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The material is the message

Times Staff Writer

FOR every artist who stocks up at standard art supply stores, there’s one who finds materials in junk heaps, swap meets, discount outlets or surplus shops. Some follow the lead of Picasso, Duchamp and Rauschenberg. But others don’t look for the perfect metal colander, wicker basket, bicycle wheel or stuffed goat. They scrounge en masse or buy in bulk.

“I use whatever it takes,” says artist Maximo Gonzalez, an Argentine who lives in Mexico City. And lots of it, including rice, keys, balloons and devalued currency.

Like quilters who assemble bed covers from scraps of cloth or the late French artist Arman, who made sculptures and wall pieces from slews of paint tubes, door handles and faucets, the artists require large quantities of a particular kind of unorthodox stuff to do their work. Whether the impulse comes from need or desire, it produces distinctive artworks all over the world.

Consider El Anatsui, a leading African artist who was born in Ghana and lives in Nsukka, Nigeria. Laboring under the conviction that “artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up,” he stitches together hundreds of liquor bottle tops and flattened food tins in monumental metal tapestries, often likened to strip-woven kente cloth from his homeland. He also erects sculptures from food graters and evaporated-milk containers. With works in the collections of such institutions as San Francisco’s De Young Museum and the British Museum in London and a piece in process for this year’s Venice Biennale, he will open a show of eight large works next Sunday at UCLA’s Fowler Museum.

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“What you see in the finished product,” says Fowler Director Marla C. Berns, “is such an utter transformation of the original material that you don’t know what it is until you get up close and study it. And even then you don’t know unless you are told.”

In India, New Delhi-based artist Subodh Gupta made a hit in the 2005 Venice Biennale with a hanging tower of stainless steel cooking pots. A rising star in the international contemporary art market, he has found eager buyers for other ambitious concoctions, including an enormous skull and a miniature city made of shiny metal kitchen gear.

In China, Sui Jianguo, an influential figure in Beijing’s booming art scene, has constructed a map of Asia with thousands of bright colored plastic toy dinosaurs. The map serves as a bed for a fiberglass likeness of Mao Tse-tung in “Sleeping Mao,” the centerpiece of Sui’s 2005 exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

In the United States, New Jersey-based Willie Cole -- whose work is touring the country in an exhibition lodged at the Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama through May 27 -- has amassed high-heeled shoes in various forms, including re-creations of traditional African sculptures (www.artsbma.org). Los Angeles-based Chris Burden designed “The Reason for the Neutron Bomb,” an antiwar installation of 50,000 nickels and 50,000 matchsticks, in his early days. More recently, he has collected vintage street lights, to be installed on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Then there’s the late Dan Flavin, whose installations of fluorescent light bulbs will go on view May 13 in a traveling retrospective at LACMA.

All over the place

ART made of vast quantities of unusual materials is everywhere -- especially this spring in Los Angeles.

The largest concentration is in “Poetics of the Handmade,” an exhibition of works by eight Latin American artists opening next Sunday at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Curator Alma Ruiz says the show evolved through her interest in processes of making art by hand, but many of the raw materials are industrial products.

Chilean artist Livia Marin, who launched her career in 1998 with a piece made of paper clips and steel wool, will be represented by “Fictions of a Use,” an installation of 2,200 tubes of lipstick in 27 colors. Like tiny abstract sculptures -- with tips molded in 600 shapes -- they will be lined up on a 40-inch-tall, 12-inch-wide curved base.

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“I am interested in the everyday, the banal, the pedestrian object,” Marin says, “in part as they play an integral part in our lives, but also in the often-overlooked, formal and aesthetic properties of these objects.” Rejecting the Pop notion of elevating common objects, as well as the irony of Duchampian “ready-mades,” she works “within a more formal Minimalist agenda,” but one that includes “the more ‘impure’ aspects of things that have been handled and used and bear a trace of a social history.” Less concerned with women’s use of cosmetics than “the mark of an individual on the mass-produced object,” the work recognizes that “every lipstick adopts a particular shape in relation to whoever uses it,” she says.

Mexican artist Eduardo Abaroa -- who has used mass-produced materials throughout his career and is particularly proud of a tower made of 7,000 aspirin tablets in 1995 -- will build a huge, web-like sculpture of Q-tips, wire and rubber balls at MOCA.

“Many artists in my generation tried to redefine how art was looked at in our Mexican context,” he says. “In sculpture we had to overthrow a very conventional abstract monumental style that was dominant. To use small materials was a bit of a statement, and to use mass produced objects has a slightly different meaning in a country where folkloric art has tremendous weight. When I work directly with unusual materials, I sometimes find possibilities that would never arise just by sitting at a desk or a computer. The physical characteristics of objects can be investigated in a productive way pragmatically, by trial and error.”

“The use that people make of the objects is very important,” he says. “The work I will show at MOCA has a visual impact that I hope many people can enjoy. It is also a study of nodes, lattices, patterns. The approach is to use everyday materials to convey relatively complex ideas and construction schemes. Cotton swabs are usually smeared with unpleasant substances that we want to get rid of. They are also used to take samples from our bodies, so they probably make you think about monitoring by health or law enforcement institutions. That is why the installation is ironically called ‘The Body Cavity Inspection Network.’ The correlation of abjection and inspection is an important idea in the work.”

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Gonzalez, also featured at MOCA, will show a labor-intensive mural composed of cut-out, folded, devalued currency from several countries. Tiny trees, tanks and buildings are all made of money. Each of the roughly 5,000 pictorial components is glued to paper, which will cover the walls of an entire gallery.

“I think every material has a memory and is full of symbols,” he says. “It is talking about something, full of meanings which have to do with the transformation into art. Bills are loaded with the history of their countries. Every ornament, national hero, character and building represented is part of the content I use to construct my pieces.”

The work at MOCA, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” has been in process for a year and a half. Ruiz describes it as a circular narrative about cycles of life and regeneration. Gonzalez says it started with “worries about values, economy, world energy consumption and war. All these issues keep running around my head, and that is where this piece comes from. It tries to build a fictitious cycle as if it were natural -- machines that eat and transform what they eat into what later will feed them. It’s a complex piece.”

Materials are not the entire message in their work, the artists say, but implicit meanings are a fundamental element. Among questions that Marin asks herself is: “How does one engage with an audience in a consumerist global marketplace for art?”

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The answer for many artists is to use something other than art materials, often in quantities too great to be ignored.

suzanne.muchnic@latimes.com

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Unorthodox materials

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What: “Poetics of the Handmade,” Museum of Contemporary Art, 250 S. Grand Ave.

When: Next Sunday to Aug. 13

Price: $5 to $8

Contact: (213) 626-6222; www.moca.org

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What: “El Anatsui: Gawu,” Fowler Museum at UCLA, Westwood

When: Next Sunday to Aug. 26

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 825-4361; www.fowler.ucla.edu

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What: “Dan Flavin: A Retrospective,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: May 13 to Aug. 12

Price: $5 to $9

Contact: (323) 857-6000; www.lacma.org

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