When Marcel Duchamp found an industrial bottle rack and proclaimed it art, he transformed fine art from an activity for a privileged few to one that everyone--and almost everything--can play.

Almost eighty years later, people still delight in "found" objects, abandoning the formal grind of academic art to celebrate the serendipity of the street. While few junk-oriented artworks achieve the genius of Joseph Cornell's boxes or the juvenile excess of Mike Kelly's stuffed-animal assemblages, the fascination with the found continues to inspire artists.

Still, an artist working with found objects always risks creating a soulless work in which meaning is too forced, too cute or just plain confused--sometimes junk just remains junk. However, that's not the case at Found Objects, now inhabiting the back room of The Art of Craft gallery. This show presents powerful examples of how this type of art can achieve elegance without losing its funky roots.

The handsomest coalition of craft and junk here is undoubtedly Oklahoma artist Chris Ramsay's large cast and acid-etched metal works. Ramsay took antique illustration plates and used their quaint, raised designs to construct relief patterns on copper or bronze. Round shield, or tondo, shapes were then cut from the etched metal and laid within one another to make two art surfaces. These heavy, circular pieces survived numerous casting and welding processes, yet managed to keep whimsical found pieces within their perimeters.

"Mother Earth," in which Ramsay uses an old illustration of the earth mother holding a globe, is subtle in its etched copper rendering and nineteenth-century style, but still includes found toy globes in the copper circles, hinting perhaps at the trivial treatment the earth sometimes is given. "Petroglyph" has a similar size, shape and heft, but Ramsay's chosen pattern here includes delicate reliefs of ancient rock drawings, all inlaid with bottlecaps. "Collection I" incorporates etching plates of seashells as well as real shells and animal teeth, with the incorporated objects set in the textured metal.

Found items are given another splendid treatment in a collaborative wall piece by Max Lanier and Lora McDonald, artists from Phoenix. "Objectification/Classification" is really a series of small works, each one set up on its own shelf like a neglected display in an old museum. One piece is a discombobulated Happy Face clock, rusty, decayed and preserved under glass. A second work presents a hinged wooden box pierced through on both sides with many small, sharp nails. Each sculpture is made entirely from found objects but reconstructed with superb craftsmanship and taste.

Other offerings are less serious but just as skilled at integrating the found with the fabricated. Iowa artist Patricia McLoone's "Trophy" combines a pair of women's nylon stockings with a pair of men's socks and a weird fur-covered coin purse for a droll--and risque--visual joke. Castle Rock artist Justin Moore's colorful attempt to make a signature piece for MTV layers shredded cassette tapes, advertising imagery, CD packaging, blinking Christmas lights and sound from a working TV speaker inside a Plexiglas "M" for a slick but frolicsome mlange. And Denver artist Mark Bina's hilarious "Culture Recorder" is a free-standing sculpture formed from a camera tripod, an electric bug killer and several parts of a stereo turntable, including some warped vinyl records. This spoofy contraption supposedly captures the traces of culture before they disappear, but it looks more like R2D2 Visits the Thrift Store.

Found Objects, through December 4 at The Art of Craft, 1736 Wazee Street, 292-5564.

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