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COMMENTARY : This Critic Has a Bone to Pick : Enough already! Artists need to dump overused items, look for new materials.

November 06, 1994|Christopher Knight | Christopher Knight is a Times art critic

'My tomatoes didn't do too well this year," an artist friend recently moaned to the local nurseryman.

The nurseryman patiently inquired, "Do you always plant them in the same spot?"

"Yes," came the reply.

The nurseryman screwed up his mouth. "Haven't you ever heard of crop rotation?"

Needless to say, the tomatoes won't be planted in the same spot next year.

Tended strictly for the purpose of enlivening salads, the annual tomato plant didn't exactly qualify as something so grand as a crop. Never mind. My artist friend remains committed to giving the soil in her tiny backyard plot a well-earned rest.

The dirt has done its job nobly and for many years. Now it's time to knock off a while, nibble on the mulch of passing seasons and get some potency back.

It's a cue other artists might wish to take. Not for their tomatoes; for their art materials.

The 20th Century has been notable for the recruitment of a seemingly unlimited range of previously unexpected materials into the precinct of art. Periodically, certain of them turn up with greater and greater frequency than others until they get pretty exhausted too.

Consider wax. Sometime in the hazy days of the 1980s, wax began to turn up in galleries more often than in a classroom of 10-year-olds' ears.

As an art material, wax is convenient: Relatively inexpensive, it's fairly easy to work with, soft and malleable when warm but hard when cold. As a bonus, it can be dyed in lots of attractive colors.

Its translucence is beguiling. When drizzled over an ordinary item fresh from the store, wax can yield an instant patina of age. In candles, it adds a secular sense of ceremony.

Usually, though, wax is most evocative because it is fleshlike.

Jasper Johns brought wax into the forefront of post-war art's vocabulary by reviving encaustic, in which a painter's colors are fused with wax. The effect was to heighten an association between a painting's surface and human skin. With that, wax began to proliferate, showing up for bodily purposes in all kinds of art.

Now, it's everywhere.

Encaustic is actually a pretty old painting medium, and isolated examples of truly eccentric materials had been incorporated into art before our century. In 1912, Braque and Picasso pumped up the volume with collage, wherein wallpaper and bits of newsprint surreptitiously sneaked into paintings.

Soon the ante was upped exponentially, when Duchamp visited a neighborhood hardware store and brought home assorted items, such as an iron bottle-drying rack, a porcelain urinal and a wooden coat hanger. These he made into art.

Once, it had been easy to identify art materials. There was paint, there were stone and metal, there were graphite and ink. Along with a few related substances, such as clay or wood, that was about it.

The arrival of modern manufacturing and the sudden accumulation of mountains of man-made stuff, changed all that. So did World War I and II, but in reverse.

In the wars' ruinous wake, the startling ubiquity of newly manufactured objects was joined by a huge pile of detritus and junk. They all joined the artist's arsenal of evocative materials. Paint, stone, metal, graphite and ink would never be alone again.

Now that non-traditional materials have a nearly 100-year history, they aren't really non-traditional anymore. Still, the popularity of certain of them ebbs and flows.

Like my friend's little garden plot, the power of any material simply can be sapped by overuse. In addition to weary wax, here are six more categories of fagged-out materials, each deserving of a long vacation:

* Lead. In some ways the obverse of delicate, easy-to-use wax, lead is a pliant metal whose visceral density and visual dullness have been useful in signaling the exhaustion of industrial culture. Lead declares the awful weight and inertia of modern society with its inability to transmute much of anything into gold, while its continued use in the studio suggests something of the same for recent art.

* Hair, bone, teeth . If wax can evoke the deathly moldering of animal flesh--or even its utter vanishing--then hair, bone and teeth are its talismanic remains, useful for the fetishistic identification of assorted social rituals. Hair claims an added dimension when it assumes the artificial form of a wig--in which case, be prepared for those social rituals to home in on gender and sexual role-playing.

* Rust. If hair has a feminist edge, rust has a masculinist one: The authority of age meets the crumbling of modern power. (See Lead .)

* Glass. Clear, frosted or etched, and often hand-blown in the form of vessels, glass brings forth easy associations of brittleness, transparency and fragility. Add a scientific twist in shades of the laboratory and a big chunk of the modern era gets quickly called into play.

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