Originating in a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s “ready-mades,” and taking inspiration from Alberto Burri and the Arte Povera movement in Italy, students foraged for found materials to provide a palette of possibilities for original designs.
The main problem inherent in working with “junk” is achieving a unity that somehow transcends the humble origin of its means. In other words, how do you make something that doesn’t look like a bunch of trash stuck to a background? Avoiding the “scrapbook effect” is paramount. The most successful solutions are those that manage to activate the ground, drawing it into the overall design so that it participates in the whole, even to the point of asserting a prominence that vies with the more obvious figural elements. In many cases the solution presents itself by adjusting the proportion of the ground, cutting it down to find the right balance with the materials, which is really just a way of enlarging the elements within the design. In other cases, designs cluttered with too many bits and pieces are improved by simplifying, allowing a few extraordinary forms, colors, or textures to breath and resonate.
Working with found material is a brilliant way to explore an alternative modality in design. Beginning artists often conceive of the process of designing as starting with an idea and working in stages to realize it. What many students come to appreciate is that the process of design can be as much a matter of finding a certain rightness, a logic, as it were, inherent in the materials and in their various relationships as we play with possibilities. It’s a bit like starting a fire with wet wood, trying to ignite a spark that continues to build. When it works, the results can be an epiphany. The often striking impact of the best pieces borders on the miraculous, not less so because of the sheer improbability of finding beauty in what most people regard as trash.
The senses of sight and touch are strongly linked. Tactility in art adds another level of impact to the more obvious formal elements of shape, line, and color. Texture can be both actual and visual, the first being a factor of the materials used, and the latter generated by the mark-making of the artist. Students in this project investigated texture as a design element using “frottage,” a strategy first developed by the Surrealists, to lift textures from the world around them. A period of foraging for textures armed with an array of different media and papers was followed by designing with the raw materials of found textures. In the designs below students worked within the constraints of two different design constructs. A columnar structure defines the first problem. Students selected textural elements by cropping and experimenting with various arrangements with the goal of breaking down the taxonomic effect of the columns. In the best designs similarity groupings and continuities lead the eye across the borders, configuring larger patterns of movement within the whole. Contrasts provide forces of variety, emphasis, and visual weight that organize to produce a balanced, integrated and dynamic whole. The second design was developed from a previous problem involving isometric forms. The final design is a large square composed of four smaller squares, each of which contains an isometric figure translated into three values, black, white, and a middle-value consisting of the optical gray of the frottage elements.
The life work of Alberto Burri was born in an American POW camp in Gainesville, Texas, where he was interned after the capture of his unit by the Allied forces in Tunisia in 1944. Defeated and confined in a strange land Burri turned his hand to making art out of the common materials that were available to him. The discarded burlap potato sacks from the kitchen with their subtle variations of color, repetitive linear weave and texture, were a rich source of visual matter for him. Returning to Italy after the war Burri continued fashioning compositions from burlap and other found materials. The revival of Italy’s post-war economy gave Burri a new palette of industrial materials to work with. Plaster, discarded metal, plastic sheeting and common building supplies presented to his imagination unique physical qualities from which he created works of astonishing beauty.
The impact of Burri’s work goes beyond the visual. It appeals to a sense of play that perhaps is more common in children with their innocence about the prescribed meaning of things. In Burri’s hands plastic, burlap, and scraps of wood and metal vie with the most sublime subjects of art. Like a crazy and inappropriate uncle who is not above making a broom become a horse for the delight of children, Burri charges extraordinarily ordinary utilitarian materials with an esthetic power that is completely contrary to their original intentions and purposes. That’s his great lesson and example to us all.
Alberto Burri bio