It started literally with trash--discarded McDonald’s drink cups strewn along my street. Picking them up and recycling them didn’t seem to be enough of a response. Realizing that my obsession with trash and the fate of the environment could translate into an art show, I started to see something different in those drink cups. The result was by no means a foregone conclusion and ultimately was the least of the discoveries on the way to TRASH! a Collaborative Eco Art Exhibit at the Cooperative Gallery in Binghamton NY in June 2016.
El Anatsui of Ghana says, “I have a desire to manipulate the material to get something else out of it.” He creates elaborate and massive tapestries from flattened liquor bottle caps and other scrap paper. “I collect rubbish and create something beautiful from it. I collect something that has no value and give it new life,” says South African Mbongeni Buthelezi. Bryant Holsenbeck of North Carolina states: “I use these everyday items to make work, which transforms the objects and surprises us.” I was delighted to know that more accomplished artists had already articulated what I was beginning to appreciate about trash.
I was not alone in this sentiment as more than two dozen artists responded to the call for this show. Robert Skiba was one individual whose obsession with a material that is environmentally a toxic nuisance created something that show attendees called the “Dale Chihuly of Plastics.” Skiba created a colorful, fantastical “Vertical Garden” of cut up vitamin bottles in long fronds, leaves, and feathery shapes. (photo) Joanne Thorne Arnold created “something else” out of cardboard, a material so common as to be invisible, yet she found textures and details in the corrugation that surprised and delighted.
Rae Freeman-Doyle found a medium and a message in the form of six pack plastic that causes the death of so many marine animals. An oceanic gyre the size of Texas is whirling around the Pacific; her “Gyre Wave” uses those plastic bits to create the froth on stylized waves painted on a piece of scrap wood. Chuck Haupt, normally a fine art photographer, also found a message in “United States of Plastic” made of the ubiquitous plastic bags.
“But is it art?” was a question that I kept coming back to, and knew that gallery attendees would be thinking. My criteria was where it started: did the artist transform—and transcend—the material itself? Did the viewer see an intriguing piece of art, and then notice the material used? That second look, that delight in being surprised, is what I was looking for. Interspersed with TRASH! art were Chuck Haupt’s photos of bales of recyclables which kept art lovers grounded in the environmental concerns about the by-products of our consumer culture.
Artists have always drawn attention to society’s flaws and many artists have always been attracted to a cheap medium for their art. For example, working with plastic cups I created grid art with two inch squares of consumer slogans, reducing them to color and shapes. In the process I learned about the properties of plastics, in terms of malleability and adhesives. And, I confess, the trash that I loathed as I walked my neighborhood became prized materials for my art project. My perspective on the trash that had been there the whole time had shifted, however slightly, and maybe that’s what happened to someone wandering around the gallery in June. It would have been enough.
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.