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

materials.

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.

 

 

©Jim Fisher