Yes, you read the plaque correctly — that giant sculpted tortoise in the gallery really is made out of garbage.
"Material Transformations" features the unconventional and symbolic works of seven American and Canadian artists using found or recycled materials. The exhibition makes its second — this time expanded — debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville Jan. 25 through April 6, after spending four months at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama. "Transformations" features the works of Angela Ellsworth, Alison Foshee, Kirsten Hassenfeld, Rune Olsen, Lucrecia Troncoso, Paul Villinski and Johnston Foster — sculptor of "Big Tipper," a giant scrap-material tortoise.
"They're using aluminum cans, and sponges, and garbage cans, and pens, tape and office supplies — you know, all kinds of crazy things, and ordinary things but used in extraordinary ways," says curator Ben Thompson, who collaborated with the Montgomery Museum to bring the exhibit to MOCA Jacksonville.
Three-dimensional painter Paul Villinski uses found aluminum cans from his Queens, N.Y., neighborhood to create hundreds of individual butterflies for his large-scale installations, including "Fable" (2011), a symphony of whimsical butterflies emerging from a cello.
"I appreciate the kind of alchemy that a lot of artists manage to achieve in their work," Villinski says. "I'm interested in transformation … really on all levels, environmental, societal and aesthetic. The recurring image of the butterfly in my work is symbolic of that."
Kirsten Hassenfeld's lavish yet intricate sculpted light fixtures and wall tapestries comprise recycled and vintage wrapping paper — a humble material that piqued the former printmaker's interest after working with plainer materials.
"I was looking for visual information that I could react to, rather than just what I'd been using for so long, which was completely neutral, white, translucent paper," she says. "It became this interesting source for me of cataloging and getting to see all kinds of vernacular, pattern and decoration."
For many participating artists, the reinterpretation of common and often discarded objects speaks to environmental awareness in addition to the underlying themes of their works — like flight and transformation for Villinski, and simplicity and social status for Hassenfeld.
"We're a country that has got so much plenty, and we throw things away readily," says Jennifer Jankauskas, Montgomery Museum curator. "Seeing the economic situation, people are rethinking what it means to have money, what they're putting money toward and having all these throwaway materials. I think that a lot of artists were really starting to look at those issues, and it manifested itself in the work. It really spoke very pointedly to what is going on in our culture today."
Thanks to a gallery space roughly double that of Montgomery Museum's, the MOCA installation of "Material Transformations" features several additional, in some cases never-before-seen works and individual display space for each artist.
"We've been able to expand particular artists' footprints so that you can see more of their works. It's also allowing us to show some newer work," Thompson says. "For example, Paul Villinski is exhibiting a piece that he's only shown once. Jacksonville visitors will get to see new work, never before seen."
Thompson hopes museum visitors will take the time to consider each piece on a structural as well as a symbolic level, and says they may be surprised by the level of innovation and artistry achieved through the creative use of everyday materials.
"The first step is to step back and look at it for what it is, and then get into what it's made of," he says. "I think it's quite amazing what these artists are able to do with the materials that they're choosing to use."