HAIRY EYEBALL: Intersection for the Arts' double-decade Recology survey digs up some gems
From Kurt Schwitters' dwelling-consuming accretion The Merzbau to Tim Noble and Sue Webster's silhouette-casting garbage heaps, making art from the discard pile is by no means a new gesture. It can still be a potent one, though, as evinced by "Art at the Dump," a 20-year survey of the fruits of Recology's artist in residence program at Intersection for the Art's new gallery space in the historic San Francisco Chronicle building.
Recology's program — the first of its kind in the nation — has grown immensely since the late artist and activist Jo Hanson first reached out to the Sanitary Fill Company back in 1990 and got her hands dirty. Today, participating artists are provided with a stipend and a studio in which to create work from materials scavenged from the Public Disposal and Recycling Area (a.k.a. "the dump"). The residency also involves community outreach, with artists speaking to the more than 5,000 students and adults who annually attend tours of the city's garbage and recycling facility.
As in any large group show, the creative mileage at "Art at the Dump" varies. More than a few residents over the years seem unified in their studied appreciation of Robert Rauschenberg's combines and Joseph Cornell's shadow boxes, but their final pieces often lack Rauschenberg's precise eye for juxtaposition or Cornell's tender hermeticism. Mark Faigenbaum's (2005) wonderful Pop 66 (2) — a chopped-up 1966 Muni bus poster arranged into a quilt-like pattern of concentric squares — on the other hand, stands on its own as an abstract reconfiguration of its source material while also evoking Charles Demuth's precisionist oils.
If one artist's trash doesn't always make for treasure, at the very least you can count on a conversation piece. A sculpture by Casey Logan (2008) consists of a section of a tree trunk whose upper half has been, as if by the intervention of some magic beavers, whittled into a two-by-four complete with barcode sticker. It is called Destiny. It makes for a humorous pairing with Linda Raynsford's (2000) two Tree Saws: old handsaws whose rusted blades Raynsford delicately cut into the outlines of forest giants.
Other past residents have taken a craftier approach. Estelle Akamine's 1993 evening skirt and fantastically fringed cape made from computer tape ribbon could easily pass for one of Gareth Pugh's recent gothic runway looks.
Perhaps the exhibit's final word belongs to Donna Keiko Ozawa's 2001 conceptual sculpture Art Reception, a found jug filled to the top with trash produced during a gallery's opening reception. Cleverly recalling Oscar Wilde's famous opening salvo in The Picture of Dorian Gray that "All art is quite useless," Ozawa's piece also underscores that the process of art-making — from a piece's creation to its display — leaves its own set of carbon footprints.
Robb Putnam's also no stranger to refuse. The titular orphans in the Oakland artist's first solo exhibition at Rena Bransten are large, cartoonish canine heads made from compacted scraps of old blankets, fake fur, bubble-wrap, and it seems whatever else Putnam swept off his studio floor.
Mike Kelley's perverse stuffed animal sculptures and the grotesque composite portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo both come to mind here. But with their Augie Doggie-like curves and permanently wagging tongues, Putnam's mutts are more pitiable than abject. Skinned and beheaded, they are mascots for the unwanted and forgotten.
The show is only up for four more days, so run don't walk to take in all the plush sadness.
ART AT THE DUMP
Through Sept. 25, free
925 Mission, SF
ROBB PUTNAM: ORPHANS
Through Aug. 21, free
Rena Bransten Gallery
49 Geary, SF