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9 Artists Who Used Weird Materials to Prove a Point
Consider army boots, cheese squares or dead fish, and people will be forced to notice you.
Gorgeous Listicles 17 Jan 2019

Have you ever wandered through a seventeenth-century portrait gallery and, try as you might to appreciate the nuances of the queens’ and counts’ expressions, you just couldn’t help but zone out after a couple dozen?
It’s not your fault—even the most profound work of art could disappear in a line of nearly identical works. Don’t believe me? Try hanging the Mona Lisa in the middle of the Renaissance art gallery of the Louvre and don’t tell anyone that it’s the Mona Lisa, and I bet you anything that the hordes of tourist swarming the painting will immediately disappear. Assuming, of course, no one actually knows what the Mona Lisa looks like.
The point is that contrast is the best way to make a splash. And what’s creates more of a contrast than putting something in a museum that doesn’t belong there, the more outlandish, the better? Marcel Duchamp might have gotten the ball rolling on the whole “what even is art?” conversation, but that ball is still very much rolling, even snowballing, if you will.
Here’s our advice to all of the budding artists out there worried about getting lost in the noise of the contemporary art market: use really, really weird materials, like army boots, cheese squares or dead fish, and people will be forced to notice you, and maybe even think about the point you’re trying to make.
But of course, don’t actually use army boots, cheese squares or dead fish—as you’ll see below, someone already beat you to it, so you’ll have to come up with your own weird materials. Good luck!

Untitled #19 (1977).
After a major survey at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago last year, groundbreaking African American artist Howardena Pindell is back on the art world radar.
Pindell received a Guggenheim Fellowship before you were probably even born (1987), so you could say she’s pretty established. Her work, which hangs in dozens of museums including the MoMA, the MET and the US National Gallery, ranges from figurative to abstract and conceptual.
She’s also worked with pretty much every medium you could imagine—and some you probably wouldn’t imagine, like glitter, talcum powder and perfume. To “heighten the immersive qualities” of her abstract paintings, Pindell would spray them with perfume. But don’t go sniffing around the Lower East Side, you should know that sadly, no trace of the original scents survived the decades.

Tilbug Sun (2017).
Westgate (2013).
If you’re impressed by the work of this Art X Lagos standout, Nairobi-based Cyrus Kabiru, wait till you hear that he’s… wait for it… self-taught. Kabiru’s practice ranges from sculpture to performance and documentary, and in his best-known series, C-Stunners, he even dabbles in eyewear.
Made from found materials like discarded urban fragments and obsolete technology, these striking, futuristic pieces are what I imagine would happen if John Galliano and SpaceX collaborated on an media campaign to raise money to teach low-income students how to code. According to Art X Lagos, they represent “the confidence and attitude of a young generation of globally aware Kenyans”—so, basically the same thing.

Makeup Painting (2011).
Cindy Hinant is best known for her work dissecting pop culture, including ultra-retouched pictures of the likes of Miley Cyrus, the Kardashians and Britney Spears (her website has a link to a site called britneyspearswithoutmakeup.com, which is exactly what the url suggests).
Compared to tabloid shots of celebrities juxtaposed mysteriously over austere gridlines or nearly faded out pictures of hardcore porn, these matte, pale orange and pink minimalist compositions seem relatively subdued. But there’s a twist: as the titles suggests, the canvases are smeared not with paint but with makeup, evoking Kim K’s caked-on selfies and, by contrast, Britney Spears without makeup.
celebrity grid
Celebrity Grid (Stolen Sex Tape) (2013).

And if the celebrities’ faces become the blank canvas in this parallel, what does that say about flesh-and-blood humans under the loaded media image? Does Kim K transform herself from Kim, the person to Kim, the brand with a few (ok, 25) coats of foundation with killer contouring to boot? Does her constructed public image amount to a work of art, considering the amount of painstaking care that goes into it?

