Scavengers and Seers by Jim Fisher
"Scavengers & Seers" brings together work by four distinct artists who
revel in the use of found materials. Sometimes manmade and sometimes
natural, the materials used by Martin Freeman, Bruce Pagacz, Tim Burns, and
Alan Disparte evoke emotions not usually associated with sand, dirt, metal,
or plastic. No longer inanimate, the materials altered by these artists
become the substance of life, taking on the role of body, skeleton, and soul.
Throughout history, artists have employed a variety of unconventional
materials to create both figurative and abstract objects. European artists
at the beginning of the 20th century were especially fascinated with
religious and utilitarian objects crafted by people native to Africa, the
South Pacific, and North America. The forms and shapes of these
non-academic objects, as well as their non-traditional materials, were
incorporated into a modernist vocabulary that influenced artistic movements
such as cubism and surrealism. Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Max Ernst,
and their peers studied artifacts housed in museum and private collections
in Paris, mimicking their element of style, their iconic presence, and the
raw appearance of their surfaces.
Other early twentieth-century artists, influenced by the new science of
psychology, began to examine the art made by people who lived and worked
"outside" mainstream society. In response to outsider art,
academically-trained artists sometimes attempted to disassociate themselves
from their training and tap the creative sources presumed to be locked deep
within their own psyche. The surrealists, in particular, drew from the
science-side of psychology, using such techniques as "automatic drawing" to
unlock their inner dreams and visions.
Artists like Jean Dubuffet, who began collecting outsider art in the late
1920s, sought inspiration from the objects themselves, focusing on the
non-academic, intuitive aspect of the work. Dubuffet began to "un-train"
his eye in an effort to uncover the most essential or brutal aspects of
creativity as demonstrated by the work of the outsiders. An important
element in Dubuffet's search for a more primitive art was the incorporation
of natural materials into pigment. Dubuffet mixed a paste of glue, dirt,
and pebbles, among other things, to create a highly textured surface which
could be scratched or molded to create his imagery. The resulting paintings
evoked a childlike or naive sensibility, magnified by the use of natural
At the same time that Dubuffet experimented with natural materials, other
artists replaced traditional materials with the porcelain, rubber, and
plastic of manufactured objects that quickly became the signature refuse of
the later twentieth century. Marcel Duchamp and other practitioners of
Dada, for example, introduced utilitarian objects into their art. A urinal,
with its sleek silhouette calling to mind the carefully crafted sculpture of
Brancusi, became a statue on its own right, albeit with a great deal of wit
supporting its value as an aesthetic object. The object, however, and the
crafting of it, remained significant, as artists continued to challenge
conventional academic interpretations of art making.
Throughout the twentieth century, the incorporation of found objects
continued to play an important role in the evolution of modern and
contemporary art. In the late 1950s and early 1960s in particular, artists
relied on found objects, whether natural or manmade, in a variety of ways.
Robert Rauschenberg, for example, used a quilt, pillow, and paint, to make,
Bed (1955), one of the greatest icons of Post-World War II paintings in the
United States. Jasper Johns borrowed the image of a target and used it to
redefine the surface of a painting, emphasizing the flat, planar quality of
a canvas. Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, and other Pop artists used the
images of everyday objects and "borrowed" photographs and graphic design and
advertising images to manufacture their art. In Europe, artists like
Richard Hamilton and David Hockney played with Pop ideas, while others,
including Jean Fautrier, Antonin Tapies, and the Cobra group continued to
experiment with highly-textured, earthen surfaces.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the concept in art was elevated to new
levels of acceptance, and materials were used in new and unusual ways to
convey sometimes simple, and often complex ideas. Artists such as Joseph
Beuys, for example, used felt and fat to create highly personal symbols that
addressed universal issues concerning survival and identity. The earth
itself became both paint and palette as some artists, including Robert
Smithson and Robert Long, built large-scale, environmental installations.
Some artists, including those who belonged to Arte Povera, explored through
their work the mythic qualities of Nature, relying exclusively on natural
materials and often exhibiting their work outdoors. More recently, artists
such as Tony Cragg and Ann Hamilton have used common plastic and metal
materials, as well as fabric, to create sculpture of a human scale and much
larger. New meaning is given to familiar substances through the physical
manipulation of materials or the juxtaposition of unrelated items.
Freeman, Pagacz, Burns, and Disparte belong to this long-standing interest
in experimenting with found materials. Each of these artists have
discovered that found materials easily serve as a substitute for more
traditional art-making instruments without belittling or hindering the
creative process. Acting like archaeologists on the one hand, these artists
have uncovered ancient artifacts in the form of ready-made and natural
materials. On the other hand, their work is scientific in thought and
process because they have created complex objects in studio "laboratories"
by combining disparate materials. The results of these aesthetic
experiments are explosive in color, shape, and meaning, belying any sense of
the materials' original purpose. Freeman, Burns, Pagazc, and Disparte have
created creatures whose individual parts infuse them with a human spirit
marked by humor, whimsy, and irony.