Dumpster divers, repurposers, scavengers, collectors, poets. The four artists in "Celestial Ash: Assemblages from Los Angeles" at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) might also be labeled alchemists for their ability to transform base matter into precious encounter. Each makes sculptural work -- wall-mounted panels and boxes up to room-size installations -- out of prosaic, obsolete castoffs: old watches, pencils, keys, bottles, greeting cards, jigsaw puzzles, bicycle wheels.
Guest curator Kristine McKenna, longtime chronicler of L.A.'s music and art scenes, says the artists -- Exene Cervenka, Matjames, Michael C. McMillen and Gail Greenfield Randall -- are all "quiet and introspective. They're all deeply emotional. That's what they bring to these materials that transforms them. They revere what these objects represent: the past, and a kind of America that's rapidly disappearing. They treat the objects as holy relics, so that's how we read them."
The through line, McKenna says, is Joseph Cornell (1903-1972), the New York artist and filmmaker whose shadowbox assemblages housed a lifetime of dreams, memories and fixations. A single work by Cornell greets visitors to "Celestial Ash" and serves as the hub of the show. From its cracked and abraded white interior, a princely young man (Lorenzo de'Medici, from a Renaissance painting of "The Procession of the Magi" gazes wistfully over his shoulder at us.
"Cornell's work elicits such an emotional response," says McKenna. "There's such loneliness in it, and at the same time, an ecstasy, because he was so obsessed with women and seashells and all the things that ignited his imagination. His work represents both ends of the human experience -- loss and ecstatic beauty."
Like Cornell, the artists in the exhibition reorganize material reality along internal, poetic, often nostalgic lines. Though rooted in the past, their work is not necessarily melancholic. It elevates objects that have been disregarded and discarded with new value. According to McKenna, assemblage art could use the same kind of appreciative embrace. "Assemblage has always been sort of marginalized. It just kind of putters along. It's a kind of art that never goes away, but it's never on the cover of Artforum."
At CAFAM until Sept. 13, it's the main event.
Michael C. McMillen
McMillen's installation, "The Asylum of Lost Thoughts," is part theater (with mismatched chairs and a hanging screen) and part abandoned ward, its rusted bedframe bare but for a pair of cement pillows. The room is entered through two creaky doors that close behind you, thanks to a tinkling contraption involving pulleys, bicycle wheels and strings of old keys rising out of and falling back into metal buckets. For 30 years, McMillen's work in sculpture, installation and film has scavenged equally through material and psychic residue, building on the legacy of a prior generation of California assemblage artists as well as his own early experience constructing props and miniature sets for movies. .
"The nucleus for this piece was visiting the dad of a friend of mine. He's elderly and in the hospital. We were looking at the flat-screen TVs in front of every bed and my friend said, 'It's like they're watching their lives play out before them.'
"The film [projected within the installation] is like a visual poem, a compendium of all kinds of strange images I've either made myself or collected, combined in a dreamlike sequence, one flowing into the other. It deals with time and the past, and by implication the future, and the interface between those states, which is always changing.
"Some of the films are educational films that have been deconstructed and combined with other films, like recombinant DNA, where strange new forms come out of old familiar ones. Some of the images in the film are images you might see in the room, so there's a resonance between the two-dimensional space and the space you're in.
"I've always been a collector of things, trying to recombine them into new things. It started when I was a little kid. I would patrol the alleys of Santa Monica, looking for stuff. A lifelong habit, I'm afraid. I've been fascinated by the way things go from A to Z, the history of their existence, how objects change. Maybe, without being too morbid, it's a meditation on mortality, a contemplation of that."