Recycling ready-made materials, repurposing common household items and creating art from the refuse of everyday life are classic strategies of the modern and postmodern avant-garde, from early-20th-century Cubist collages of newspaper clippings and the ephemera of popular culture to today’s recycling of high-tech detritus and consumer waste by artists such as Xing Danwen and Sarah Sze.
Atlanta artist Jaynie Crimmins’ stitched accretions of shredded household papers, on view in “Examining the Overlooked” at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center through May 24, exemplify the practice, and the best of them demonstrate its potential to transcend the mundane and elicit unexpected responses.
In this show, the examined “overlooked” includes catalogs, letters, financial statements and other paper that accumulates in most people’s homes. Crimmins selects them, shreds them into uniform strips, folds them and then, with needle and thread, carefully sews them into colorful bands that coil into flowering creations.
Mounted on a square board and hung on the wall, “Terra Incognita 2” (2012) resembles the offspring of a thickly brushed Abstract Expressionist painting and a feathery sweater, or a thistle flower with frayed and faded petals. Tighter coils of folded, colored paper form nuclei, around which circle layers of curled white paper shreds. Black text fragments on the curled white shreds add visual texture but remain largely illegible to the viewer.
In “Aggregate No. 1 and No. 2” (2013), tight coils of multicolored folded paper shreds cling to a white square board like clusters of barnacles. Within the intertidal zone, barnacles grow in tight communities according to precise variations in sea level, close together with communities of different species. Crimmins interprets these as aggregate populations with diverse social, economic and belief systems.
In a statement provided by the gallery, the artist says that unexpected and “priceless” meanings may emerge when we examine the “overlooked.” She derived that notion and the title of the exhibition from Norman Bryson’s 1990 book Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, which challenged the traditional academic relegation of still life to the lesser ranks of painting genres because of its mundane subject matter. For Crimmins, the act of shredding and reconfiguring seemingly trivial papers into lush organic sculptures elevates neglected domestic detritus to a higher status as cultural evidence. While the spectator can no longer decipher the text on the papers to appreciate the original overlooked meanings, her transformation of those “humble objects,” as she calls them, into dense, unfolding flowers or communities of arthropods creates a fantastic menagerie of new forms to be explored.
Crimmins’ research into the overlooked artifacts of culture led to her discovery of the asarotos oikos, or “unswept room,” a type of Hellenistic floor mosaic mentioned by Bryson and described by J.J. Pollitt in his Art in the Hellenistic Age. These mosaics depict the debris from a meal as if it had not yet been swept away. The popularity of this kind of floor decoration suggests that in ancient Greece, the evidence of a well-prepared meal was valued as entertaining subject matter for art.
The miniature studies for Crimmins’ “Unswept Floor” present colorful and intriguing collages of discernible fragments of pop culture. But the finished work, arranged in two rectangles laid end to end on the floor, seems more like the emptied contents of a paper shredder than a carefully arranged cultural artifact. Lacking the trompe l’oeil effect of the mosaics, the shreds appear only as scattered scraps that litter the floor.
“Unsourced Material” is a headdress of sewn paper shreds and a dress created in collaboration with clothing designer Cynthia Holder out of fabric imprinted with a detail of its headdress. The piece doesn’t seem to belong to Crimmins’ examination of overlooked everyday objects.
At its best, the artist’s literal deconstruction of the paper remnants of domestic life draws attention to the concealed corners and hidden spaces of the everyday world. Her abundant creations transform the mundane into fantastic, evolving creatures that keep the secret of their humble origins.
For those of us with piles of brochures, announcements and other mailings tucked out of sight, this exhibition is certainly worth a visit.