Reusables art

The use of found materials in art has a double legacy. Rooted in popular, folk and non-“Western” traditions, the practice has nevertheless, since the early 20th century, gone mainstream. Cubists Picasso and Georges Braque reinvented collage as a way of disrupting European painting, with its tendency to seamless illusion. Picasso’s experiments incorporating found objects into sculpture lead the way for what became known as assemblage. Practitioners as diverse as the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, mid-century provocateur Robert Rauschenberg, and contemporary installation artists Judy Pfaff and Sarah Sze have created diverse work incorporating the signs and textures of everyday life into abstract-leaning art.

Curated by local photographer Robyn Wishna, “Celebrate ReUse 2” is a partnership between the Tompkins County Public Library and the Ithaca ReUse Center. ReUse, with its ethical commitment to repurposing, is an ideal partner. Rather than taking an overtly polemical stance, the work here seeks to honor this ethos through the imaginative use of things overlooked. Occupying the library’s “Avenue of the Friends,” the exhibit combines wall-mounted and freestanding pieces with smaller works confined in glass cases.

Local thematic group shows are invariable mixed. Efforts highlighting scavenged materials and environmentalism are a draw for artists whose enthusiasm outstrips their skill or knowledge. Although most of the work here is moderately well-realized or better, a few works here do recall grade school “art projects.” This uncomfortable mix of accomplishment and amateurism is typical of shows at the public library.

Working primarily in wood, both Victoria Romanoff and Paul Colucci are accomplished, witty assemblagists—two of Ithaca’s best. Romanoff is a long-time hero of the local historical preservation movement. Her large wall-relief here, “Carlo Ponzi’s Private Investment Portfolio” is characteristically dense and dizzying with its elaborate grid of slats, inchoate patches of paint, as well as gears and other steel bits.

Colucci has several pieces, sadly confined to the cases. Made of metal roofing and wood scraps, “Vase” is painted with three closely-grouped figures, combining the rough and the delicate. “Face Sculpture” recalls Cubism and Dada with its geometric reduction of the human figure and areas of bold color.

A persistent challenge for collage and assemblage is the need to both honor and transcend the found elements of the work. The transformations affected the count but so too do the kind of things selected. On one hand, there are risks that come with choosing materials that are overly precious or rare. On the other, the use of particular banal and commonplace ones becomes challenging to overcome.

Comparing work here by Alice Gant and Teresa Yatsko is instructive. Gant, a tapestry and quilt artist, is at her strongest in a pair of overscaled, irregularly-shaped “quilts” made out of security envelopes. Both the map-like “Landscape Security” and the oddly floral “Enveloping Cloud” make compelling use of the rich textures of her chosen medium. However her stuffed paper heart “Valentine for Dr. Mausser,” with its magenta fringe and patchwork of blood pressure readings is a one-liner—however harrowing the experience it seems intended to memorialize.

Yatsko intricately alters antique books, incorporating additional collaged images and text as well as natural materials such as sticks and lichen. Pieces here such as “Sailboat” and “Drummer” here recall some of Joseph Cornell’s famous boxes, with their fairytale delicacy and private obsession. Her craftsmanship is impeccable, her imaginative vision clearly realized. Still, her sensibility will be fully embraced only by some.

Alice Muhlback is one of Ithaca’s best-loved artists: a talented, if sometimes cloying cartoonist, and a prodigious illustrator and sign artist. Straight painting is not her forte. Her two painted wood reliefs here show her at her best. A white frame is incorporated into “groundlessness,” made from a shipping crate lid spotted in pale blue and yellow-green. Mostly pale wood and Masonite scraps aim for Miró-like whimsy: a see-saw beam rests on a pointy fulcrum while a tiny red heart seems to emit from its right edge. A wide crimson bar supports, in the center, a beige cartoon creature in the sign-like “bird.”

This is an interesting, occasionally gripping presentation of the varieties of art being made around Ithaca from reappropriated materials. Hardly “shifting the paradigm,” either artistically or in terms of a reuse ethic, this though is familiar territory for attentive followers of local art.•

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