Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Transforming refuse into art

Fine Arts

Don Ross, Dandies (2004), found image, photo emulsion on Masonite. Photo: Courtesy Recology AIR Program
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The artwork produced by the Artist-in-Residence program at Recology San Francisco goes well beyond turning sows' ears into silk purses. Each year nine Bay Area artists, chosen from over 100 applicants, are provided a backstage pass to scavenge through the massive piles of discarded materials at the Public Disposal and Recycling Area, a 47-acre facility in the southern part of the city better-known as the public dump. Since it was established 16 years ago, 150 professional and student artists have participated in the AIR program, which includes a four-month residency with an on-site studio and a stipend, culminating in a three-day public exhibition. A retrospective now at SF Camerawork focuses exclusively on photography and video-based works by 22 of the program's artists who set up shop there between 2002 and the present. A staggering volume of trash essentially washed up on their doorstep each day, giving new meaning to the concept of found objects, and offering nearly limitless possibilities for invention. The show is only a microcosm of the quality and talent that has passed through Recology's doors, but it reflects the extraordinary resourcefulness and humor it takes to transform refuse into art. Everything from fake fur, pom-poms, welding rods, Styrofoam, recycled paint, old-fashioned telephones and outdated appliances to furniture and bongo drums finds its way into the work.

Among the possessions tossed away in vast numbers are once-valued snapshots. James Sansing retrieved some of them for "Missing Persons" (2009), cut out the people, leaving only their silhouettes behind, recessed the photos inside electrical boxes, and arranged them on the wall like dioramas of past lives. Although photography certainly lends itself to documenting the artists' responses to an environment that's loaded, politically, environmentally and artistically speaking, it's the videos that really snap in the context of this particular exhibition. Michael Damm's site-specific, three-channel video installation Incidental Films for an Accidental Audience, which shows nighttime commuters on public transit as perceived by passengers riding on trains alongside them, mirrors the transportation activity outside on Market Street. Projected on SFC's large streetside windows, which act as scrims, the video is viewable from the street below after dark. For reasons unrelated to the artist's intentions, the washed-out imagery of these beleaguered souls brings to mind scenes from Camus' The Plague.

Don Ross, one of a half-dozen LGBTQ artists represented in the retrospective, employs an antique process, re-photographing old photographs and printing them with a silver emulsion directly onto door panels or other materials. The texture and flaws of the surfaces become one with the imagery, suggesting photos from the turn of the century like "Dandies" (2004), a crumpled, sepia-toned, formal portrait of a well-dressed male couple printed on Masonite. Transgender artist Bill Basquin, intrigued with the decomposition of food, turned bananas, carrots and orange peels into large landscapes that he photographed and framed with repurposed wood.

Jamil Hellu, still from From Your Head to Mine (2014), video, 1 min. loop. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

During his 2014 residency, gay photographer Jamil Hellu went down a different road than one might expect given the touching, intimate portraits of his husband exhibited at Rayko Photo Center last year. In his one-minute video animation From Your Head to Mine, he maintains a sober expression while, courtesy of the marvels of rapid-fire cutting, he appears in 450 photographs wearing a range of wigs and headgear, from stovepipe hats and antlers to a Viking helmet and a leather cap. "It's about identity and the contrasting roles we have in life," explains Hellu. "I wanted to portray the multiplicity of individualities, the incredible amount of different types of people who are part of our society."

Kate Rhoades, a queer/lesbian artist with a punkish, cartoony sensibility and a DIY improvisational aesthetic, was into video, painting, comics and art-theory critique when she arrived at Recology earlier this year. Once there, she put on her brave boots, grabbed a shopping cart, and dug deep to come up with raw materials – mattress foam, sofa cushions, fabric, long-forgotten toys, crocheted yarn scraps, shiny Christmas ornaments and a mop dubbed "Yarno" – for Karen, a wonderfully weird, 21-minute video that imagines an amusing origin story and a name for the Junk Lady, a marginal player in Muppet master Jim Henson's fantasy film Labyrinth. Karen, whom Rhoades has described as "bitter, deceitful" and one-dimensional, makes a dramatic entrance falling from the sky, moaning as she plummets to Earth in a dizzying swirl like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, before landing on a junk heap in a puff of blue dust. After a bit of exploring, she finds her missing Dad buried under the garbage, muttering to himself and in a foul mood. The cast of Muppet-style characters acts out a melodrama of divided loyalties, personal angst, predatory money-lending – the skull & bones on the loan contract is a dead giveaway – and even takes time out for a couple of pointed swipes at the pretentions of the art world. Judging from the excerpt on view, there's trouble in puppet city.


The Photography and Video Retrospective of the Recology Artist-in-Residence Program runs through Jan. 28. On Jan. 21, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., a free shuttle bus will ferry passengers between SF Camerawork and the Recology Art Studios, where visitors can check out the current residency exhibition featuring the work of Ramekon O'Arwisters, Anja Ulfeldt and Jinmei Chi. Info:


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