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This Art Is Trash!

Is it ever. An exhibition at Santa Fe's Museum of International Folk Art celebrates the junk of the world. And it took more than six years just to collect it all.

June 23, 1996|MaLin Wilson | MaLin Wilson is an art writer based in Santa Fe, N.M

SANTA FE, N.M. — The Museum of International Folk Art's "Recycled, Re-seen: Folk Art From the Global Scrap Heap" is a crowded fun-house exhibition, a gathering of 700 visual analogues, many of which cause a gasp, from 50 countries. Vibrantly colored flip-flop sandals scavenged on the beach near Monrovia, Liberia, were refashioned into a cartoon helicopter complete with a rubber-band-powered rotor blade. Haitian children transformed plastic soft drink bottles into a miniature camouflage Humvee during the U.S. military invasion. Zulu artisans wove telephone wire into gauzy, swirling Op art baskets.

Folded magazine pages feather the extended wings of an aggressive three-dimensional eagle--the "Freedom Bird"--the creation of illegal Chinese immigrants whose boat ran aground in 1993 off Rockaway Beach, N.Y. Still detained in York County Prison, they create variations on the American eagle.

The show, which opened last month, also includes works that could pass for the quintessential American folk art of pieced quilts, but with a twist: There's a Minimalist field quilt made from factory overruns of men's underwear labels, and a strikingly self-referential "Tobacco Sacks" quilt that spells out in edge-to-edge large letters the objects from which it was made.

The show's installation is an updated, walk-in version of a curiosity cabinet or Wunderkammern--the 16th, 17th and 18th century forerunners of today's museums. While modern art museums tend to rely on the segregation of periods, schools and movements, here related oddments are intermingled and clustered together. The show mixes the ingenious, the crude, the functional, the elegant. It crosses time periods, continents, class and caste, thereby honoring the pan-human capacity for delight through visual appeal and creative correspondence. Many of the works thumb their noses at artistic hierarchies with considerable glee.

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While it may sound unwieldy, the show is structured in six sequences, stringing together semi-private, semi-public enclosures and tableaux. For example, in the American section, a grid of goggles is embedded in a wall--through which are revealed images of far-flung environments like " 'Grandma' Prisbrey's Bottle Village" in Simi Valley and Tom Every's colossal sci-fi contraption called "Forevertron" (located just south of Baraboo, Wis.).

Whenever possible artists are identified and their portraits are included. In the toy section's war-toy alcove, for example, a mural of a 1995 photograph shows three Haitian boys--Sony Fradeis, Geutchine Desir, and Louis Max David--who made pint-sized copies of military equipment. The photo shows them sitting in an American Chinook helicopter at the U.S. base in Port-au-Prince.

The other four sections are the Global Marketplace, the Aesthetics of Sound, Recycling on the Body and Recycled Chic. Vignettes that feature individual artists punctuate the show, including five in-depth case studies augmented by video interviews. A few of the featured artists already are well-known, like Mr. Imagination, whose bottle-cap encrusted environment includes the throne from his Chicago living room. Others are more obscure, local phenomena, like pop-top recycler Ray Cyrek, who used millions of aluminum pull-tabs to make a shimmering environment at his home in Homosassa Springs, Florida.

"Recycled, Re-seen" is the brainchild of Charlene Cerny, the museum's director, who began her research and fund-raising more than six years ago. She has an impressive track record of initiating such forward-looking folk art exhibitions as "Que Viven las Fiestas" and "Swedish Folk Art: All Tradition Is Change," the latter of which is coming to Los Angeles' Craft and Folk Art Museum in November. Nevertheless, her concept of a show about art from recycling didn't make sense to a lot of people. Still, Cerny persevered, dedicated to the idea of showing work by folk artists who use castoffs.

As opening day approached, despite $700,000 in grants from such major foundations as the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as a companion book published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., Cerny was still hearing the same question: Why should an institution, especially an American institution, spend this much time on trash? Critics apparently see Cerny's concept as straying too far from the stereotype of the rural folk artist who works with so-called "authentic" materials, means, and methods--the traditional hand-carved and hand-painted furniture, figures, and toys, or charming paintings on tin or cardboard.

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