Making the mundane marvellous

A dramatic rise in an art of the everyday reveals new tendencies ... and a startlingly different expectation of the viewer

Amid the hype and glitz that characterizes much of today's art world, some prefer to keep things simple.

In contrast to the big-budget art productions of yesteryear, it's a trend that relies on the humblest materials to make an artistic point. An Arte Povera for the 21st century which, at its most radical, demands entirely new expectations of the viewing audience.

Low-budget constituents don't necessarily equate to low-key art, however as New York artist Phoebe Washburn's imposing installations make clear.

contemporary art - Phoebe Washburn

Constructed principally of salvaged cardboard and wood, Washburn's sprawling architectonic structures are assembled directly in the gallery space, dramatically underlining the creative potential of abandoned resources.

While her practice seems to point towards recycling as a major concern, Washburn in fact distances herself from this notion, claiming that she's simply attracted by the easy abundance and distinctive appearance of her chosen materials.

Yet her work often displays an inherent practicality that draws it tantalizingly close to the realm of architectural function.

True, False and Slightly Better (above) serves as an inviting viewing platform, while It Makes for My Billionaire Status (below) doubles as an indoor oasis, its rickety terraces sprouting a lush profusion of grasses and plants.

contemporary art - Phoebe Washburn
images © Phoebe Washburn

More recent works actively invite participation through the incorporation of pools and gently bubbling water in colorful, explorable environments.

Fulfilling both a visual and communal purpose, Washburn's work hints at a multiplicity of 'real life' possibilities for the abandoned materials she favors.


Björn Dahlem

Björn Dahlem - contemporary art

Drawing inspiration from cosmology, scientific modeling and philosophy, the monumental scale of much of Björn Dahlem's work is in keeping with his epic attempts to render complex thought in concrete form. Like Washburn, the German artist employs salvaged materials such as timber, scraps of carpet and styrofoam for his sculptures and installations: Milky Way (left), for example, consists of little more than untreated lumber studded with fluorescent lights.

Yet while its sprawling proliferation spectacularly evokes a mathematically structured and potentially infinite mapping of space, here, as in all Dahlem's works, it's the incongruity between his grand designs and their simple, almost banal, components that resonates with most force.

At one level the artist seems to infer that all systems, whether cosmological or philosophical, are nothing more than masterful re-arrangements of basic constituents; yet it's essential to note that Dahlem adapts his sources with lashings of artistic licence, a ramshackle rather than rigorous application of science.

Bjorn Dahlem -contemporary artists
images © Björn Dahlem

While titles of works such as Solaris or Schwarzes Loch (Black Hole) seem earnest enough, the pseudo-Latin of Homunculus Samurai hints strongly at a playful academic simulation, an assumption verified by the work itself.

And if proof were needed that Dahlem's practice half-conceals a substantial element of burlesque, the visual gag of a bottle of milk in Milky Way provides confirmation.

In fact, despite the apparently erudite ambition of his work, it could almost be said that Dahlem's recycling of western thought veers very close to actually trashing it.

A perfect analogy to his strategy of recycling trash for the production of (ironically) high art.


Simple arrangements, complex conceits

While both Dahlem and Washburn employ salvaged or simple materials to add varying degrees of resonance to their work, these components, though undisguised, remain constituents in a very particular vision.

Altered and re-processed, they become - almost paradoxically - players in high impact visual extravaganzas.

By contrast, a quieter, less mannered tendency reduces artistic intervention to a minimum specifically to place maximum emphasis on the materials themselves.


art of the ordinary: continued >

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