NEW YORK — Take comfort: A fine future may await those forlorn discards you consign to the flea market.
Imagine: Aunt Minnie's rusting cheese grater or little Joe's broken toy truck could catch the eye of artist Karl Mann and end up transmogrified into art.
Mann is a visual poet who composes sculptural assemblages using as his vocabulary other people's "junk" that he's roamed the world to find in flea markets from New Jersey to Paris to the Far East.
"It's not junk to me," he says.
He redeems dolls' heads, wire mesh, kitschy plastic fish, knife handles, unidentifiable scraps of metal and wood, anything that catches his eye, to create pungent vignettes, wall reliefs rarely more than a foot or two in dimension.
The work has echoes of Cubist collages and Picasso's use of found art, in a tradition traceable through Dada and Pop art, among many variations, to the present day.
In Mann's latest exhibition, the white walls of the Ricco/Maresca Gallery set off around 40 works.
In one, a toy gorilla gestures inside a golden coil--grinning triumphantly or snarling? A soulful bird perches above the gorilla, which may be riding a chariot, spinning along on two battered baseballs and wheels from some broken toy.
The New Yorker magazine says Mann's flea-market assemblages "traffic in a sort of Mad Lib surrealism." The review commends his delicate touch with junk and finds "the silliness is poignant."
Critic Ann Landi of Artnews writes of Mann's "cunning and well-resolved juxtapositions" with "a formal unity dependent on a few well-chosen pieces, all falling neatly in place because of shape or color."
A miniature muscleman poses with a plastic apple on an antique leather camera case; a little white rabbit crouches in an ensemble balanced with three purple panthers, twigs and a metal strainer; a tiger leaps from the toe of a lizard skin boot.
What is it really about? The artist won't help. No titles; he doesn't usually name his works.
"I'm not interested in prejudicing my audience. If something tells a story, it tells it itself."
This is how it works, he says genially, roaming his spacious rooftop studio. "I think what I do is obvious. I just take two things that make sense together" to start a work.
It's spontaneous at first. His critical faculty comes into play later, "when there's more at stake."
On a spring morning, sun pours in through skylights over tables piled with a haunting array of castoffs. Shelves are heaped with old chair legs, or are they bones? A chorus line of mannequin heads peers from a windowsill.
Mann is a connoisseur of flea markets. "You can't find anything as ugly as you do in New Jersey; there's much less taste going on there than anywhere."
Works in mid-assembly lie around the studio, waiting for inspiration's next step. An articulate commentary flows as the artist wanders among them, his eye registering pleasing elements he might combine.
"This green is so delicious next to this yellow. . . . Look at these textures in these metals--but I'm stuck with this one, I don't know what's next. . . . There's something happening here, with this harmonious milkmaid set in the harsh reality of all this steel. . . . These colors and textures are so wonderful, I just know these pieces should be together"--here holding up a section of pink pipe, a piece of dull yellow metal.
For all the free association, "I don't think these things are accidental at all," Mann said. "A tremendous discipline goes into them."
The seeming simplicity hides a lot of hard thinking, with all his 67 years behind it, he says.
Mann was born in Chicago, spent much of his childhood in an orphanage, went to New York at age 18 and, without formal training in art, developed a successful business as an art dealer-collector.
He left that behind when he'd done well enough to buy freedom to do his art full time, as he has for 15 years. His work has been acquired by museums and private collectors; the sculptures in his current show are priced at $1,500.
He explains more of what can't be explained about his art. "The mystery of what I do can take care of itself. I don't need to understand what I do; I just have to do it."
His assemblages have to seem inevitable, he says. But to be true to life, there has to be paradox too. There's much more than wit and whimsy in the symbolism.
"I'm interested in expressing the ridiculousness of life. We set up symbols to make sense of life, but sooner or later they're pathetic. All the symbols in the world can't protect us from death and disaster."
Art is a way to feel powerful, Mann said, "when you have been able to do something the best you can and do it your own way."