Is it Trash? Or is it Ikea?

Photo by James BunoanThere's an ugly gulf between art and craft that even the modernists couldn't quite resolve, and it reduces to something like this: How can you tell if something is really art, or if it just looks neat next to the sofa? It's an important question—without it, you might save a lot of money on decorating—that's eating “Recycle, Renew,” an exhibit of ill-defined “Art from Trash” at Fullerton's very well-decorated Muckenthaler, from the inside out.

Put the traditional way, craft is a material looking for an idea, and art is an idea looking for a material. Put more crassly, art is substance over style and craft is style—or to be gentler, technique—over or even without substance. Granted, that's something of a simplistic flip-flop from the simplistic premodernist dictum—to wit: art is for looking at, craft is for doing with—but it's an applicable framework for “Recycle,” which fuzzes definitions to the point of vertigo.

Look: this is 2003. Technique alone will get you a scenery-painting gig at Disneyland. And if you're going to dig something out of a Dumpster—purely a figure of speech, as nothing in “Recycle, Renew” looks or smells like it was ever anywhere near a Dumpster—and call it “art,” you better have a good reason why. Otherwise . . . you might just be a really funky decorator.

Like the best craft pieces in “Recycle,” Chris Gallup's 80 lb., 2 speed is elegant, minimal and clever, an old tomato cage stuffed with white Christmas lights and wrapped in fishing line. Lit up, it shimmers and undulates like a goldfish in a bowl—a great idea you can use in your own home! Or Jennifer Slack Rowe's untitled mod lamp—lamps make any home look great—with a lampshade plastered with old photo negatives: the low-watt bulb diffuses perfectly through tiny brown and grey portraits of naked girls, food, probably whatever was lying around the photo studio.

There's something vague there about life and mortality and image and all, sure, but that's standard critical procedure when you're looking at negatives of naked people. Again, it's just another great project for a rainy weekend. Which is fine. But maybe you hope for something more, because if all you can say about trash is that with a little ingenuity it can be useful and pretty again, well…didn't Bob Vila beat you to it? Unfortunately, this exhibit is more recycled than renewed, with a philosophy as blurry as some of those photo negatives. Director Matthew Leslie's notes nod toward a definition of trash based on the absence of desire (stuff no one wants . . .) and utility (. . . so they throw it out). But that's as slippery and fluid as anything this critic's ever found at the bottom of a Dumpster (if you must know, this critic happened to be looking for some cardboard boxes to mail records with, okay?). Distinguishing art from craft is agonizing enough; now, we've got to deal with a definition of trash—supposedly the only element common to each piece—that oozes and drips and clings and changes every time you touch it. If you can't figure out what trash is—Stuff you throw away? Stuff someone else throws away? Stuff someone else throws away but that some other someone might want, use, and cherish, if only they knew about it? Stuff that simply had a bunch of soggy Big Mac wrappers clinging to it when you found it?—then how can you make it say something?

That's why this is an exhibition demanding the instincts one exercises at the thrift store, not the museum. Perhaps that's a positive, accessible thing—it's certainly made this critic start shopping for lamps. But it generates immense waves of disorientation and dissonance within “Recycle,” dumping incompatible or even oppositional elements—everything from BioDome-y futurist feel-goodisms to goofy hippie psychedelia to earnest examination to (of course) little dolls with gunk smeared all over them—into each other like . . . like a bunch of trash.

To be fair, there's little demonstrably painful work—even Willoughby Chamberlain's grating Targets of Terror (which was at least excusably ham-handed in September 2001; two years later, it ain't getting' any sophisticateder) posits the intriguing idea of “pre-cycled” material, material that will never be used and is, therefore, a new sort of post-trash (in this case, those fucking America Online CDs). But there is a lot of confusion.

Example: Deepa Lani McNulty's “Piano Lesson” is meticulously arranged, smart, funny, and probably wondering why it's not somewhere else. With careful juxtaposition of ratty old sheet music, a Posada-esque skeleton, and plenty of shaky handwritten notation (“Play more cutely!”), this is a piece destined to show alongside Exene Cervenka's surreal diary-collages, not a dog-shaped chicken-wire skeleton filled with scruffy old tennis balls—and, actually, a nice, poetic representation of the kinetic energy of dogs (isn't it?). Because although McNulty probably did find some or all of her material in the garbage, trash art this ain't—it's just art that happens to include some found material, which is nothing new, remarkable or particularly laudable in and of itself.

“Recycle” offers only a handful of artists that really seem to grapple with trash-as-art with any degree of awareness or purpose—art that uses trash as trash to make a point about what and how we think about trash. Jason Rogenes' JPC605468E4 turns the Styrofoam chunks that keep your computers and TV sets safe during shipping into some kind of graceful aerial form; lit from within, it's not only elegant, minimal and clever, but—as director Leslie ably notes—something of a physical manifestation of negative space. And French artist Bloum's several pieces—particularly Le Cadeau and Pic-Nique, luminous psychedelic collages of logos, Cadeau apparently derived in part from layers of plastic grocery bags—are a striking representation of corporate miasma, as fascinating, intricate and ominously alive as an amoeba smeared across a microscope slide.

Together, Bloum and Rogenes use trash to make the invisible visible—in effect, to put trash into some sort of larger framework, to ask how we decide what trash is, exactly, and why we make so much of it, and how it fits into everything else in our lives. Leslie's on to something with his examinations of desire and utility—and “Recycle” would have done well to draw a line between trash and waste, which, as any garbage man will tell you, are two very different things—but it doesn't go far enough. There are opportunities here to include all sorts of topical issues—the origins and definitions of trash touch on sociopolitical questions from No Logo to 1001 Things You Can Do to Save the Earth—but very few artists in “Recycle” used them.

You can learn a lot about people by digging through their garbage, but “Recycle” doesn't dig very deep. Is it particularly art to make something discarded beautiful again? No—kindergarteners do it with paper plates, old macaroni and milk cartons every year, and they're still at the paste-eating stage. “Recycle” is a lesson in technique, not ideology. But that doesn't mean that trash can't be beautiful anyway.

Recycle, Renew: Art from Trash at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton, (714) 738-6595. Open Wed.-Sun., noon-4 p.m. Thru Oct. 5. $2-$5.

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