The more our world fills up with junk, the more artists make supplies out of the detritus of our society. So many artists are working with found object media now that there are sub-classifications within the genre. There are artists who gather their material from dumpsters or trash thrown out at the curb, distinguished from the artists who go to antique stores and flea markets to find a finer kind of junk. Then there are artists who would prefer to use junk with a sort of personal connection to it and use only the refuse of their own lives.
In its exhibition “MASS assembly MASS production MASS appeal,” on view at the Paul Robeson Center for the Arts through Saturday, June 7, the Arts Council of Princeton is focusing on art constructed of objects that have been mass-produced — televisions, water bottles, plastic toys, and figurines. A discussion with the artists takes place Saturday, May 31, at 1 p.m.
“Stuff — it’s everywhere,” writes Arts Council artistic director Maria Evans in her introduction to the catalog. “In our attics, garages, basements. Drawers, closets overflowing with it, so that neither can be closed. And for artists, it’s even more acute, because they are given fabric, spools, brushes, and toys by generous souls anticipating these will be used in future masterworks. Toys, keys, machine parts begin to form nests in studios.
“In our mass-produced, throw-away society, mixed media artists are the ultimate recyclers, living in a world of endless art supplies,” continues Evans. “Water bottles, cable ties, things we all recognize because there are so many lying on the ground everywhere. We even recycle them into rugs.”
Evans and the Arts Council exhibition committee selected a group of four artists who collect ephemera and use it in a way that adds new meaning and value to our cultural landscape.
Willie Cole has been working with mass-produced plastic objects since his boyhood in the 1960s. On a dollar-a-week allowance, the Newark native visited S. Klein’s Department Store and bought model kits of plastic cars and superheroes. He would start putting them together according to the directions but make them his own by adding thread, beads, toothpicks, straws, and the plastic apparatus that held the parts together in the kit.
Ever since Cole was three, his parents referred to him as “the little artist,” and Cole considers his father — a mechanic for American Cyanamid who took things apart and put them back together — a strong influence. Willie went to art camp in Somerville, where his grandmother lived, and went to an art high school in Newark.
After studying fashion design, graphic design and fine arts at the School of Visual Arts and Boston University — Cole was also involved in theater, writing, acting, and directing — he continued his studies at Art Students League, learning anatomy.
For many years, while earning a living as a graphic designer, Cole worked in pencil, but when his own son turned 11 and had amassed a sneaker collection, Cole got the idea to go to a thrift shop and collect women’s shoes — preferable to sneakers because the heels could represent, for example, teeth. The artist began using matches and bicycle and toilet parts as the building blocks for his sculpture.
The objects Cole uses in multiples help to distinguish him from other assemblage artists. Though not on view here, he has made works based on the clothes iron, a reference to slavery, women’s work, and oppression. He first discovered an iron that had been run over in the street and has printed textiles with scorched irons, suggesting African fabrics, as well as beasts and faces from the iron. “When a piece gets to a point where all the parts are put together in the right way, it has a power of its own, and you know not to mess with it,” he has said.
Water bottles especially excite him. He’s made automobiles, complete with motors, out of plastic water bottles. Here at the Arts Council is his “Buddha Chandelier,” made from 2,000 Poland Spring water bottles, each having a Buddha inside. Each bottle contains a pink or gold image of a Buddha printed on clear nylon film. Cole practiced Buddhism for many years and continues to live by the Buddhist principle of oneness — the belief that all things are connected.
The chandelier was wrapped in shrink wrap when it first arrived in Princeton, looking like a giant tornado suspended in its crate, and had to be unveiled like a mummy, Evans said. It was still dripping from the massive rain storm earlier that week.
Valerie Young, a Hopewell artist, puts together cultural icons to create unexpected conversations. “Superman Leaving Home” has an action figure of the superhero from Krypton bursting out of the confines of a mid-century television console. Bronze baby shoe bookends, a Damon Runyon paperback, and a fly swatter help to convey the era when Superman was king.
In Young’s “Opus 30,” wind instruments, watch parts, bulbs, and balls become a nocturnal scene in a universe of twinkling orbs.
Evans knew Princeton resident Andy Epstein from having seen his work at Small World Coffee about a year ago. “It’s fun to look at and remember what all the components were,” Evans says. She had so much fun laying out Epstein’s assemblages of intricate details, she not only filled a wall with them but had them spill out into the lobby, along with other artwork that couldn’t be contained.
Epstein’s assemblages share a quality with the boxes of mid century artist Joseph Cornell, with suspended orbs and mysterious minutiae — tiny bottles, springs, thread spools, razor blades, dice, computer keys, buttons, objects from nature (leaves, shells, pine cones, maple seedling), paint brushes, toys, and electronic parts. His titles add to the mystique, with a suggestion of science: “Archival Lapse of Reason,” “The Mechanics of Presence,” “Game of Chances,” “The Calculus of Metaphors.”
Donna Payton’s installations use everything from straw wreaths and ping-pong balls to papered balloons and carpet spools. Her “For Whom the Bell Tolls” includes what looks like a small plastic garment, but is made from polymer medium that Payton has poured onto butcher paper and embedded with tiny rubber bands.
Payton — known to Evans as an energetic teacher at both the West Windsor and Princeton arts councils — arrives at the gallery with a single earring, made from a skeleton key, dangling from a lobe. Behind her, in a work of fiber titled “Soul Key,” are the 191 other keys in her collection of 192.
As we speak, music can be heard in the gallery, emanating from Payton’s “Dancing Shoes.” The music was composed for the piece by James Birnbaum, an attorney and collector of Payton’s work. The sculpture includes a circle of dangling brass shoes. Birnbaum recorded the jangling of those shoes and electronified the sound. Another work uses music created by her son, Jason.
“I’m a material girl,” Payton says, explaining her love for non-traditional objects instead of paint. The key collection came from her grandfather, a builder and contractor for Woolworth’s in the mid-1900s. “He was an organized hoarder, like me,” says Payton, whose collections are neatly shelved in labeled boxes in her Millstone studio.
But whereas Payton’s grandfather collected these objects for strictly utilitarian purposes, Payton uses these for sculpture. “I collect because of history, or the appeal of form, shape and color, and how easy it is to attach things to one another,” she says.
So what is “Soul Key” all about? “Everyone is looking for the key to happiness, success, love, friendship, a good job, attracting a soul mate,” says Payton. “We’re all trying to fit different locks, or maybe there is a universal key. That’s why there are different religious philosophies and beliefs. Everyone is searching for the answer, the key.”
Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, where her father was a cookie salesman for the Schulze and Burch Biscuit Company and her mother an artist, Payton moved to Freehold in 1984 when her husband, Howard Rosenstein, a radiologist, got a job at Center State Hospital. They met in California when she was getting her master’s degree in painting and sculpting from Otis Art Institute.
Both parents loved being out in nature and took their daughter on camping trips that inspired her. “I was doing Andy Goldsworthy-type art, arranging rocks and floating flowers on water,” she says of using found natural shapes.
For “Rapt Tower,” a totem, Payton used the end of carpeting being thrown out. “It was a tangled mass. I took it home, put one-by-threes together and the wrapping, and put a gnarly knot of a tree at the top. I can’t let scrap go,” says the artist. “Even scraps of scraps I give to students to use.”
The artists of “MASS,” writes Evans, get their ideas “like crows drawn to that irresistible shiny object” — a point for conversation on art made from the stuff that is everywhere.
MASS Assembly, Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Saturday, June 7.
Gallery talk with “MASS assembly” curator Maria Evans, Saturday, May 31, 1 p.m. Free. 609-924-8777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.