The art of recycled trash


By Tequila Minsky

Appealing pieces with a political point

N’Cognita is a longtime Soho resident, visual and performance artist, political and art activist who has also been curating group exhibitions of detritus art for 11 years. “Art from Detritus: Recycling with Imagination” opened on Earth Day at the Synagogue for the Arts Gallery, 49 White St., billed as a show to save the planet—exhibiting the works of over 40 artists who make art from trash.

And trash is the medium it is—from salvaged wood, pottery shards, wrappings and labels, a found-again wood saw, cast off artifacts, rusted metal, cardboard and plastics—the whole junk heap is incorporated somewhere in someone’s art piece. All the meanings of the word detritus: debris and discards, leavings and leftovers, encompass the purpose of these exhibitions.

N’Cognita comments, “These artists who use trash as their primary media are helping to save the planet through their art making. It becomes more and more important as our landfills become overloaded and our air, water and earth become more polluted.

As we consume and deplete our resources, our environment and our planet, we affect our very existence in a negative way. As we consume and discard packaging, buy new rather than repair, we are gluttonous to the extreme and aiding in our own demise.”

At a recent slide show/discussion at the Gallery some exhibiting artists spoke about their work. From discarded burlap bags filled with spices found on the streets of Dumbo, Ursula Clark created aromatic installations with mounds of coriander and cumin seeds and peppercorns. Susan Newmark, visual arts director of the Henry Street Settlement, showed slides of her artist-made books in which she incorporates shells and beach glass on the pages of her photos of Long Island beaches. Metal welder/sculptor Barbara Lubliner uses “finds too good to throw away.” Her vigilant circle of the like-minded contribute their finds to her stash from which she selects the shapes for imaginative works, a long chunk of metal is retrieved from Central Park, her father handed over the worn faucet from the basement of the family home. Many a window guard has found its way under her torch.

Since artists have been using “found” materials forever, what makes this different?

Artists often recycle materials to save money. N’Cognita remembers, “After the second or third year of doing these shows, there were those who said, ‘it’s an old idea’ and in the Art World ‘the shock of the new’ is what commercial galleries and big time collectors often desire. It gives them a sense of being at the front of fashion.”

What better way to lessen the trash but to comb through it for art? What better way to save the environment than by re-using our discards and transforming them into treasure, to turn the valueless into the valuable and invest in our future? Beyond fame, fortune and monetary pleasure you know the worth of what is meaningful and done with purpose.

Coordinator Marilyn Sontag of the Gallery, which is hosting the Detritus show for a second year, said, “People are intrigued by the art—from trash into treasures and the juxtaposition of objects and concepts, amusing and intellectual and a way of looking at the world that helps move it into a positive direction—art to save the planet.” The Gallery is housed in the ground floor of what was previously called the White Street Synagogue, known for its unusual architecture. Visiting architects and students who come to see the architecture also check out the art. The Detritus Show just recently closed.

The second exhibition along these lines was the one-artist show, “The Endless Junkmail Scroll, ” at Gallery Onetwentyeight, 128 Rivington. The installation which just closed recently was Vernita N’Cognita’s solution to dealing with all that mail that tries to make us borrow money, open up new charge accounts or accept services we have no need for. Begun nearly a decade ago conceptually, the artist worked on it for the past year creating over 100 feet since the beginning of 2004 which has become an endless stream of large format junk mail, a seemingly nimbus strip snaking around and through the gallery.

Using “security envelopes,” those with patterned linings of blue and green as a base, the artist has applied fragments of paint, words, drawings and photographs shown as a collage installation. N’Cognita expounds on this piece, “The mail we receive is endless, we are in information overload and 21st century America is very complex.” The artist sets no boundaries on her source materials from abstract representations of experience to impulses of moments. Fragments of this piece (for sale) are available by the linear inch.

On May 12 and 13th the artist performed with gallery owner, Kazuko Miyamoto and guitarist Sean Carolan amidst the snaking collage of mail and its tapestry of textures and symbolic meanings.

Mcoming soon:

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