Found Art

Artists recycle trash into treasure for Tohono Chul Park's latest show

Robin White has a question about her own art: "Can She Make a Basket Out of Anything?"

She answers it herself in a weaving of the same name. And the answer is yes, nine times over.

White's "Can She Make a Basket," exhibited in the big summer show at Tohono Chul, Re-Visions: Art Made From Reclaimed Materials, lists no fewer than nine ingredients. Count 'em: Soda bottles, bus schedules, stockings, grocery bags, produce ties, coat hangers, produce bags, beading wire and newspaper-bundling twine.

White has woven this trash into a wonderful flat basket, deliciously colored and surprisingly controlled. Its complicated circular design would be reminiscent of Tohono O'Odham works if only it were made of desert plants in black and beige. Instead, White's recyclables have given her a striking palette of green, yellow, white and maroon. Beige strands made of strings and bags twisted into braids hold together this rainbow of commercially printed colors.

Somehow, like most of the pieces in this entertaining show, "Can She Make a Basket" works as art. Joan Davidson, another artist who finds her materials at the grocery store, even makes an art-historical allusion with fruit labels. Her "Rose Window" is made up of no fewer than 565 labels peeled off fruits from apples to plums, and re-stuck onto a sheet of paper into an elegant composition. It apes the windows of the great cathedrals of Europe, its little stickies in blue, yellow, green and pink subbing for luminous fragments of stained glass.

Nowadays, hardly anyone seriously challenges the idea that art has to be made of oil paint and canvas, or marble or bronze, to count. At this point, found objects now have a respectably long art history of their own--think Picasso's bicycle-seat bull and Duchamp's ready-made bicycle wheel--as curator Peggy Hazard points out in her gallery notes.

But what's interesting about this invitational show is its confluence of artists. Some lean toward cutting-edge contemporary, and others are folky artists who hail from the backyard workshop. Their starting points are quite different, but they find common ground in rusted bolts and twisty wire, in kitchen spoons and bicycle spokes.

Beata Wehr would fall roughly into the contemporary category. She's previously exhibited abstract oil paintings; this time around, she checks in with a couple of sophisticated artist books. Her "Panta Rhei" is an accordion book, with wavy black stripes inked across its folded pages. But it also has weird little rusty metal objects delicately sewn onto the paper in linen thread. It's impossible to tell what function these metal circles and ovals once served; looking like they might have come from some 19th-century stable, they evoke memory and lost time.

It's these metal souvenirs of the past that put Wehr in company with Jerry Hall, the outsider artist whose wild sculptures have taken over his front yard in midtown Tucson near Salpointe High School.

Hall's "Wake Up Call" has a materials list at least as interesting as White's, if shorter. Ceiling fan parts, a motorcycle horn and car bumpers have all gone into his charming gilded chicken. At one end, a big tail splays out of this noisy rooster; at the other end, the far side of his beak, that big motorcycle horn is ready to honk. If Hall's visual joke is less intellectually fraught than Wehr's delicate book, both artists make the same point: If you look hard enough, you can find art--or its makings--anywhere.

Barbara Brandel, who used to be best known for her lovely art clothing, hand-woven in gorgeous silks, now finds art in the button box. She looks for eccentric buttons at yard sales and junk shops, coming up with button styles ranging from bejeweled and antique to sleek and modernist. She puts these colorful buttons at the ends of stiff colored wire affixed to metal screens, making wall sculptures that elliptically allude to gardens.

Her "Garden IV" has buttons in the green family sprouting on green wires. "Garden XII" tends toward red-copper wire and buttons in brown. "Garden V" is like a smartly dressed lady of the 1950s, all black, white and red.

Royce Davenport, a former art director of the Tucson Weekly, lassoed a splintered old fence post as a spine for his lively "Ju-Ju Man." Borrowed from its permanent home at an elementary school, where it undoubtedly delights the kids, "Ju-Ju Man" is a cheerful concoction of discarded curly wires and sheet metal. He waves his painted metal arms and dances on his painted metal legs. Coils spring out of his head to make a beard, and washers and whatnots form his face.

Most of the Re-Visions work suggests that in a time of overconsumption, it's not only wise but downright necessary to use what we already have, if we care at all about the planet. So it's nice to see some work by the people at BICAS, the admirable local nonprofit whose full name is Bicycle Inter-Community Art and Salvage.

Every day, these fine folks recycle broken old bikes into serviceable new rides. They teach kids to do the same, and they encourage everyone to get out of their cars and onto the bicycle saddle. It turns out they also make some fun art, out of bike parts that have outlived their traveling days.

Troy Neiman of BICAS makes a cool silvery chair out of assorted bicycle fragments, including handlebars, tire rims and spokes. Photographer John Sheedy collaborated with Kenneth Armstrong of BICAS on "Classics," a bicycle wheel-cum-photo. Right in the center of the spokes, Sheedy placed his moody black-and-white photo of a couple o' bikes leaning against a fence.

Armstrong paired up with painter Heather Woodrich for "Twilight," a nice mix of bicycle parts and oil on canvas. A red bike frame surrounds a fine little openwork sculpture of silvery bike parts. In the center is a tiny painting of two people walking a bike into the Tucson sunset, the city's transportation woes left behind. "Twilight" may not be quite up to the level of the bike-inspired Picasso and Duchamp, but it's an appealing Re-Vision of what's possible.