Garbage gallery: At Recology, turning trash into treasure

Sixty years ago, when he was the world's most prosperous and acclaimed visual artist, Pablo Picasso would walk the streets of his French neighborhood and go through garbage bins. He created scores of sculptures from objects that were discarded or otherwise neglected. Bull's Head (1943) was made from the seat and handlebars of an old bike; She-Goat (1950) from scrap metal, a wicker basket, ceramic jugs, and palm fronds; and Baboon and Young (1951) from two toy cars (formerly owned by Picasso's son), cup handles, a jug, and metal. Dumpster diving has a long and honorable tradition in the arts, but San Francisco's garbage company, Recology, has codified it in a way that is unparalleled — at least in the United States.

Every four months, a new group of artists takes up "residence" at the company's main dump by Highway 101, close to Candlestick Park. There, sculptors, painters, collagists, photographers, filmmakers, and composers sift through what Recology euphemistically calls "the waste stream." It sounds worse than it is. The artists are limited to items, bags, and boxes city residents have brought to the site, and when it comes to paints, Recology inspectors have already ensured that donations meet safety standards. The everyday trash and recycling from San Francisco homes never ends up in the artists' work — but what does is often astounding.

How about tufts of red human hair? Photographer Patrick Haywood found them at Recology in 2005, put the follicles in a white envelope, set them against a black background, and took a photo that turned the thrown-away hair into an object of mystery and beauty. Then there are the antlers sculptor Nemo Gould chanced upon in 2007. He put the appendages on parts of other found objects — an electric sander, projector, vacuum cleaner, meat grinder, motorcycle clutch lever, bandsaw, and garlic press – and created Impala, a shiny animal with wheels that would delight any kid or art aficionado.

Nemo Gould used found objects like a bandsaw to create Impala.
Nemo Gould
Nemo Gould used found objects like a bandsaw to create Impala.

These are two highlights of "Art of the Dump: Twenty Years of the Artist-in-Residency Program at Recology." Almost 100 artists have participated since the program began in 1990, more than half of whom are represented in the retrospective. Whether it's called "garbage art," "found object art," "reinvented waste," or another name, the work on display at Intersection 5M is worthy of high praise. Not only is the art wildly inventive (and often profound or funny), it also prompts visitors to reassess their own discards — and to look at the possibility of art in objects they consider valueless.

"We want to encourage people of all ages to recycle and think about their consumptive habits, [and] artists have always used recycling materials, so it's a perfect mix," program director Deborah Munk says.

Joshua Short transformed glass, wood, chain link, a hammer, a condenser motor, a small unit to cool rooms, and a Budweiser can into Emergency Ice Cold Beer — a working, plugged-in device that keeps the alcohol cold until the owner is ready to extract it by breaking the glass cover. It could even be said that Short is the Picasso of found art, since his CV includes even more impressive creations, such as a living-room-sized bomb shelter and a working grill with a "Disco Ball turntable."

Emergency is Short's only art at Intersection 5M, but "Art of the Dump" is proof that good garbage artists are ubiquitous in the Bay Area. Inevitably, their work finds a home far beyond the walls of Recology. Consider the works of two other local artists with pieces at the show.

In 2003, Packard Jennings displayed his satire of the U.S. government's terror alert system, a "Terrorist Alert Today" sign made from wood and paint he found at Recology. The alert levels included "Fictitious" and appeared on the sidewalks of San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, causing people to "do double takes and lots of rubbernecking," he recalls. After composer Nathaniel Stookey developed his Junkestra at Recology in 2007, he took the music and its instruments — bottles, mixing bowls, pans, oil drums, saws, bird cages, shopping carts, and other assorted finds — to Davies Symphony Hall, where it was performed by the San Francisco Symphony. Junkestra is now available at iTunes and Amazon.

At Intersection 5M, the audio station is directly across from the filmmakers' station, which showcases another worthwhile music-based project, Banker White's I Am Your Appetite. Beyond the array of notable background sounds (including Spanish guitar and Philip Glass-like minimalism), Appetite spotlights a man at Civic Center who wears a bread outfit and befriends pigeons and people.

While it may sound like so much artifice, "Art of the Dump" is no freakshow. These are projects by recognized artists (White's most recent work is the nationally acclaimed documentary Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars) who happen to work at San Francisco's central garbage and recycling center for four months. No other city in America has a similar program, Munk says. More than 100 people apply every year for the paid residencies, which require the artists to display their output at Recology.

The work at Intersection 5M is a highlights show that confirms what Picasso once called "the gift of metamorphosis." He was referring to found objects that are reoriented into new ones. Reimagining is what artists do every day. This filtering is more recognizable, more naked to the eye, at "Art of the Dump," which transforms the exhibit itself into an experience that is full of pleasant surprises.

 
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