Babies in the Bathwater

For Brad Evans, dumpster-diving is more than a hobby. It's an art--literally--full of everyday life's deepest and most secret surprises, caught on the rebound. "If you see it and don't get it, it's gone...," Evans says of his roadside finds--greasy oven doors, grimy hardware, old flags, dictionaries, Ed Grimley dolls, plaster shark snouts, computer innards, cans, bottles, suitcases and a multitude of other items he keeps stacked on rickety metal shelves in his truly trashed-out Walnut Street studio. He's even saving a pile of stuff swept up on the floor. Sooner or later, it all ends up making the kind of statement that can be made only by Brad Evans, a pogo stick of a design whiz with a subtle cock's-comb 'do who comes off like a lightning-bolt-slinging Reddy Kilowatt. Evans is one of twelve artists featured in Deja Vu: Artists Reuse Refuse, an exhibit spotlighting works that evoke strong responses through recycled materials.

Though his artworks (a frozen-smiled clown doll trapped inside a dirty heating-vent grate, for example) are shellacked by time and covered with an industrial-strength film, Evans insists they're really not that creepy. Instead, they're souvenirs from the past making a claim for the future. But then, he adds, maybe they are creepy: He says he'd really like to use a human skull, but he hasn't been able to score one, because it's illegal.

Jeffrey Keith has been assembling junk into art objects since he was a kid on Cape Cod. "I've been a beachcomber all my life," Keith says, standing next to his installation, a crowded, nautical pastiche inspired by Hong Kong Harbor. For Keith, this kind of work is just the flippant side of a boyhood/manhood theme he sees interwoven throughout his artistic efforts. As an adult, he's primarily a painter, though many of his assemblages have found new life--all over again--cast in bronze.

"This stuff is fun for me, but it's also a distraction," Keith says. Conceptually, however, the installation's varied elements--coconut-shell boats, birch-log fish with paintbrush fins, plastic ark animals, jagged wood-panel waves with peeling sea-green paint and iron filigree smoke rising from a patinaed pipe "smokestack"--make up a careful, well-edited arrangement.

"This piece here--it was like a 'gimme,'" Keith says, pointing out a perfect boat-shaped section of metal in a wall piece depicting a boat in a storm. The creative process behind these works is much the same--a method of picking and choosing what's important. "It's the flotsam and jetsam of life transformed into something with relevance and resonance for others," he explains. Still, he admits he's borrowed from the folk-art ethos. "When people see this stuff, they expect to see an 85-year-old man," he says. "But to the disappointment of some people, I'm no big earth-muffin, P.C. kind of artist. I'm an artist."

Keith wants to continue finding ways of not taking art too seriously, and he hopes to inject the same kind of childlike animation into his oils. In that aspect, he's not alone. New York photographer and dollmaker Sura Ruth calls her whimsical creations--conjured out of plastic forks, vacuum hoses, green soda bottles, tube socks, burnt-out lightbulbs, kitchen gadgets, safety pins, buttons and beads--RUbots. "There's a kind of alchemy involved in taking junk and making it into something that can reach people," Ruth says. "It's like the Rumpelstiltskin story."

In contrast, Rebecca Vaughan, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, is caught between the reality of being a fine artist and her appreciation for the grandmotherly arts at which women have excelled for centuries. She uses secondhand craft elements--pieces of hand-knit thrift-store afghans and snippets of other handwork--for conceptual, contemporary and political ends, creating strong messages. But it's a quandary. "I shudder when people use the words 'fiber art,'" she says. "It puts the work into a craft realm instead of treating it like art."

For Denver artist Carlos Santistevan, the recycling aspect in his work easily extends to life itself: He folds the liturgical art of New Mexico, stories of the saints and his own experience as executive director for People of Color Consortium Against AIDS into the mix, along with a reverence for family history. His pieces, shrines fashioned from old chairs and chests, collage mementos and icons, come together in tribute to people he's known--from a drag queen who died of AIDS to his own grandparents, to whom he feels he owes his identity. "You don't know who you are unless you know where you came from," he says. "That's what causes us to act and react the way we do."

A kind of folk anthropologist, Santistevan believes in the power of things and their ability to eventually name themselves. "I'm one of those people who think a piece of wood has a piece of art inside," he says. "When I find a chair, I might keep it six, eight months until something happens. It dictates how the piece goes, what it wants to become.

"Poverty is the mother of invention for me," he adds. "It's a matter of reusing or recycling that which is available to you. Hypothetically, if you lived in the mountains, you would have no opportunity to go to the store to purchase stuff for making a shrine. So you would find stuff to use in your home." The resulting works are startlingly simple and earthy yet laced with deeper meaning.

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