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Getting lost in found-object art

Artists turn leftovers into gourmet treats for the eyes

Sculptor Jessica James Lansdon's "We Will Bury You (Hollow Monument)," on display at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is made of plastic bottles covered in a rainbow of dripped paint and sparkly string.

Sculptor Jessica James Lansdon's "We Will Bury You (Hollow Monument)," on display at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is made of plastic bottles covered in a rainbow of dripped paint and sparkly string.

“Recycling is almost a cop-out,” Troy Neiman says.

His point, that objects have a life far beyond what we usually give them, is also a kind of challenge: Be more creative.

A number of area artists, Neiman included, reincarnate found objects, finding uses for the empty plastic bottles, discarded furniture and old mufflers that fill our trash cans. For some, their work is overtly political, for others, social commentary is a byproduct. But all incite thought – about the story behind a rusted bicycle fender or the beauty of a stretched sausage casing when the light hits it just right. The found object artist asks us to consider these materials in a new way.

“The Velveteen Rabbit”
Sculptor Jessica James Lansdon is a pack rat, hoarding materials for “some day.” Many of her pieces use shiny or clear objects – pieces of tablecloths found at a thrift store, bubblewrap destined for the landfill.

“If you have a certain message you want to get across, you reflect that through the materials,” Lansdon says, adding that she’s “saving things from the wastebin” with a sense of pity.

“I really blame ‘The Velveteen Rabbit,’ ” she says. She laughs, but the ghost of the story – about objects only being real when they’re loved by humans – haunts much found-object work.

Lansdon’s “We Will Bury You (Hollow Monument),” one of her five works in the master of fine arts thesis exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, is a sort of celebration of one of most ubiquitous trashed objects of recent years. Composed largely of plastic bottles of varying sizes collected over a semester – one person’s consumption, she figures – it’s covered in layers of bright paints, drips visible. It’s pretty, something you want to touch, and is, as Lansdon says of much of her work, “celebratory.”

“I’m sort of celebrating the trash and upset with it,” she says.

Imo Baird’s studio in Rancho Linda Vista is like a safe house for objects long forgotten, items that wear their pasts in layers of rust and dirt.

“I’ll be driving along and see a muffler and think, ‘Oh, I have to have it,’ ” Baird says.

“I think of it as political for sure,” he says, scanning the second-story studio packed with sculptures composed of strollers and broken chairs, barbed wire and a dog’s medical collar. “It has to do with consumer society, the way we treat objects and just throw them away.”

He generally crafts several sculptures at a time, switching out items from his stockpile so that his pieces “are almost like families or gangs or conversations.”

Cheap and available
Baird either finds or is given the majority of his materials. He rarely goes to junkyards, because there’s no real need. So his costs are generally for tools and bonding agents such as Liquid Nails.

Neiman likely would be working with some kind of recycled materials, but because he works at Bicycle Inter-Community Action & Salvage, he makes sculptures from bike parts.

“If I was at a car junkyard, it would be car parts,” he says.

Just outside BICAS are three Neiman sculptures, including a life-sized saguaro made of bicycle rims he created with students from City High School. His large agave can pass for its real-world counterpart from afar, though Neiman crafted it of fenders and seat clamps.

The hunt is part of the fun for Alice Wilsey, who’s pursuing a bachelor of fine arts degree at UA. An installation piece she made saw her re-creating a living room with found furniture covered in her own plaster sculptures. She thanks bulky trash day for those scores and finds Dumpster diving a cheap way to feed her consumerist urges.

“The kind of constant shopping that we do is kind of filling that hunter- gatherer instinct,” she figures.

For fellow UA student Andy Steinbrink, painting on found materials “kind of all started with just me being poor. I have a lot of friends I do art with. We just started walking down alleys and finding stuff we could paint on. A lot of my art has to do with adventure and experience, so anything that gets me out of my house to skateboard or whatever” just adds another element to the work.

The real world
“I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world.”

- Robert Rauschenberg

Philip Miller started to delve into found object art in 1990 when he moved to Seal Beach, Calif. He combed the beaches, finding “artifacts from our civilization washed up onto the beach – pieces of plastic and rope, metal, bones.”

A Tucsonan since 2000, Miller now walks washes for materials, loving what sun and water exposure add.

“I’m glad it’s green, but that’s not what motivates me,” says Miller, who creates both sculptures and more two-dimensional works. Instead, it’s the aesthetics that attract him, the weathering, the muted, subtle colors.

“I just added a piece of glass to a small sculpture. It’s like an egg. It’s been sandblasted by the surf.”

Selina Littler also explores nature, but she uses organic materials – lately, sticks, that she binds together into nestlike structures with sausage casings that resemble cobwebs. Living in Rancho Linda Vista in Oracle with husband Baird, she notes that her daily surroundings lead her to use materials provided by Ma Nature. As for the sausage casings, she uses leftovers.

Her art, she says, is “about the environment, for sure. The natural world is declining in many ways. My work tries to honor nature in that way, and I fear that someday there’s not going to be much left to enjoy. . . . Through my work, I hope that people can appreciate nature more.”

Lansdon notes that found objects “have the advantage of history,” providing an entry point for the viewer. This can offer up a kind of inclusiveness, as museumgoers pause to consider when and where they’ve seen particular items before and just how they’ve been reclaimed.

Rancho Linda Vista artist Imo Baird's



Imo Baird and Selina Littler, in “40th Anniversary Celebration, Rancho Linda Vista” invitational exhibit; through May 10

Where: Davis Dominguez Gallery, 154 E. Sixth St. (629-9759, davisdominguez.com)

Jessica James Lansdon thesis exhibit, with 13 other master of fine arts candidates; through May 18

Where: UAMA, 1031 N. Olive Road (621-7567, artmuseum.arizona.edu)

Andy Steinbrink, in “Viscom Exhibition ’08″; through April 25

Where: Lionel Rombach Gallery, 1031 N. Olive Road (626-6875, http://web.cfa.arizona.edu/ galleries)

Philip Miller will have a piece in the Open Studio preview exhibit; April 30-May 8

Where: Arts Incubator Gallery, 108 E. Congress (tucsonopenstudios.com)



Create your own bicycle art, with parts and help from BICAS.

When: 4-7 p.m. Fridays

Where: 44 W. Sixth St.

Price: free

Info: 628-7950, bicas.org

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