Found in Nature
An Interview with Barry Rosenthal
What was the genesis of this project? Was it a reaction to the amount of waste that we humans generate and discard?
For several years prior to starting the ‘Found in Nature’ series, I was shooting botanical photographs out in the field, that I call “PhotoBotanicus” and found myself at the Jersey Shore for New Year’s holiday. I was scouting out a bird sanctuary, looking for plants to collect and shoot. Instead I saw vast amounts of colorful plastic trash. I picked up the trash and decided to work with this new material instead of my usual subject. The project evolved from miniatures to larger scale objects gathered on full day picking trips, then taken back to my studio for sorting and arranging.
I didn’t conceive of this project from a political or environmental point of view. As an artist, I was visually attracted to this stuff. I had no ax to grind. I knew that I could make something out of the detritus. It was just my curiosity at work. As the series grew, it became evident that the images were making a statement about contemporary society and the impermanence of consumer goods. But, the importance of this statement only came about from my working with trash. I have since tied the fortunes of this work to the oceans. I am shocked and disgusted by what I find. No coastal area in the world is protected from this human created mess.
Have you always been a collector?
I have been a collector since childhood, baseball cards and coins as a boy. I started to go to flea markets in my college days and still enjoy looking for finds. I have a collection of cast iron fry pans on a wall in the kitchen. They are utilitarian but also nice to look at. I have another collection of horse clocks and pot metal horses. This personal collecting has a nostalgic bent to it that differs from picking objects to photograph. Beachcombing is more random. I take everything and try not to be so selective. I don’t know where some object I pick up may lead me. The good thing is that my material is free.
Where do you find the amazing array of detritus that you use in your photographs?
The project in based in New York harbor. I go to public access areas but I don’t go to public beaches. If I do, I find the unused areas. The curation process starts in these coastal areas. I am always amazed at discovering something that I overlooked previously.
Collecting and arranging the collected objects is such a natural process for humans and for some animals– like bowerbirds–are you commenting on this inclination also?
Collecting is instinctive among humans. Whether it is postage stamps or postcards it reflects an innate intelligence. This sense of collecting is a survival instinct that transcends our species and ranges across the animal kingdom. Not only the bowerbirds collect and arrange. The squirrel also collects, ants collect and store. As our species has a spiritual connection to collecting in addition to an aesthetic appreciation of an object. Beginning with Neanderthal wall paintings, to drawing on a tablet, to photography we’re constantly evolving this universal language. We recognize these objects, known for their utility and now freed from their labels as representive modern cultural symbols. So far this project is very American but it has a universal appeal as the Brazilian National Geographic cover story (“Inspired by Trash” published December, 2013) shows that others abroad are interested in my work and speaks to my opportunity to collect in other countries.
You are working with the concept of time and how it affects these cast off objects, is the time spent in the process of collecting and assembling also significant? You are making something visually arresting and beautiful from things that others are throwing away. And, you are giving them significance.
Time and the aging process is something that I am aware of in this work. The elements have helped. I owe a lot to the sun, the sand, the wind and the tides. My time is significant too. Each piece takes more than a month of work just in the studio. Sometimes, I have to make repeated collecting trips to have enough raw material to work with. The piece “No Vanishing Point” took years of patient collecting to find enough and it is still a small collection. I’m in it for the long haul. I must have ten more collections in the ‘waiting room’ that need a few more individuals to complete them. I like to think of a finished piece as a community of objects. They must play well with their neighbors for that piece to be successful. I look for a balance in this interplay. On the practical side, I liken this ‘significance’ to the value added by a collector who aggregates his flea market finds of Meerschaum pipes into a museum quality display. The value of the whole is greater than what each piece alone cost. Now it has a new life as the ultimate Meerschaum collection. Curation is a value added.
My found objects do take on a greater value than what they seem to be as individuals. I treat them as jewels. They are the key to my work. So what if they are flawed, not clean and new. From this work, I have been found and recognized as an artist. Not an insignificant achievement in a noisy world screaming for attention.
Do you have a vast space in which you organize all these objects–by color, by function, by shape? Does it sometimes take a long time to gather just the right individual objects to put together in a piece?
I have a small studio, just over four hundred square feet. About one quarter of the space is taken up with storage and my equipment. I have what I call my “library of trash” stored in the studio. The library comes in handy when I can’t quite finish a piece and I need a blue flipflop. Also, I plan to enter the 3D world of art. I am looking for a large venue to display the framed photographs and some of the collections that I have saved. I would enjoy sharing the sculptural side of my work.
For more about the artist, visit www.barryrosenthal.com.