Exploring The Art Of Found Materials

Posted: February 02, 1989

In 1914, Marcel Duchamp created a sculpture by the simple act of renaming a circular metal rack used to dry bottles. Three years later he scandalized the New York art community by submitting a porcelain urinal, which he titled Fountain, to an exhibition.

Duchamp's "appropriation" of ordinary objects has since become common practice. His bottle rack and urinal have inspired several generations of ''readymades" - mundane objects transformed into art by an artist's proclamation - and collages and assemblages made from discarded materials.

"Conspicuous Display," the current exhibition at the Stedman Art Gallery on the Camden campus of Rutgers University, seeks to explore the proliferation of art that uses found materials. Guest curator Sid Sachs calls this tactic ''presentation" (as opposed to representation), because the artists are altering the context and significance of existing objects rather than creating new ones.

Sachs has pulled together a wide variety of two- and three-dimensional works by 60 artists, including Duchamp, to demonstrate how widespread the practice of appropriation has become and how readily we now accept it. The show is solidly grounded historically (it actually begins with the Duchamp bottle rack) and includes many artists who have come to be associated with appropriated imagery - notably Arman, Joseph Cornell, Jasper Johns, Barbara Kruger, Meret Oppenheim, Italo Scanga and Andy Warhol.

A good portion of the show consists of photographs or of images derived directly from photographs. One might not think of photographs as ''appropriated," but photographs, whether made for commercial purposes or as art, often represent everyday reality captured and transformed, as much by the viewer as the artist.

A photograph by Walker Evans, whom one usually doesn't consider an artist of this ilk, demonstrates this graphically. It depicts the window display of a commercial photo studio in closeup - dozens of tiny portraits in a grid behind the word studio on the window.

Some appropriated imagery is conceptual, such as Jeff Koons' reproduction of a Martell cognac poster or Simon Levine's painted, over-scale reproduction of an announcement for an art exhibition. Other objects are more prosaic - none more so than Geoffrey Hendricks' narrative assemblage of rocks and a sheep's skeleton found on Cape Breton Island.

Sachs has collected enough material for an interesting show, although it's not a show that can deliver full value to the uninitiated. The material isn't installed in a logically didactic way; the gallery is perhaps too small to

allow that.

In the same vein, the show demands a thoughtful catalogue essay to provide a framework in which to view the objects. That, too, may have been beyond the gallery's means, but unfortunately it leaves the viewer with an exhibition that's incompletely realized.

Stedman Art Gallery, Fine Arts Center, Rutgers University-Camden. Enter off Third Street. Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Feb. 25. Telephone: 609-757-6245..

GROSS MCCLEAF. Benny Andrews is a Georgia-born artist who studied at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago and has lived in New York City since 1958. This Southern-rural/

Northern-urban dichotomy sometimes expresses itself in his work, through a combination of down-home subject matter rendered in an unusual and sophisticated collage technique.

Like Jacob Lawrence and the late Romare Bearden, Andrews has frequently addressed social issues in his work (Bearden, too, was a collage master), but he also works in more formalist terms, a quality evident in the still lifes that are part of his current show at Gross McCleaf Gallery.

The show consists of a group of collage paintings and some ink drawings. The paintings involve layering and folding of canvas, which is then painted over; the result is a subtly complex surface of multiple planes and edges that invigorates the image painted over it.

Miss Emma, a full-length portrait of a black woman seated in a chair, exemplifies Andrews' mastery of his method. Some of the piecing-together, as in the woman's face, is obvious, but much of the intricacy, like the bricks in a wall behind her - each brick a separate bit of canvas - isn't immediately apparent.

Rather, one is first struck by the strength and dignity of this portrayal, which could be considered a contemporary American icon. It's only later that one begins to notice how it was constructed.

A portrait of Marcel Duchamp is a bit more demonstrative, for Andrews has given Duchamp a three-dimensional nose. But Duchamp, too, is an equally intricate concatenation of textures and unexpected spatial inversions.

There isn't much narrative content in the show's paintings, although the ink drawings - rendered in a spidery line without shading - offer a gallery of urban types such as pool players and dancers. The paintings are strictly formalist, and in a refined style that's more European than American. Interior With Cat, for example, contains elements of cubist perspective (a tilted table top and skewed chair) and Matissean design - a series of simplified floral motifs sprinkled over the canvas.

This is a relatively small and random selection of Andrews' work; a larger selection of collage paintings from the last 30 years is on view at the Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 W. 125th St., New York, though Feb. 26.

Gross McCleaf Gallery, 127 S. 16th St. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays. Through Feb. 20. Telephone: 665-8138.

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