By-product Becomes Product, Intersection for the Arts

Intersection of art and science is not uncommon in contemporary culture, or on the pages of this site. While this most often involves the integration of high technology (e.g., electronics and the Internet) into artistic pieces and practice, the current exhibition at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco takes a new look at a more basic technology, the manufactured materials used by many artists. The show, titled By-product Becomes Product, is a collaboration of lead artist Christine Lee with research engineer John F. Hunt at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory exploring the use of excess wood waste as a safer alternative to some of the toxic materials often used by artists.

Artists have made use of engineered wood products originally created for practical uses such as homebuilding and furniture manufacturing. Among these are plywood, particle board, oriented strand board (OSB) and medium density fiberboard (MDF). All of these have their positives and negatives, and among the negatives are the manufacturing processes, byproducts, and especially in the case of MDF toxic chemicals in the product itself. While a resident the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Lee worked with Hunt to develop a custom composite board made entirely from sawdust and paper fibers. A sample was available at the start of the exhibition:

Because the board was made entirely from waste material, it required no additional wood to be harvested. And because it does not include any adhesives or other additional chemicals, it is non-toxic for artists and viewers of the art. Finally, because it is made entirely from wood by-products, it is biodegradable, and the objects made from it will naturally decay and return to the environment. With this theme in mind, the boards were given to five additional artists to create new work for the exhibition. The results spanned a variety of conceptual and aesthetic styles, and crossed the boundaries between art and design. They were brought together into Intersection’s gallery space in an installation whose clean and spartan quality matched the texture of the material itself:

Russel Baldon’s Mutant Boxes perfectly balanced art and design, and was in many ways the most fun piece in the exhibition. Baldon used the composite material to fashion a series of exquisite corpse boxes featuring his own drawings. The drawings were fun, surreal, often comical or fantastic, and I found myself quite engrossed in playing with them.

[Russel Baldon, Mutant Boxes, 2013.]

This is Baldon’s first public exhibit featuring his drawings – most of his existing work is sculpture and furniture – but they look like the product of someone who is at ease with drawing. The images are clean and precise while maintaining a hand-drawn quality and a common sense a style among a diverse set of characters ranging from anthropomorphic cats to multi-tendriled space aliens. The idea to fashion the material into an object of play was a natural one for the artist, who started his work in his family’s wooden-toy business. It was also an opportunity to feel the material in the form of a finished piece, after touching the prototype board at the start of the exhibit.

Design was squarely the focus of Christine Lee’s own piece, Interwoven. This sculptural furniture piece is a prototype demonstrating the properties of the composite board in terms of strength and flexibility, and an effort that minimized wasted material and toxicity. But the geometric simplicity combined with the detail of the weave also makes it an aesthetically strong piece. It would certainly be at home at CatSynth HQ.

[Christine Lee, Interwoven, 2013.]

Imin Yeh adapted the new boards to an old artform, woodblock printing, in her conceptual installation Double Happiness. She used the composite board as a safe and more natural alternative to other materials used in contemporary woodblock printing. The result was a series of printed paper fruits that were assembled into a cart and crates, also made from the composite board. The scene evokes the wooden produce stands that can be seen around San Francisco:

[Imin Yeh, Double Happiness, 2012.]

The sculpture itself is intended to be a vending station, selling limited edition paper fruits as “organic, fresh, fine art.”

For feed/rest/nest, artist Barbara Holmes created a series of colorful bird houses arranged around the gallery’s spiral staircase.

[Barbara Holmes, feed/rest/nest, 2013.]

Aesthetically, the birdhouses themselves are reminiscent of California architecture of the mid-to-late 20th century. But they also serve a function of returning the materials, sawdust and paper fiber that were themselves by-products of trees removed from the natural environment back into the natural world. They provide habitat for birds, but also will naturally bio-degrade and be reabsorbed into the environment. Holmes intends to place the birdhouses into friends’ yards for habitation and will continue to track their use.

Like Imin Yeh, Julia Goodman used the composite board indirectly, is this case as a series of molds for cast paper. Her conceptual pieces FEMA 3 Step, Forgive and Forget, and Oversight embed words into the cast paper that recall the issues surrounding MDF and formaldehyde leakage in FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina. The issue of MDF had a personal dimension for Goodman, as she used MDF in her own art practice and was exposed to its toxic byproducts. She was drawn to the new materials promise as a non-toxic alternative for both art practice and for homes.

Among the artists in the exhibition Scott Oliver seemed to take the sustainability and minimization of waste to its furthest extreme. He used not only the composite boards, but the wooden crate that used to ship the raw material to him. The crate and boards were fashioned into a camper shell for the his Toyota pick-up, once again making an object that is both art and function at the same time. His title Tree, Crate, Camper Shell, Or, On the Way to Becoming Something Else suggests that the life cycle of the piece and its materials is not yet over. They started as trees, become crates and composite boards, but in the future the natural materials of the camper shell will decay and be returned to the environment.

The pieces in this exhibition demonstrate that Lee and Hunt’s new composite-board material has promise as a medium for art and design. They were all quite simple in both form and concept and attempted to relate directly to the themes of sustainability inherent in the material. It will be interesting too see if the material has a wider arrange of applications in more complex artworks in the future and ideas beyond these themes. That will clearly depend on its availability and the imagination of artists.

By-product Becomes Product will remain on display at Intersection for Arts through March 30.