by Kristen Wawruck
In this group survey of former Recology artists-in-residence, materiality dominates, which is not surprising given that the primary purpose of San Francisco’s waste management company’s residency program is for artists to engage with its endless supply of trash and recyclables. This show attempts to capture the wide range of works created in situ at San Francisco’s home to all things refuse—from hazardous waste to friendlier recyclables. Nearly 50 Bay Area artists from the program’s 30-year history, beginning with its founding by the late artist Jo Hanson, are featured. A sense of playfulness and criticality with the material world and our reliance on it—for better or worse — loosely connects the works on view. All come to fruition without the weight of the market or gallery systems in mind, which is part of the point, according to Recology’s longstanding arts program director, Deborah Munk.
Both the freedom and the constraints of the program are evident in this presentation. The residency provides artists with stipends and free studio space for four months adjacent to the waste processing plants from which they can freely scavenge and work. One part of the company’s educational outreach aims to raise awareness about consumption and encourage sustainability by drawing attention to waste in novel and unexpected ways. In doing so, the works raise questions about capitalism and its impact on resources, labor, and economic equity.
These thoughtful works go largely unseen, though, because the installations at Recology are capped at three to four days due to space limitations. If you haven’t had a chance to see these short-lived exhibitions, this comprehensive presentation at the Bedford Gallery offers an unprecedented opportunity.
Since the program’s main expectation of artists is to engage with the refuse, their creative responses are decidedly experimental. A case in point is Stephanie Syjuco’s 2014 installation Modern Ruins (Popular Cannibals), a small portion of which is on view. It situates viewers in a simulacrum of a high-end furniture showroom. An Eames-inspired storage unit sits beside a Wassily chair, with an Anni Albers-style tapestry hanging on the wall, setting the scene of an aspirational lifestyle. Look closely and you can detect the absolute improbability of using any of these objects for their usual purposes. Flimsy materials like aluminum, foam and paper are bound together with duct tape, zip ties, and a sense of hope that it will all stay put. This precarity, says the artist, echoes the class-based inequities driving grassroots uprisings that were taking hold in the early 2010s. More pointedly, the installation called attention to the widening
disparities found in San Francisco, where the unhoused live near homes containing bona fide versions of Syjuco’s fakes. The installation, Syjuco states, re-enacts the “class warfare” taking place on the city’s streets while also calling to mind the ubiquitous piles of IKEA goods and other knockoffs found in the trash on any given day.
The labor of maintaining it all is another theme that runs through the show. Victor Yañez-Lazcano’s work is an example. Like many artists in the program, he had long worked with found materials but never in the quantities Recology made available. Untitled (After Rosario #6), part of a series called Language of Labor (2019-ongoing), shows how the residency affected his work. At a distance, it looks like a minimalist panel; up close, it’s a quiet study of unrecognized labor. It consists of tool handles (mops, brooms, shovels, and such) arranged vertically in a grid. Their visual traces of wear and tear produce a portrait of human labor and its role in shaping identity. (The name Rosario, in case you’re wondering, was given to Yañez-Lazcano by an undocumented worker with whom he once traded new tools for the worn implements seen in his sculptures.)
Other artists follow similarly formal strategies with varying degrees of success. The character of their output and methods varies widely, from materials so heavily reworked that their origins can’t be discerned to works that emphasize their trash-heap beginnings. Lauren DiCioccio’s Soft White 3Way (Light Bulb and Paper Sleeve) and Thank You Bag (both 2011) do a bit of both. Each consists of discarded fabric that the artist hand-embroidered. Black (2014) by Shushan Tesfuzigta is a chair made of cords and cables, woven to look like rattan. Similarly, Terry Berlier’s Perfect Lovers (for Ceil and Sally), 2012, pairs a found glass vessel with its “mate,” constructed out of pieces of wood and sawdust in an homage to Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Assemblages, unsurprisingly, abound and range from irreverent to restrained. Among the latter, Miguel Arzabe’s woven collage of silkscreen posters, San Francisco art scene circa 1973 (2016), nods to the city’s history of street-based concert promotion. Quilting also plays a prominent role, the highlight being Mansur Nurullah’s billowing works that hang like topographical maps. The list of materials in Cherish (2019), for example, could be a core sample of what lands in the dump each day: welding curtain, awning, sailcloth, neoprene waders, firefighter uniform, IKEA bags and much else. Imagined Migration Route of My Maternal Great-Grandparents to Chicago (2019) tells the history of the Great Migration undertaken by Black Americans in the post-Reconstruction era. Nurallah represents pathways, locales, and populations with specific colors, lines, and material choices. Imbued with multi-layered stories, meanings and symbols, both works extend the rich tradition of African American quilting.
The impulse to memorialize – or in this case de-memorialize – appears in other parts of the exhibition. Example: A cheeky bust in the federal style by Kathy Aoki greets visitors at the gallery entrance. The title – Disgraced Patriarchal Monuments: Mansplaining (2019) – fully conveys the artist’s intent. Jenny Odell captures the untold stories contained in a pile of trash. Her 2015 residency project, The Bureau of Suspended Objects, examined the material histories of more than 200 discarded objects and has since
grown into a long-term research project whose breadth can be gleaned from her website. In the gallery, it appears in abbreviated form as an archival print, composed of QR-coded images. Point your smartphone at any one of them, and you can learn the backstory of each. By revealing the manufacture, labor, trade, possession, and eventual discard of these objects, Odell created an archive that functions, in part, as a history of heedless consumption and staggering waste.
A show like this can’t possibly convey the impact of the original installations, with their proximity to the dump’s sights, smells, and sounds. Installed in a gallery, the “trash” at the heart of these artworks becomes domesticated. It mirrors, to a great extent, our failure to connect consumption to its confoundingly disastrous impact. Nevertheless, the show does succeed in raising our awareness of that phenomenon, and in that sense, it validates Hanson’s and Recology’s original intent.
# # #
“Reclaimed: The Art of Recology” @ Bedford Gallery through October 17, 2021.
The exhibition also includes work by Tamara Albaitis, Michael Arcega, Val Britton, Beau Buck, Ed Clapp, Ricki Dwyer, Rodney Ewing, Mike Farruggia, Amy Wilson Faville, Julia Goodman, Nemo Gould, Jeff Hantman, Jamil Hellu, David Hevel, Barbara Holmes, D. Cherie Johnson, Andrew Junge, Cathy Lu, Kara Maria, Ramekon O’Arwisters, Scott Oliver, Kari Orvik, Erik Otto, Alison Pebworth, Yulia Pinkusevich, Ferris Plock, Genevieve Quick, Nicole Repack & Isis Rodriguez, Kate Rhoades, Leah Rosenberg, James Sansing, Kathy Sirico, Chris Sollars, Weston Teruya, Sherri Lynn Wood and Imin Yeh.
About the author:
Kristen Wawruck is an arts worker, writer, and curator. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, she was the deputy director of Swiss Institute in New York.