Its said that art is in the eye of the beholder. But if you really open your eyes, art is everywhere, not just on gallery walls. Thats the point behind the found-art exhibit Art Without Artists, one of a trio of shows on display at N.C. States Gregg Museum of Art & Design through Dec. 16.
Its part natural, part accidental and part industrial, said museum director Roger Manley, co-curator of the exhibit. I hope people will walk out from seeing this and start looking at the world around them differently, because art really is everywhere.
Art Without Artists consists of several hundred artifacts, none of which were made specifically as art objects, and it does require a bit of a mental adjustment. But once you make that leap, its compelling demonstration of how everything from sawfish bills to gas masks can manifest as art.
Theres a scarecrow made by a blind man, which is angular enough to pass for something Pablo Picasso might have conjured up. A spindle-full of ancient drug-store prescription receipts ceased being just a pile of paper long ago and became a cylinder, which is on display. And a well-worn bulletin board from a different floor of N.C. States Talley Student Center has been transformed by left-behind staples and paper scraps into an abstract mosaic.
Our main criteria was to go for objects capable of flipping, Manley said. You know, you see them as one thing, but then you change perspective and they can be thought of as art. That bulletin board, for example, is still a bulletin board. Its only the location thats changed. Everything in this exhibit was made for some other purpose.
The theory behind Art Without Artists dates back to the early years of the 20th century, when the French artist Marcel Duchamp codified the concept of found art. In his most famous (or infamous) example, Duchamp bought a urinal from a hardware store, signed it with the pseudonym M. Mutt and displayed it on a pedestal, declaring it a piece of art.
While that caused great controversy at the time, the notion of found art is much more accepted today. Similar curatorial impulses drive hip-hop and deejay culture, in which the art involves how you integrate and juxtapose different records and sounds. And related threads run through the other two installations running alongside Art Without Artists at Gregg.
Bryant Hosenbecks Streaming: New Art From Old Bottles uses thousands upon thousands of empty bottles and caps arranged into patterns, provoking thoughts and dialogue about our throwaway society.
This is a way of dealing with stuff we usually transfer, Holsenbeck said. Theres a big away to our culture we throw things away. And because we have a good infrastructure and money to buy more things, we can hide them. But were leaving a lot for our kids to process.
Also showing is Spirit Fire Shake! As assembled by three different artists, it consists of a variety of altars and shrines wrought from mostly everyday materials, including discarded furniture and appliances.
That gives this trio of exhibits the feel of a unit, but it turned out that way more by coincidence than design.
Once these three were all lined up, it became obvious, Manley said. But it was not intentional, at least not at first. That seems to happen a lot. Start putting together a show on horticulture, say, and you start noticing everything to do with shrubbery very quickly. It feels like things popping out, but its just that were bombarded with stuff all the time and only pay attention to some of it.
You could also say that Art Without Artists stands as homage to both human ingenuity and the planets most powerful creative force of all, Mother Nature. Some of the exhibits most striking pieces are the most weatherbeaten, such as a plaster human head that looks like its been turned to coral from exposure to rain or a wooden pine knot in the shape of a bird.
Weathering seems to give things a patina, which is a very old idea, Manley said. The ancient Greeks used to do that to statues because theres nothing that looks more unnatural than freshly cast bronze. Statues look like C-3PO from Star Wars, very cold and off-putting. So the Greeks would rub animal urine on bronzes to darken them up.
Manley contributed a few items to Art Without Artists, and he admits hes a bit of a packrat. He lives in a house that looks like an alchemists lab, with decor dominated by a mounted bear skeleton he found some years back while foraging for cardboard boxes in a dumpster.
But thats nothing compared to Manleys co-curator, John Foster, a Winston-Salem native and East Carolina University alumnus. A longtime collector of outsider art, Foster provided the bulk of the items in Art Without Artists from his collection.
The scary part is that it doesnt look like anythings actually gone from my house, said Foster, who lives in St. Louis. I guess you could say its like a self-healing wound that just fills back up. Whenever something goes away, I pull stuff out of storage and out of closets or from behind sofas. Then when stuff comes back, well, Im stuck. But collectors never worry about where something will go. They just want to own, live with and experience it. My house looks like a museum. Not that its in order, but I want to be around my art. Fortunately, my wife and children are very tolerant.
The way Foster sees it, though, even people who arent collectors are collecting art whether they realize it or not. Theres probably plenty of art wherever you live. All you have to do is choose to see it that way.
Nothing in this show was made to be art, Foster said. It was all made for other purposes. Thats a key thesis to the whole show. The things we selected, it does feel like youre looking at art just from the presentation. Its an unconventional way of looking at the world. But if you keep your eyes open, the world is full of things with great design and beauty. Its all just in how you look at it. And if you present it to the world as art, it can transcend its original purpose.
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