Since the very first artists painted cave walls with mineral pigments and clay, humans have been making art with the humblest of materials. These five practitioners are the contemporary counterparts of those first artists, using the most ordinary and mundane matter to create artworks that often not only provide ravishing visual experiences, but also contain far-reaching ideas.
1. Tara Donovan
The American artist Tara Donovan is well known for her large-scale sculptures that use store-bought materials like toothpicks, drinking straws, plastic cups, and Scotch tape to create organic forms. Her work has earned many accolades, such as the Calder Prize in 2005 and the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award in 2008, as well as solo exhibitions at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the UCLA Hammer Museum. To build her sought-after sculptures, Donovan repeatedly deploys a single material until it becomes a form resembling fractals or a beehive. Take, for example, her 2006 work Bluffs, a sculpture created entirely from buttons and glue. Through the simple act of stacking, Donovan creates forms reminiscent of a coral reef or crystals erupting from the floor.
2. Günther Uecker
German artist, set designer, and ZERO Group member Günther Uecker studies light and optics to make mesmerizing works of abstract art—and all he needs in his studio is a hammer and some nails. In pieces like White Field (1964), he takes hundreds of nails and creates atmospheric images full of motion and tension. His approach draws partly on his interest in systems of thought, like Buddhism and Taoism, that he sees as prizing simplicity and purity. Uecker’s meditative works have earned spots in major collections including the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
3. Guerra de la Paz
The duo of Cuban-born artists Alain Guerra and Neraldo de la Paz combines the artists’ madcap energies to create artworks that explore the archaeological dimensions of castoff materials, which testify to the lives of their former owners. Collaborating since 1996, they began by making installations that grew out of ingredients salvaged from trash cans of Miami companies that ship second-hand clothes. Many of their most iconic works transform used garments; the one illustrated here melds them together into a magic garden, complete with trees towering over adorable flowers. The artists have been granted shows at venues like the Saatchi Gallery, London; the Kuruyama Museum of Art, Oyama City, Japan; Daneyal Mahmood Gallery in New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art Caracas; and the Hyde Park Art Center, in Chicago.
4. Francesca Pasquali
Bologna-based artist Francesca Pasquali takes countless colorful plastic straws, balloons, and rubber bands and fashions them into colorful works of art in which synthetic materials echo organic shapes. In sculptures like Red Straws, Pasquali harmonizes a myriad of the simple plastic implement to build an undulating surface that recalls forms in nature. Her straw sculptures are in the Ghisla Art Collection, Locarno; the Museo Diocesano, Brescia; and the MAR Museo d’Arte della Città, Ravenna. Pasquali was a finalist for the 2015 Cairo Prize, and has shown in many of the art capitals of the world, including London, New York, Berlin, Paris, and Venice.
5. El Anatsui
As one of the best-known artists of the late 20th century, El Anatsui has set the bar high for the poetic use of mundane materials. His work touches on consumption, the environment, and the history of colonialism. Born in Ghana, El Anatsui sources scraps of metal from local recycling stations, weaving together bottle caps and copper wire in works like City Plot (2010) to create glistening and colorful forms that hang on the wall like folded tapestries. El Anatsui has earned great acclaim, including the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and his sculptures are housed in many museums, not least the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
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