nothing new. Since the early avant-garde, artists have incorporated old objects into their work, usually as part of a modernist aesthetic manifesto and an attempt to challenge bourgeois norms. In a refreshing move for this late date in the found-art phenomenon, the Artist in Residence program at SF Recycling and Disposal “recycles” discarded objects into fine art and breaks the mold of the found art tradition to assess the critical political concerns of the contemporary situation.
The Artist-in-Residence Program at San Francisco Recycling & Disposal, an organization established in 1990 to address a new global crisis, began in the pivotal environmental concerns of the ’90s and now is 17 years old – which might make it seem to be another chapter in the history of art. Not so. The global crisis of depleted resources and gluttonous energy use and the demand for efficiency make recycling a primary concern of a globalized economy. Recycling not only reuses resources but also reduces the energy used to create new products. Using found objects in a new aesthetic is the obvious way to address this crisis artistically. However, it is the eight artists themselves, each with a unique contribution to the project that, along with their ability to transcend the limits of the found-art tradition and their approaches to ephemeral concerns that makes this exhibition work.
These artists, working in collage, sculpture and installation, were chosen by curator Jim Edwards for the current exhibit. While owing a debt to the past of found art and while maintaining the tradition of the SF Project — keeping environmental awareness and responsibility in the forefront — these artists make bold contemporary statements which push the trajectory and aims of the project into an optimistic future.
Artist Andrew Junge‘s sculpture “Pandora’s Box,” 2005, is a contemporary Brillo Box.|0| He, like Warhol, uses familiar objects – here, a discarded toolbox and a neon sign reading “Hope” — in the direct manner Warhol addressed his own sculpture. Like Warhol and much of the ideology he raised, Junge makes a statement on “capitalistic/consumerist culture.” Warhol, the Modernist Pop Idol, attempted to bridge the gap between “high” and “low” art by using celebrities, familiar objects and inventing the “pop” in popular culture. His art was the definitive break, which freed art to be whatever art needed to be. Junge is indebted to Warhol but his aims are entirely different. Unlike Warhol, he does not use commodity to his advantage, glamorizing it, but faces the “capitalist/consumerist culture” directly through his recycled objects. Where Andy Warhol stopped, Junge begins.
Another exceptional artist in the show is Mike Farruggia. His “United States of Whatever” recalls the Post-painterly abstractionists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Where they used found-art aesthetically, to create fine art, Farruggia goes beyond to address contemporary political issues. According to Farruggia, reusing recycled objects “recalibrates the synchronicity of its path and therefore everything.” As the title of this collage implies, Farruggia uses the recycling concept to investigate the deductive tools inherent in recycled relics on a much broader scale. In his overtly politicized use of the concept, the artist opens the gulf between what has been and what might be. In this work, more than the others, the idea of waste comes into play — we use, we consume, we throw away. His logic is a forecast of the moment, a vision of the future with respect for the past.
The associations of the Dada cannot be avoided in this exhibition; theirs was the genesis of the future of found art, and their work has the strongest formal similarities with the artists in this show. The Dada, in Post World War I Germany and other cities across Europe, seemingly gave up hope in politics, society, spirituality, and even art and culture — all the things their predecessors had sought — and tantalized the viewer with ironic statements in what they found in their found art.
Ninety years later, artists Daphne Ruff and Mark Faigenbaum appear to have found the utopia that the Dadaist and Modernism had given up on. Both of these artists, Ruff with her Fräulein Maria waltzing in mid-air over the Danube in the work “Spring Sing,” 2006, and Faigenbaum with his excruciatingly articulated collage “Unfolding,” 1998, reveal the extent to which the recycled object can be taken aesthetically. In splendid constructions, both regenerate what was once called degenerate. The aims of SF Recycled are fully manifest in these two collages: Faigenbaum’s “ephemeral quality . . . of outdating technology and mechanisms,” and Ruff’s statement of similarly ephemeral themes such as fashion and apparel using that which has been discarded. These establish the subject and relationships between past, present and future. Such performative qualities add the post to Post-postmodernism.
The other represented artists, in like-manner to those above, all address topics dealing with temporality, a reassessment of value systems, and an investigation of the priorities of the human species. Artist Nomi Talismanis “concerned with memory, how we interpret and understand our collective and individual histories.” Her Hockneyesque photographs document an ideal while questioning what is actually real. The ideal and utopian are common threads in the work of these artists. Bessie Kunath, whose “thrift store sculptures” are a pastiche of reinvention, states “When I first started working at the dump, the idea of having access to everything at the public disposal area was dreamlike.” Says James Gouldthorpe, whose sculptures bring out subtleties of the artifact in a concept of visual relationships and puns, “Most of the images I use are found in magazines and books…that seemed desperately to want to simplify the intricacies of human relationships, and each other with the natural world.” Finally, Dee Hibbert-Jones says “I untangle and examine the complexities of need that exist within human relationships, and our relationships to the earth itself.” Her seemingly sterile installations, re-creations of a “homelike environment,” are haunting in their lack of the human element, a poignant reminder of mortality.
Such implications give this art the strength to disassociate itself from the hackneyed reuse of found objects that has become widespread among many contemporary artists. As the eight artists now showing at the Art Center illustrate, amidst the multitude of art that expresses similar aims the San Francisco Recycling & Disposal Artist-in-Residence Program has survived successfully because of the unique caliber of many of the artists that have participated. The sum of each individual artist’s aesthetic focus on various aspects of the ephemeral makes these found objects, and the Project itself, a powerful statement.
Today, with the growth of a globalized world and the resulting possibilities and challenges, an artistic investigation into the use, misuse and reuse of the things we make speaks to an urgent political need. The artists in SF Recycled may owe a debt to the Modernists for opening up the garbage bin and showing the way to an aesthetic treasure trove, but the SF Recycled artists have also managed to do what the Modernists could not do. They have not merely used found art for art’s sake, but by emodying their messages in recycled refuse have used history to challenge the state of the present and forecast a utopia of the future. If only Andy could be around to see this show.
SF Recylced continues at the Salt Lake Art Center through January 26.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.