Noah Purifoy and the psychology of bricolage

11 Jul

NOTES FROM THE STUDIO – Catalysis Projects’ Core Artist Kim Ye makes a visit to the desert and muses on the psychology of found objects in art.

A couple weeks ago, I ventured out to the Mojave desert with friend/artist Thinh Nguyen for a visit to fellow CP’er Deborah Martin home/studio. While scouting possible locations for a project proposal for High Desert Test Sites we made a visit to the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum of Assemblage Sculpture. Off a poorly marked dirty road, we pulled up to 2.5 acres of sculptures and installations suggestive of a post-apocalyptic amusement park. Giant monuments, stage sets, and elaborate scenarios fashioned from toilets, old clothing, scrap metal, foam, and other discarded, scavenged, and generally devalued materials haunt the arid landscape; wandering through, between, and into the structures, I had the eerie feeling of being alone in a crowd, as if my body were being displaced by the collective force of a culture’s material products.

In reading about Purifoy’s work, much of its conceptual underpinnings are traced back to Dadaist ideals of assemblage and the readymade, and the folk art aesthetic of using cheap, everyday materials to make works that are tied to the maker’s personal history. Accordingly, much of the discourse surrounding Purifoy contextualizes his work by emphasizing its relationship to natural processes of erosion and decay, its attempt to break free of modernist straight-line aesthetics, the artist’s political choice of using junked and scavenged materials, and his personal history as a African American artist and art educator in Los Angeles.  While all these factors may be relevant to a historical/contextual reading of the work, linking Purifoy’s formal choices to a commentary on inequality and urban blight seems like a neat and easy place to stop—conveniently collapsing the work onto the body of the artist. As an artist working with found and scavenged materials myself, I wonder if a more psychological reading of the bricolage process can be generative for thinking about works like these, allowing meaning to be made without having to rely on Dada or revert to romantic old hat like “art is all around us”.

According to an essay by Anna Dezeuze, the word bricolage was first theorized by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in 1962. Referring to a DIY process of making objects out of odds and ends or with quick-n-dirty solutions, bricolage comes from the verb “to tinker” or “to fiddle”—and the figure of the bricoleur can be likened to that of the mad-scientist, amateur, or hobbyist. The term is also used in biology and information technology to talk about structures that are cobbled together or built from the bottom up, such as biological organisms and strategic information systems. Like Levi R. Bryan I believe that bricolage is a type of methodology, a model of engagement with the world, rather than a formal category within the visual arts. The idea of using pre-existing materials acquired through collecting and scavenging mirrors for me a kind of mental process which depends on, glens from, and recombines (both consciously and unconsciously) information disseminated via cultural memes and direct interpersonal contact. It is an acknowledgement of the real material constraints that shape our desires, and behaviors.

In an era of increasingly dematerialized art practices, it may seem regressive to use the discarded remnants of corporate, mass-produced materials. Perhaps such a material-based practice can be read as being complicit with the structures of advanced capitalism, producing beauty out of its products even as they no longer serve their original function. Or even more cynically, that the artist–through an act of diversion–is literally turning trash into gold, aligning him/herself with the position of the industrialist.

But something doesn’t feel right about this reading. Not only does it give no consideration to the experience or position of the scavenger, but it also denies the existence of any imprint that previous owners leave on the object in question after it leaves the factory. As in the case of many scavenged items, there is a long period of time after its original purchase that it slips out of the commodity state and becomes a physical component of a person or family’s life. It functions as a domestic object, fulfilling a need or desire for the home in which it resides, but at some point, it no longer fulfills the desires, or somehow fails to contain the needs or expectations placed upon it by its owner, and is cast off into the street, where someone like me picks it up.

It is this string of desire/non-desire, and the evolution from preciousness to worthlessness that I find most interesting about the role of found objects in my current practice.  In a sense, objects are abandoned when there is the sense that no one can project onto it, that it is so used up and broken that it is impossible for anyone to identify with it at that point. The item is not taken to a donation center or even a junkyard, it is simply left outside—as if an immediate split had occurred which quarantined it from the rest of the home. I find something deeply psychologically compelling about this exchange of abandonment and salvage—almost as if one person’s shame corresponded perfectly with another’s fetish. In this way, the process of re-appropriating found materials is not about chance, it is about the negotiation of individual fantasy within shared material landscapes.

    Kim Ye, Gold Digging, 2011

Kim Ye, Surrogacy, 2011

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