From Rick Fausto's Oil series. Photo courtesy Chris Lee Photographic
From Rick Fausto's Oil series. Photo courtesy Chris Lee Photographic

The Alchemist

Rick Frausto hates big cars, Big Oil, big corporations and big government—the Bush administration, in which the first three out of four intersect—and he says so plainly in his new exhibition, "Oil Elastic—World of Plastic," at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. It's better, in fact, when Frausto doesn't tell you so quite so loudly or obviously: when he steps back from the pop culture that threatens to overwhelm his work, from the pictures of Bush, the Mickey Mouse toys and The 700 Club emblems, and lets anonymous sun-bleached hanks of rope, weary buoys and nurdles do the talking.

Nurdles, Frausto tells me—on his patio in Long Beach, where he's working up Plastic Hurricane, one of the last pieces in the show—are tiny, Nerds-sized pellets of raw plastic: just one more way we're killing ourselves. Whenever, wherever they're shipped in raw form, on open rail cars, gravity and the wind always steal them away into storm drains and out to sea. Only a few thousand of these tiny, grayish-white pellets ever get reclaimed, says the artist, who got a huge container of them from the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which pulled these out of the Pacific. The rest, he says, are still out there—coming soon to a beach near you.

"They're everywhere, especially if you're walking the beach in Orange County. There's six pounds of them per one pound of zoo plankton, in [any] one-mile radius of the ocean," Frausto says, hefting the container of nurdles from Algalita. "And fish are feeding on this." Which is why Frausto, 33—a liberal and lifelong recycler—makes his art: because we soil ourselves with so much that we could keep. In his hands, our trash lives again as dark assemblages of baking tins, toy parts, electrical tubes and insulators, googly eyes, old vacuum cleaners, chewed-up dress shoes, interesting bottle caps, can lids, bedsprings and old trophies. And it speaks for him.

"Marching and carrying signs—I can't do that. That's not me," he says. This is his activism. It doesn't need a police escort, as marchers in Santa Ana did May 1, and it's easier and perhaps more fun to look at—though perhaps not as memorable as a wave of workers marching down Broadway. Frausto's work is—or, at least, it has been—a guilty pleasure, a trip into memory courtesy of one of those Kenmore rocket pack vacuums you'll see in the show. But in "Oil Elastic," you'll see his reliance on pop begin to lessen.

The installation sweeps you first through its Degeneration phase and all our cultural excesses, and it is every bit as kitschy as Frausto has ever been. There's our fossil fuel fixation—the rusty, oozing oil cans of The Oil Series (all handmade, even the ooze); our pop culture predilection (the trailer-living family of Kalifornia—fashioned from Mickey Mouse parts); and our acquiescence to authority—represented by the dominion of Frausto's tiny robot, Berzerko. Look closely, and you see that he's wearing a 700 Club belt buckle and is run by a man inside: George W. Bush, who peers out a hatch in his chest. Get it? Yeah, you get it.

Frausto's better works are more opaque. Detained is a small, metallic, wall-hung piece which you nearly miss, until you see a tiny, pitiful, clay hand—vaguely Alien Autopsy—reaching out from the small, square jail cell window at its center. There's no explanation with it, but after Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, none is needed. People Before Profits, an ancient doll face smashed to bits, then reglued flat, is definite pop, with its huge blue eyes. But its destruction renders it unrecognizable, forever fragmented, forcing you to make a connection not based on your own past. This is good.

Frausto keeps up the pressure on your mind as you leave Degeneration through a curtain of wire-hung spider plants, for Regeneration—and realize you've just walked through an installation: The Malamadres Series, which divides the two areas, and is perhaps his best work here. Comprising spider plants—their Mexican name, he says, means "bad mothers"—floating, sprouted, in reused pharmaceutical tubes of varying sizes, it is the perfect synthesis of the dead parts he's spent his life reviving, with living, organic matter. And it feels like a new life for him and his art—one that could take him beyond the world of rusty bedsprings and mushroom-shaped radio tubes.

"You know," he says, "what I'm interested in is watching them grow—the root systems, the colors of glass, the lighting. It's like alchemy."



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