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The Art of the Found Object

December 27, 2013

Artists can make anything – or rather, they can make the appearance of anything. If you want a blue house, an artist can create an image of a blue house. If you want a “happy little tree,” an artist can create an image of a happy little tree. If you want a green giraffe… well, you get the picture. If you want an image of something, an artist can find a way to create it, whether through painting, drawing, trick photography, Photoshop manipulation, video editing – the possibilities are endless.

But creating images of things can only get you so far. Sometimes you find that you need to use an actual “thing” to get your point across. Enter the found object. You “find” an object and use it in your work.

The Cubists were using found objects in their assemblages, and Picasso gets to take credit for the first use of found object in art in 1912 when we used the caning from a chair in a collage featuring of all things – a chair. Of course, somebody else less famous probably did something similar before, but art history favors Picasso.

The most infamous use of found object in art history no doubt goes to Marcel Duchamp with his artwork titled Fountain from 1917. Duchamp upended the art world when he upended a urinal, signed it under a pseudonym R. Mutt, gave it a title, and put it on a display. He didn’t really change anything about the object in use other than the concept surrounding it. Calling this series of works readymades, he took an object from the lowest low and elevated it to art. Even though it was somewhat of a parlor trick to infuriate the art world, Duchamp’s Fountain changed the way people viewed objects as art. The Dadaists, Duchamp’s anti-art (yet still somehow art) revolutionary peers often used the found object as a primary medium in their work. A favorite tactic of the movement was to take a useful object and make it useless. Putting a wheel atop a stool, attaching tacks to a clothes iron, inverting a bottle rack all converted once useful objects into beautiful artistic uselessness, while giving the viewer a reason to reconsider the object as an artistic endeavor. The practice suddenly gave a new conceptual dimension to things that would never have been considered as art.

I had a bit of a revelation as a young artist when I saw a picture of Robert Rauschenberg‘s combine – his word for found art combined with found objects – Reservoir (pictured here) which features a wooden board, two clocks, some wheels, and cloth mixed in with abstract painting. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to mean anything or have any relation to the title, but I was interested. As someone who used to think that art supplies came from the store, I was blown away.

Figure 1 Reservoir by Robert Rauschenberg
I decided to take action and try it myself. I took a walk down the roadside near my parent’s rural home, gathering up pieces of litter and rubbish – cigarette wrappers, bottle labels, lottery tickets, fast food packaging – a whole new world of found media had opened up! Using these materials, I would immediately return home and see what I could make using the objects that I had found on my mini-journey. I was surprised that limiting myself to just a handful of supplies as my initial inspiration yielded such powerful and immediate results. There was no sitting around wondering what to draw or what to create – it was all sitting in the ditches of Garrard County just waiting to be transformed into art.

Since that initial experience, I have been utilizing found objects and materials on a regular basis. There are some artists/activists who use recycled materials to save them from landfills, to clean up litter, and save the environment – which are all great reasons, but I find myself drawn to the idea that each scrap had an existence as something else before I got my hands on it. These inherent former lives of the found materials can often lend nice levels of juxtaposed meanings in the artwork.

For example, using a church bulletin or religious tract and lottery ticket in the same piece, the viewer brings their own interpretation to the work – maybe it’s a commentary on faith vs. luck, or spirituality vs. materialism. To make these connections between somewhat unrelated objects is a natural human response, but as the artist, you needn’t make these connections yourself in order to make interesting art. I believe Rauschenberg purposefully tried to avoid making these connections, but rather chose images and objects that fit the scale and mood of the piece rather than a specific meaning.

I later fell in love with other found object artists – Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and the collage work of Kurt Schwitters simply cannot be denied as powerful works of modern art. I enjoyed poring over their works, finding subtleties and nuances upon repeated viewings that didn’t seem to exist in the works of more traditional artists. Textures, found text, latent images, transparencies – all reveal themselves over time.

So, I challenge you to take the plunge into found object art. Go for a walk or look around your studio (it is rather cold outside). Find something you would probably toss into the garbage or recycle. Use it in your art. Change the scale, orientation, meaning, or concept of the object and make it your own. If you adopt the practice of using found objects in your art, you must also accept the challenge and responsibility of knowing what you should or should not use as art supplies. Otherwise your studio turns into a disaster area and you’ll find yourself on an episode of Hoarders: Buried Alive.

Brandon Long
Brandon Long

Programming Director

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 Artists ONLY! enewsletter. Subscribe now to Artists ONLY! or other enewsletters from the Community Arts Center.