One of the strongest commonalities among the work of the Trash Talk artists is the use of beauty and humor to help convey some of the medium’s harder realities into a more palatable discussion. Garbage, whether saved from our own waste basket or salvaged from the street, comes laden with guilty associations and questionable provenance. Yet, the very familiarity of these materials allows us a deeper understanding into their creative repurposing. As self-described maintenance artist MIERLE LADERMAN UKELES eloquently describes in her 2002 essay for Cabinet Magazine (see quote box), once we put something into our garbage, its previously existence is discarded and its worth leveled to the basest of values. Unless, of course, it gets so lucky as to catch the eye of an artist.

The idea behind curating Trash Talk stemmed from my own considerations about the amount of excess materials I throw out because my daily necessities come packaged in them. We all encounter this conundrum in modern living. Despite the admittedly small impact my recycled art has in decreasing my own trash production, I started making little houses out of product paperboard that have grown into neighborhoods by the hundreds. Naming the series Suburban Export served as a small confession of what we truly produce in our daily lives.

An inclination to address our domestic habitats can also be found in NATHANIEL LIEB’s Hatchling performance in which he futilely builds a cocoon-like nesting structure out of cardboard box remnants, held together only by the fickle graces of hot glue. His Sisyphean undertaking can serve as a mirror to our own struggles with generating excess packaging, and the urge to surround ourselves with the comfort of new purchases.

IAN TRASK builds structures out of overabundant cardboard as well, but his structures serve no utility. Trask turns something usually recognizable for being rigid, rectangular, and hollow into swirling, soft rolls compacted into semi-solid forms. His cardboard avoids right angles and instead creates a new structure that defies the limits of the materials. The square becomes rounded; the structured becomes organic; the banal becomes elaborate.

TATTFOO TAN takes on the issue of excess consumption by using his own leftover food and reviving it, through the process of composting, with vitality and use. Tan not only uses this material in his own practice of urban farming, but with his piece Black Gold he adeptly nods to an infamous piece of 1960s conceptual art that questions the very practice of evaluating how worth is determined.

Playing with the idea of giving short-lived or single-use items longer lifespans, GHOST OF A DREAM takes the discards of hopeful escapism—used lottery tickets and romance novels—to create elaborate collages that have a quiet reference to the sacred geometry found in mandalas, while also bordering into the decorative baroque. The repetition and time involved in making this work brings order to the otherwise distracting designs attempting to catch our eyes for a wishful payout.

SARA HUBBS adopts the discards of fashion—shoes, purses, and other items that depend on short attention spans for their continued sales—and hones them into elegant, three-dimensional drawings that don’t deny their origins, but have lost all practicality. Seams become contours that define an idiosyncratic outline of color and movement, suggesting lively characters vying for our attention.

RUTH HARDINGER fills the insides of empty cardboard boxes with wet concrete—testing the limits of the structures and pushing them just shy of collapse. In negotiating between the relative fragility of the molds and the heaviness of the liquid, a balance is achieved. The resulting forms, called Envoys, echo the conditions of their making. In a waste-not, want-not approach, the original Containers are splayed open and adopt a new cycle of life, presenting their interesting history and continuing change.

Flipping the idea of packaging around one more time, VANDANA JAIN uses plastic blister packs as molds for a new product: solid sugar casts of the missing object’s packaging shadow. Jain presents these invisible products arranged into a mandala of contemplation, reflecting on the absurd means with which we display and sell such items. The sugar is perhaps likely to last longer than the original items therein.

Addressing the idea of meditation as well, JIMMY MIRACLE re-packages simple plastic containers which normally hold produce such as delicate berries, and threads within them row after row of an even more delicate substance: fine, colorful string. He swaps one element for another, and the macro to micro transformation quietly creates
a new universe.

With the detail of a skilled quilter, SCOTT ANDRESEN also sews his materials with loving attention. The ragged discarded materials he chooses to use, however, contrast sharply with the careful consideration he imbues them with. His use of an established craft form, often borne of frugality, when paired with the absurdity of his unusual chosen cloth, creates a poignant reflection on the arbitrary nature of why we discard so readily.

In homage to another ancient craft form, SHARI MENDELSON forms vessels out of the ubiquitous, and much maligned, plastic bottle. Her work highlights the beauty to be found in the unexpected details of these often overlooked containers. In her hands, the vessel is dismantled, broken down into components, sorted by similarities, then resurrected, ironically, into another vessel. The historical reference to terracotta urns and ancient glass relics begs the question: are these the future antiquities that we will leave behind?

GREGG HILL performs a thorough transformation on his containers of choice—industrial steel drums. In a simple act of force, he flattens their shapes, removing their very essence of being able to contain, and then gives them a new dressing of lush, colorful paint that is a far cry from the rough patina of the original. The juxtaposition of brutal energy and resulting calm is the compelling attractor of two opposites coexisting with grace—the embodiment of yin and yang.

In keeping with one of the most basic answers to the question “What is art?” all of these artists create meaning and value from, in essence, nothing. Their artistic labor is often repetitive and intricate, and laced with a desire to change the status quo of how we perceive the products deemed disposable in our lives. Their well considered actions indicate an attempt to create a type of order from an origin where chaos reigns—our trash bins.