Making art out of everyday objects goes back to the 1920s, when Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, scrawled the letters "R. Mutt" on one side, and titled the thing "Fountain."
Duchamp's goal — being the good Surrealist that he was — was, first and foremost, to shock. There was no effort made to disguise what the object was, other than to place it in an unconventional position.
But Duchamp also wanted people to reconsider what they believed art to be. If something as mundane and defiled as a toilet could be used to make art, then just about any cast-off item could be so transformed.
That is why Duchamp's "Fountain" was, a couple of years ago, proclaimed the most influential work of art of the 20th century. In subsequent years, "found object" art has become an important sub genre in the art world, as artists have turned just about anything one might pass by in the course of a day into a work of art.
For some artists, however, the process of making art from society's detritus is more than a means of personal expression. It is a way to address concerns about the environment, consumerism, politics, by turning things most people might think of as trash into objects of startling beauty and inspired whimsy. Such is the case with the artists in "Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things," a new exhibit opening at the Price Tower Arts Center in Bartlesville. The exhibit, jointly curated by Scott Perkins, the center's curator of collections and exhibitions, and Michaela Merryday, University of Tulsa assistant professor of contemporary art history, is the inaugural exhibit in the Price Tower Arts Center's "3-Logy Triennial," a proposed series of special exhibits to be created every three years.
The concept, said Perkins, comes from the three areas of emphasis in the Price Tower Arts Center's collection — art, architecture and design. "And it's also in keeping with the Price Tower itself," he said, "where the triangle is focus of the building's design."
"Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things" gathers together works — all created within the last three years, which again fits into the "3-Logy" (pronounced "trilogy") concept — by artists from around the world, who transform cast-off items into art. The scale upon which the artists work ranges from the intricately carved Crayola crayons by Diem Chau, a Vietnamese native now living in Seattle, to Cal Lane's "Filigree Car Bombing," in which pieces of an automobile have been cut by Lane's plasma welding torch into pieces of metallic "lace." "Because of the title of the piece," Perkins said, "we're planning to suspend this work from the gallery's ceiling, to make it appear as if the car is exploding."
One inherent quality of using found objects in art is that of recycling — or "upcycling," as some would put it, as many people's trash becomes one person's work of art.
That quality is made explicit in the photographic work of Chris Jordan, in a series of images he calls "Running the Numbers." He re-creates Georges Seurat's famous painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Le Grande Jatte," out of 106,000 drink cans — the amount used in the United States every 30 seconds. Another, "Cell Phones," is an image made of more than 426,000 cell phones, representing the number of phones "retired" and discarded each day in this country.
The magnetic tape that was once ubiquitous in cassettes is turned into clothing by artist Alyce Santoro. Her "Silence" dresses can still produce noise, Perkins said — a device can be passed over the surface of the clothes that can pick up and broadcast the data still evident on the tapes.
Tulsa artist Johanna Burton's work uses existing textiles, while the artists of Volksware create new textiles out of discarded clothing. Anke Weiss creates light fixtures out of discarded containers — milk cartons, cereal boxes and the like — while Japanese artist Miwa Koizumi's "PET Project" transforms plastic water and soda bottles into startling approximations of sea life such as anemones and jellyfish.
"For many of these artists, this will be their first museum exhibition," Perkins said. "That's one more purpose of this series, to introduce very talented artists to a larger audience."