FOR every artist who stocks up at standard art supply stores, there's one who finds materials in junk heaps, swap meets, discount outlets or surplus shops. Some follow the lead of Picasso, Duchamp and Rauschenberg. But others don't look for the perfect metal colander, wicker basket, bicycle wheel or stuffed goat. They scrounge en masse or buy in bulk.
"I use whatever it takes," says artist Maximo Gonzalez, an Argentine who lives in Mexico City. And lots of it, including rice, keys, balloons and devalued currency.
Like quilters who assemble bed covers from scraps of cloth or the late French artist Arman, who made sculptures and wall pieces from slews of paint tubes, door handles and faucets, the artists require large quantities of a particular kind of unorthodox stuff to do their work. Whether the impulse comes from need or desire, it produces distinctive artworks all over the world.
Consider El Anatsui, a leading African artist who was born in Ghana and lives in Nsukka, Nigeria. Laboring under the conviction that "artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up," he stitches together hundreds of liquor bottle tops and flattened food tins in monumental metal tapestries, often likened to strip-woven kente cloth from his homeland. He also erects sculptures from food graters and evaporated-milk containers. With works in the collections of such institutions as San Francisco's De Young Museum and the British Museum in London and a piece in process for this year's Venice Biennale, he will open a show of eight large works next Sunday at UCLA's Fowler Museum.
"What you see in the finished product," says Fowler Director Marla C. Berns, "is such an utter transformation of the original material that you don't know what it is until you get up close and study it. And even then you don't know unless you are told."
In India, New Delhi-based artist Subodh Gupta made a hit in the 2005 Venice Biennale with a hanging tower of stainless steel cooking pots. A rising star in the international contemporary art market, he has found eager buyers for other ambitious concoctions, including an enormous skull and a miniature city made of shiny metal kitchen gear.
In China, Sui Jianguo, an influential figure in Beijing's booming art scene, has constructed a map of Asia with thousands of bright colored plastic toy dinosaurs. The map serves as a bed for a fiberglass likeness of Mao Tse-tung in "Sleeping Mao," the centerpiece of Sui's 2005 exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
In the United States, New Jersey-based Willie Cole -- whose work is touring the country in an exhibition lodged at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama through May 27 -- has amassed high-heeled shoes in various forms, including re-creations of traditional African sculptures (www.artsbma.org). Los Angeles-based Chris Burden designed "The Reason for the Neutron Bomb," an antiwar installation of 50,000 nickels and 50,000 matchsticks, in his early days. More recently, he has collected vintage street lights, to be installed on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Then there's the late Dan Flavin, whose installations of fluorescent light bulbs will go on view May 13 in a traveling retrospective at LACMA.
All over the place
ART made of vast quantities of unusual materials is everywhere -- especially this spring in Los Angeles.
The largest concentration is in "Poetics of the Handmade," an exhibition of works by eight Latin American artists opening next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Curator Alma Ruiz says the show evolved through her interest in processes of making art by hand, but many of the raw materials are industrial products.
Chilean artist Livia Marin, who launched her career in 1998 with a piece made of paper clips and steel wool, will be represented by "Fictions of a Use," an installation of 2,200 tubes of lipstick in 27 colors. Like tiny abstract sculptures -- with tips molded in 600 shapes -- they will be lined up on a 40-inch-tall, 12-inch-wide curved base.
"I am interested in the everyday, the banal, the pedestrian object," Marin says, "in part as they play an integral part in our lives, but also in the often-overlooked, formal and aesthetic properties of these objects." Rejecting the Pop notion of elevating common objects, as well as the irony of Duchampian "ready-mades," she works "within a more formal Minimalist agenda," but one that includes "the more 'impure' aspects of things that have been handled and used and bear a trace of a social history." Less concerned with women's use of cosmetics than "the mark of an individual on the mass-produced object," the work recognizes that "every lipstick adopts a particular shape in relation to whoever uses it," she says.