Cream Cup (2017).
In the grand tradition of world culture, or at least Western culture since Eve and the forbidden fruit, Stephanie Sarley’s work compares fruit to human genitalia in simple but juicy (excuse the pun) and provocative photographs and videos. So provocative, in fact, that Instagram disabled her account three times in one month after her Fruit Fingering series went viral.
The series takes a whole new angle on food porn, leading French writer and blogger Angès Giard to christen her “l’inventrice du fruit porn” (you can translate that yourself). Her work tackles society’s fascination and visceral aversion to the female body, the overwhelming response (both fascination and trolling) a testament to how large this subject looms in our cultural imagination. Oh, and she also makes great memes.
“Cut and uncut.”

theater of disappearance
Installation view of The Theater of Disappearance, MOCA Los Angeles, 22 Oct 2017 – 13 May 2018.
After spending a couple minutes inside The Theater of Disappearance, it shouldn’t surprise you that Villar Rojas hails from the same land as Jorge Luis Borges, the famous Argentinian writer whose work toes the line between magical realism and the straight-up absurd. For all their obvious differences, these two artists have a couple things in common: odds are high that you won’t get their work at all—but you sure as hell will come away intrigued.
An imagined post-human apocalyptic scene, The Theater of Disappearance set up all around the globe in 2017 and 2018: the Met in New York, the Kunsthaus Bregenz in Austria, the National Observatory of Athens and MOCA Los Angeles. A dimly lit, sprawling space, the installation was filled with strange “artifacts” made to look derelict. In an obvious nod to Damien Hirst, spooky glass cases lined the immersive exhibit. Inside the cases, kept at a chilly -10 degrees, you’d find all sorts of things that could’ve been plucked straight out of an archeological dig—or dredged up from the Gulf of Mexico, unofficially known as the grimiest beach in the world).
Installation view of The Theater of Disappearance, MOCA Los Angeles, 22 Oct 2017 – 13 May 2018.
Dead stuff abounded, from skeletons and dead fish to rotting fruit, moldy bread, crab claws and petrified tree roots. Although, sadly, no wall labels were in sight, they would’ve hands-down included the most bizarre assortment of materials—from dirt to old tennis shoes to the aforementioned dead fish—a far cry from the basic, boring “oil on canvas” that most people expect to find on an afternoon at the museum.

Object (1936).
When you hear the name Meret Oppenheim, one of two images probably come to mind: a furry cup (Object), or a slick nude posing behind a strategically placed printing press wheel (Man Ray’s Erotique voilée).
Man Ray, Erotique voilée (1933).
One of the key figures of the surrealist movement of the interwar period, Oppenheim used—you guessed it—unexpected materials to explore the links between domesticity and female sexuality. But if the first thing that comes to mind when you see a cup made of fur isn’t feminism, don’t worry, you’re not alone. To very loosely paraphrase Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author,” you’re fully allowed to take a work of art and let your imagination run wild, which means that you get to choose if Object is about the sexualization of women under the patriarchy—or a soggy latte.

meat joy
Meat Joy (1964), silver print. Photo by Al Giese from performance at Judson Church, November 16-18, 1964, New York.
In her most famous work, Meat Joy, this American feminist artist filmed a very meaty soft porn set to The Supremes’ “Where Did Our Love Go.” And no, meaty isn’t a euphemism—the performers, four men and four women, literally rolled around on the floor (and on top of each other) covered in raw meat, sausages and fish.
Unlike Villar Rojas’ creepy post-apocalypse, this scene was meant to help everyone liberate themselves of society’s taboos and constraints and unleash their inner animals. Obviously, this was way before veganism was big. Did it work? I mean… you be the judge. I will say that during the original Paris performance, a man in the audience jumped up and tried to strange the artist, so something was most definitely unleashed.

“The Art Guys are not artists” is the first phrase and only phrase you’ll see when you visit landing page of theartguys.com. Wink wink, nudge nudge. As the non-artists this creative duo are, they categorize their work using decidedly non-artist terms: instead of “sculpture,” “commodities, doohickeys, matter” (Couldn’t all art be classified as matter, btw? Except for maybe video art, which is more on the energy side… physics people, please weigh in.).
One of their most iconic pieces falls under the “matter” category: Cheese Grid, which—you’ll be shocked to know—is made up of 576 slices of yellow American cheese, laid out on the floor in a 24 x 24 grid. I’m not even going to try to decode this one for you.

Missa (1992-2012).

Replace the slices of cheese with army boots and you’ll get Canadian artist Dominique Blain’s Missa. To be precise, Missa is actually made up of 100 army boots hung from a metal grid with mono-filament. The result? 100 very eerie shadows cast on the floor beneath the boots, as well as an unsettling feeling of suspense. Whether it’s a pin, a pen or a bomb, something is definitely about to drop.

Text by Katya Lopatko 
Images via Art in America Magazine, Art X Lagos, Phaidon, Berlin Art Link, @stephanie_sarley, Riot Material, Artsy, Dazed Digital, The Art Guys, Dominique Blain

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