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Utilizing the Obsolete

Artists find new ways to work with obsolete materials

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When Adrian Kershaw found a box of old VHS tapes in a closet, she started to think about where those obsolete black rectangles would end up. She realized that thrift store shelves were already lined with tapes and that hers would probably only find a home in the trash. The idea of these old media forms resting in a landfill "just really freaked me out," the red-haired visual artist said. "It was extreme inspiration."

Kershaw decided to put her crochet and sewing skills to use. The artist, from Adrian, Ore., brushed off the dust from those tapes and ripped out the ribbon. She then crocheted the black filmy stuff into a chain. Kershaw used a basket-making technique that she learned as a child to wrap the chain on itself and then stitch the coil together, forming off-kilter vase-like sculptures, some of which are currently on display at Lisk Gallery in downtown Boise.

On a recent afternoon, Lisk Gallery director Ashley Kennedy picked up one of Kershaw's smaller pieces, pressed down and squished it. The pieces are frequently mistaken for glass and though they seem like they should be fragile, the material is more than malleable--it bounces back to its original form with impressive elasticity.

Kershaw's pieces are often lumped in with the green art movement, which is far from new. Using recycled materials to make art has been seen in abundance during recent years. Sites like greenmuseum.org and inspirationgreen.com virtually house work from artists around the world who use recycled art to comment on the environment. But while there is an inextricable connection between green art and using obsolescent items in art, there is also a definite difference.

"There's a big distinction there, between recycling and recycling the obsolete," Kershaw said.

Unlike obsolete items, materials used in recycled, or green, art aren't necessarily in danger of losing relevance in modern society. Take, for example, Corrugated, Michigan artist Ann Weber's 2009 solo show at Boise Art Museum. The exhibit made use of found cardboard, a material still used en masse in everyday life.

Boise artist Marcus Pierce also sees a distinction between green art and re-imagining the obsolete.

"With obsolete art ... we're taking from a specific period of time that will no longer exist in the future, and so it's preserving that. It has a historic basis," Pierce said. "It's something that's special in the fact that this time will never be again."

Pierce found inspiration when he saw old televisions being thrown out at an electronics repair shop. After studying the optics and physics of light, Pierce wanted to capture that layered perspective in his paintings. He extracted the screens from the unwanted TVs and used them as his canvas. While he salvaged the screens because they worked well for his process, Pierce also acknowledges the environmental benefits of reusing objects, and sees it as part of a small solution for items that can't be recycled in other ways.

"As technology shifts or things change ... we're building things that we don't have the ability to recycle the way we can with other materials. It poses new problems," Pierce said. "We've had that value of thinking green for awhile, but as different things evolve in technology we come across new problems that need to be handled."

Rachel Cope, assistant gallery director at Stewart Gallery, also couldn't deny the environmental connection in Stewart's latest exhibition, Obsolescence, which opened Nov. 5.

"The environment kind of does cover it," Cope said, "because a lot of times when these things become obsolete, it does kind of change our physical environment."

But walking into the gallery, the exhibition's thesis isn't blatantly clear. Delicate flowers made from cut-out paper and housed in bell jars sit next to an intricate bracelet, and across the white room hang paintings of pigeons and a dreamy blue landscape. According to Stewart Gallery co-founder Stephanie Wilde, the show takes the idea of the "obsolete" in a multitude of directions.

"You're addressing not only objects that are becoming obsolete but also subject matter. This show addresses it on many different levels, not just the materials," Wilde said.

As Cope moved from piece to piece in the exhibition, she explained how each piece fits under the obsolescent umbrella. Katherine Dube's "Degradation" "Bloom" consists of porcelain, a material that has been losing steam in the art world, fashioned to look like outdated shag carpeting. Andrea Gutierrez's jewelry takes a found-art approach and makes use of parts from old handbags, while Matt Duffin's "Quack" features an obsolescent toy. The pieces deal with issues of the environment becoming obsolete or employ a material that's seldom used anymore. The obsolescent idea also applies to meticulous artistic processes that have had their heyday in the art world.

"With art mediums, I think people are always looking for the next new thing that hasn't been done before," Cope said. "It's not taking time for technique but finding something new. These [artists] are doing things that have been done before but holding onto them."

Items become obsolete for myriad reasons. New technology replaces its earlier counterparts, access to materials becomes restricted, or people search for the next new and innovative product to market.

"The idea of obsolescence seems to catch on pretty quickly because we see it all around us," Cope said.

Pierce hopes that by utilizing recycled or obsolescent items, artists will not only help the environment but also draw attention to larger problems associated with our wasteful culture.

"I think what artists are trying to do is not only be critical but be leaders ... be a springboard for other people to consider, 'Oh, how can I can I reuse this, and what purpose does this have beyond what the original intention was?'" Pierce said.

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