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‘Hello Again’ Mixes Fun With Serious Ideas About Recycling

TIMES ART CRITIC

If the Municipal Art Gallery’s going to have a popular hit this season it should be “Hello Again: A New Wave of Recycled Art and Design.” The exhibition presents about 1,000 objects ranging from monsters made of trashed auto tires to a couture evening gown fashioned from rusty bottle caps. There’s a throne cobbled from wooden thread spools and furniture carpentered from a new kind of confetti-colored lumber that used to be plastic detergent bottles.

In short, this is the fun side of ecological disaster. Organized by the Oakland Museum, it’s the brainstorm of its guest curator, Berkeley journalist and product developer Susan Subtle Dintenfass. Somehow the provenance is just right. The Bay Area betrays a particular affection for revitalizing precious discards. Good thing there’s no catalog. That would wreck a pleasantly pixilated carnival ambience.

A grand entrance to the Barnsdall Park emporium is formed by bales of plastic wrap, newspaper and other salvageable stuff. It leads indoors to a ceremonial tower made of those magisterial green trash cans and yellow bins we all have in the backyard.

The show is parsed into thematic sections. The first reminds us there’s nothing new about recycling. A kind of historical hobo jungle, it contains folk art by tramps, prisoners and just about anybody with no money and a lot of discretionary time. Camel cigarette packs turn into origami containers. Thousands of wooden matchsticks make toys shaped like house, boat and grand piano. Wonder Bread wrappers are woven into rugs. Some clever soul mordantly made handsome lamps from artillery shells. Wooden cigar boxes are transformed into miniature furniture that looks like inlay from some exotic Arabian oasis.

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At a glance it all recalls folk work made in Africa, Haiti or some other poor place. The resonance is especially strong in musical instruments of bamboo and gourd. Actually most pieces are anonymous, American and of recent date, confirming that this great nation has its own third world. The work is mesmerizing. It expresses a different conception of time, an obsessive determination to make something valuable out of other people’s trash. Admirable and sad, it makes much of the mainstream material look a little effete.

Artists called attention to America’s rising wastefulness in the Assemblage movement of the ‘50s. Local heroes like George Herms and Tony Berlant also are on board. They look a little too sophisticated here. More in the spirit of the thing are artists like Clayton Bailey. His aluminum utensil “Marilyn Monroebot” is estimably tasteless. Paul Di Pasqua’s “Salute to Mrs. --" depicts a mutant Mickey Mouse bricolaged of everything from Jell-O molds to pretty tin cans. Bob Kai Cheng’s “Berlin” captures the city’s tawdry soul in the jazz era. In fact much of the Assemblage has a retro-cartoon flavor nostalgic for the ‘30s.

Expensive designer fashions made from trash may appear a bit yuppified. Among many other things there’s chic S&M; wear from worn-out rubber tires, a spiffy jacket of old neckties, a shawl of shredded greenbacks and a slinky Jean Harlow cocktail frock made entirely of safety pins. Maybe the irony is intentional.

The lighting area is staged in a Moderne set-piece environment by designer Clare Graham. It’s so stylish it redeems some fairly gooney lamps. Out on the balcony one sees garden stuff. A fountain of cement and broken bottles in Watts Towers style is surrounded by robot insects the size of hogs. I didn’t notice any compost bins.

The design section is real clever. Wine goblets with bedspring stems and a footstool of coiled elevator cable are conversation pieces that leave one speechless. A chaise armored with a mosaic of soft drink cans is cute but how does it feel on a hot day? At the same time this is the place where recycled material is put to potentially practical use. High on recycling’s Most Wasted list, apparently, are those wooden pallets used to forklift building materials on construction sites. Made of perfectly good, study oak, they often wind up on landfills. Here the wood has been rescued to good purpose in tables and chairs.

Some consumer products on view betray no sign of using recycled material. A handsome kayak and couple of bikes look utterly new. Oh, goody. Let’s recycle so we can go right on consuming.

Entirely good-hearted, “Hello Again” is a perfect show for those of celebratory nature with a weakness for nostalgia, camp and funk. Recycling votaries too earnest to enjoy it are invited to a library provided for serious study.

* Municipal Art Gallery, Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., through Saturday, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (213) 485-4581.


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