For contemporary artists who work in the medium of discarded, found or recycled objects and materials, the most obvious theme is transformation. Whether it's the transformation of utilitarian objects into sculpture or fabric scraps into a quilt, the allure of "found" art lies in seeing a new value, perspective or form emerge from the ordinary, the banal. Dada is arguably an influence here Marcel Duchamp is credited with this quote: "It is necessary to arrive at selecting an object with the idea of not being impressed by this object on the basis of enjoyment of any order. However, it is difficult to select an object that absolutely does not interest youwhich does not have any chance of becoming attractive or beautiful and which is neither pleasant to look at nor particularly ugly." But Duchamp's "readymades," like his 1917 Fountain (the famous urinal), were meant as "anti-art," not aspiring to anything but exactly what they were. It was the way the boring objects were displayed that addressed their aesthetic auras. Viewing "Transformation 5: Contemporary Works in Found Materials," it's easy to see that the artists whose works are displayed are obsessively occupied with the "stuff" they convert into art. And here, it's definitely in the folk-art category. But it's not the category that includes the cheesy beer-can airplanes and marble kaleidoscopes seen at street fairs.
"Transformation 5" is a juried exhibition of 30 artists who competed for the prestigious Elizabeth R. Raphael Founders Prize, which recognizes excellence in the field of contemporary craft. The finalists were selected based on "innovation, technique, high-quality execution, and, above all, the degree to which their work challenged and moved viewers beyond their own frames of reference in terms of found materials," according to the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft.
The show includes decorative pieces, like Sharon McCartney's series of fabric collages, which overlap mostly green and gray tones and feel very countrified with their recurring bird imagery and lacy edges. The best quilt-inspired piece is Arturo Alonzo Sandoval's Pattern Fusion No. 4. The card on the wall says it was created using "fiber," but the main element is clearly discarded film. Up close, images of documents and newspaper are visible. It's like a celluloid quilt made of microfiche.
"Transformation 5: Contemporary Works in Found Materials"
Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, 4848 Main, 713-529-4848.
Through June 17.
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There's also wonderful kitsch, like two "robot" sculptures: Toby A. Fraley's Feather Flite Robot and Linda and Opie O'Brien's The Emperor's Scribe. Fraley's is the more space-age one, with its jet-pack and halogen-light head and body made from discarded vacuum pieces. The O'Briens equip their (explicitly male) robot with an open-door torso filled with bric-a-brac: an old aspirin tin, printing blocks, tinker toys and pencils. Speaking of pencils, Jennifer Maestre has contributed one of the more abstract pieces with Materialize, a helmet- or hood-shaped sculpture made from hundreds of sharpened-down pencils. Talk about meticulous each pencil's eraser has been ground down to the metal, and whether pointed inward or outward, the pencils can resemble clay or sharp, spiky crystal.
The abstract pieces on display represent the best of the exhibit, because they demonstrate how fully and mysteriously these everyday objects can be manipulated. Amy Lipshie's Tomb, a strange, four-foot-tall sculpture resembling a foot, was made with woven strips of cereal boxes, beads, nylon thread and varnish. Rainbow-colored, it changes with the spectrum as one circles it. Most trippy is Randy Walker's Color Separation, a five-foot tall, rectangular, metal wall frame lined at the top and bottom with protruding threaded bolts. Spools and spools of different colored fabric thread have been pulled tight, vertically between the bolts, and when one walks left and right past the piece, color streams appear to cascade up and down the sculpture it's a mesmerizing effect. Most audacious is Parable by Jerry Bleem. The stretched and twisted hollow form has been covered in art magazine ads and then encased in staples from top to bottom. The outside emits a metallic gleam while the inside sparkles like quartz crystals.
The exhibit contains more literal works, like Robly A. Glover's Bait Necklace: Lure/Allure, a clever necklace made from silicone fishing worms that looks like it could've come from the minds of The Art Guys, and David A. Edgar's Easter Fish, a delightful "plastiquarium" denizen made from bottles of consumer cleaning product, like laundry detergent. One of the least interesting entries, Supersonic V (Silver Streak) by Robbie Barber, strangely won a Founder's Prize Honorable Mention award. The toy-like, rocket-outfitted mobile home sits atop a rusted Union Carbide drum a pedestal? Sure, it's crafty and definitely well made from found materials. It's just that the best pieces in the exhibit could be considered both craft and fine art. This one seems less transformative.
Likewise, Jim Rose's furniture pieces made from scrap steel are beautiful. (Rose was the Founder's Prize Winner.) The Shaker-inspired cupboards and drawers are magnificently made and represent arguably the best craftsmanship in the show. The natural rust patina almost imitates woodgrain. But thematically, the abstract works seemed to more elegantly demonstrate transformation. Then again, anyone who can buy his supplies at a junkyard and produce an amazing chest of drawers, like Rose, is by definition a transformer.