Throw It at the Wall, See If It Sticks

Artist Skeith De Wine on the virtues of trash in art

Photo by Jack GouldSkeith De Wine might have celebrated the Sept. 30 declaration of a trash strike, might have felt his heart—and, yes, other parts of his anatomy—swell along with the rising mounds of trash in the streets and alleys of his Santa Ana neighborhood.

But by Oct. 5, the strike was over—despite apocalyptic predictions that trash haulers and their workers might not reach agreement for months. The flood of offal is ebbing, and De Wine, a 31-year-old artist, is a bit sad—happy for workers (who will get a 33 percent pay increase over the next five years) and for the public health (goodbye, cholera!), no doubt, but sad at the passing of a rare aesthetic opportunity.

Long before he ran the Smallest Art Gallery in California, De Wine knew the virtues, blessings and beauty of trash. His interest in refuse began organically in childhood and grew—festered, really—in adulthood. Five years ago, he managed 20 artists in an elephantine garbage-based project: the creation of a life-size pachyderm from castoffs he found in dumpsters, trash cans and the street. We found him preparing to open a new exhibit of his Sept. 11-themed paintings.

OC Weekly:What did that elephant look like?Skeith De Wine:It had hubcaps and pieces of paper. We found these beat-up shopping carts—they'd been hit by cars or something—which we used for the trunk. I've still got the head; it's on my doorstep. We used chain-link fence to construct the body, casters and aerosol spray cans for the eyes, and a vintage license plate for part of its hide. You've done a lot of assemblage.

Yeah, but nobody ever asks to see it, and I rarely show it. I've got this kneepad that became an African mask—there's a tear near the bottom where the foam looks like a smile; the strap holes are the eyes. I turned a coffee can into an elephant once. . . .

You're big on elephants.

Elephants are a powerful symbol because they never forget. Very important in the Hindu religion. I have a lawnmower gas can that's a great piece of art—a face that's really weathered by the elements. Old toilet paper rolls can become faces, too, and you can put several of those together for a crowd or figurines and dolls.

Where'd you get this affection for trash?

My great-grandmother; she came out of the Great Depression. I remember as a kid, I watched her, and she never threw out anything that could possibly be used again. She had one drawer with hundreds of pieces of string in it. And Mason jars all over the house like icons because they were so useful for preservatives and canning. Any container she would save and utilize again and again. The whole house was like this, with old knickknacks everywhere and nothing thrown out. Everything was sacred. Growing up, I carried that into my art.

Taking a look around your house right now, at the things you might throw out, what might you conceivably turn into art?

Well, I'll open my refrigerator and have a look. [Sucking sound of refrigerator door opening, sound of objects skittering across metal racks.] Let's see, I've got this Arizona Green Tea with ginseng and honey soda can. I could take cutters, cut that can and unroll this really beautiful logo—it's a soft pastel mint green with a beautiful Chinese cherry-blossom tree on it. I could take several, lay them on top of one another and create a beautiful painting. The logos would become the painting.

What else? I've got an old Polaroid cartridge in here. It's got, like, eyes on it where the mechanism comes into the cartridge. That's easily a piece of art. And sardine cans are great—open the can and it's a frame, and you put photos in the can.

Can you teach other people to see objects the way you do?

I can teach someone. What I do is think to myself, "What would it be like to live in a post-apocalyptic world?" Well, my house would be thrown-together pieces of wood and rope and string. There wouldn't be any art supplies, so I'd have to use whatever's immediate to the environment. Imagine an Australian bushman: he'd use whatever's available for his art—dirt, sawdust, old leaves, rocks. He's got to rely on his environment. Teaching people would mean teaching them to be like that bushman, except that they're surrounded by industrial things; their immediate environment is industrial. A thrown-out fan blade becomes a mandala.

Is there a kind of philosophical or political underpinning here?

Sure. The trash strike might have been a great thing because it would have forced some people to look at what they throw out. I throw away only what absolutely has to go in the garbage can. Something I might have once thrown away arbitrarily I'll now look at more closely to see if I could reuse it—like an old paint tray I used to paint my house. I might have thrown it away. Maybe now I'll use it again. Or maybe I'll use it for art. Keep it around for a while and just look at it, see if I begin to see some patterns, and then paint it to draw those patterns out, to see if I see an image there.

How about seeing your house as a gallery space for this sort of work?

Every person is different. Some like a new, very streamlined look; others have a quirky sensibility. But I think it's important that every person lives and thinks about the art in everything—to think beyond things as they are or seem, to see beyond what they are to the metaphorical possibilities.

Now that the threat of strike has passed, do you worry that people will go back to their dirty business as usual?

For artists, this is really a missed opportunity. Artists are always bitching about supplies and the money going into their work, so it's occasionally nice to get into something a little different and economically feasible. That's less likely to happen now.

But this is really still an opportunity to reflect on consumption, for people to consider what their trash says about them, like, "My gosh, I drink a lot of green tea." So their selection of trash reflects not only their taste palate but also their taste.

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