Found Objects as Visual Art: Observations and Application in Oaxaca, Mexico

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As a consequence of the innovative thinking of Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and others, the 20th century bore witness to the concept of found object as visual art becoming a mainstream European and American medium of artistic expression.  In the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, itself known for quality, cutting edge art, found object has received attention over the past 20 years. Take for example the masterful works of Damien Flores, the collages produced by Rodolfo Morales during the final years of his life, and young Mixteco artist Manuel Reyes’ use of archaeological pieces as well as local sands and soils as aids in expressing the strong sense of indigeneity he seeks to impart through his art.

Oaxaca’s 16 native cultures, the diversity of its landscapes and climatic regions, and its rich human history beginning with pre-Hispanic times, continuing through the era of the Conquest, to ongoing 21st century human struggles, provide a diverse, ultra – rich proving ground.   Within it, visiting and resident artists, tourists with a bent towards antiques and collectibles, and both expat and native born Oaxacans who are inclined to think out-of-the-box, can readily encounter found objects to incorporate into their aesthetic lives.

Contemporary Manifestations of Found Object as Visual Art

A found object within the context of visual art may be defined as the artistic use of an object, man – made or otherwise, which has not been created for a predominantly artistic purpose.  It can be a toaster, a shoe, a car part, a beaded jacket, a newspaper, a simple tool or a farm implement, a leaf or stone, a wrestler’s mask, a clump of clay, or a Coke bottle – empty or full.

One can designate three broad categories of found object which are then transformed into the realm of art:

  • An object encountered by chance or sought out by design, for the purpose of using it essentially “as found,” to enhance the aesthetic environment of a home, an office, a store or other workplace environment, or a landscape. Of course it can be a featured artwork in an exposition (i.e. Duchamp’s seminal display of a ceramic urinal in 1917) which eventually finds its way into one of the three foregoing contextual environments or as a permanent gallery exhibit.
  • An object or objects encountered by chance or sought out by design, and incorporated into a traditional piece of art such as an oil or watercolor, for the purpose of enhancing its overall aesthetics, or the imagery its author seeks to impart, or both (i.e. Manuel Reyes’ use of potsherds).
  • Objects usually sought out by design for the purpose of employing them to create a specific art form, which may or may not include a utilitarian function (i.e. rusted horse shoes made into a wine rack or polished old metal car parts fashioned into a twirling ballerina).

Found Objects in Oaxaca for the Expat Resident and Tourist Alike

Artists resident in Oaxaca should have no difficulty advancing the breadth and quality of their works within the realm of the last two categories noted above.  They already have a trained eye and a mind yearning to continually grow in different directions with a view to keeping the art fresh, both on a personal level and for their benefit of public consumption.

It’s the availability of the broadest selection of Oaxacan material culture, objects which can be used “as found,” which should attract the attention of non – artist expat residents and tourists alike.  The case can be made within the following parameters:

  1. Middle and upper classes have an eye for a different and often broader continuum of objects which they deem aesthetically pleasing, than working and lower classes.
  2. There is a much larger per capita middle and upper class in the United States and Canada, than in Oaxaca, of which a significant segment of the former is inclined to visit Oaxaca.
  3. It’s relatively difficult for members of those same two classes in Oaxaca, having grown up surrounded by and conditioned to ignore much of their day – to – day material culture (indigenous or otherwise),  to appreciate its aesthetic value; they are accordingly less interested in its acquisition.
  4. Based on the foregoing, relative to the American and Canadian phenomenon over the past 50+ years, found objects in Oaxaca have only to a minor extent become deemed collectibles.

The Transformation from Found Object to Collectible

When an object becomes a collectible, its acquisition price tends to increase exponentially.  The first time an American saw a discarded or stored away pine foundry form, he probably picked it up for free or at a nominal charge (perhaps its value as firewood).  After he took it home, and then cleaned and oiled it and put it on the wall in his den, he began using the found object as art; a piece of wood used to fabricate industrial metal, now adorning an upscale contemporary household.

Foundry forms became collectibles, offered for sale in antique stores and interior design galleries.  Much in the same vein, old working wooden duck decoys have been transformed from utilitarian hunting paraphernalia into thousand dollar (and indeed much more) adornments of fireplace mantels;  and wooden tongue and groove Canadian Butter and Southern Comfort boxes initially used to transport product from manufacturer to market, have become aesthetically pleasing receptacles to store kindling for those fireplaces.

These days one rarely picks up a foundry form, a decoy or an old wooden advertising box “for a song,” because each has been transformed into a class of collectible.  In Canada and the United States, and it is suggested throughout most of the Western World, a solitary found object as visual art is virtually non – existent outside of the context of being offered for sale as art, folk art or otherwise for interior design purposes.  On the other hand, objects found for the purpose of either incorporating them into a traditional art form (newspaper comic clippings, potsherds, shoe laces) or fabricating a piece of art using only that class of object (the car part ballerina), will be easily encountered for generations to come, bought outright based on non – aesthetic value, scrounged on the street, or found in a junk yard and purchased by the pound.

Found Objects in Oaxaca Still in Abundance for Aficionados of Art & Aesthetics

Insofar as Oaxaca remains a developing state, with a middle / upper class contingent as previously described (small, generally unconditioned to appreciate a certain level of aesthetics), its realm of collectibles has not reached the level one encounters in the Western World, or even within the Mexico City environs.  This provides interesting buying opportunities for visitors to Oaxaca.

Although in each of the three or four downtown Oaxaca antique stores one does encounter found objects, these particular objets d’art have been transformed into collectibles over the past few decades and in some cases merely years (stone metates or grinding stones, well worn ritual masks, pine votive candle holders, chango mezcalero clay painted mezcal bottles, etc.).  However, by getting out of the city and knocking on villagers’ doors, and even simply walking along dusty roads, visitors can still stumble upon a treasure trove of found objects which when brought home, with proper placement and juxtaposition are easily transformed into visual art.

Of course residents of Oaxaca are not restricted in the size or weight of what they choose to transform, nor by customs and immigration rules.  Hence, one might find in their homes, now as art, an old rusted iron plough adorning a well landscaped garden; or a pine mule saddle riddled with tiny holes evidencing a period of insect infestation, now gracing an interior wall of a new home, draped with colored twine and worn leather parts, all as originally found in a farmer’s shed.

Indeed the traveler on a brief visit to Oaxaca can also return home with a bounty of found object art. The big old rusty plough and the well worn wooden saddle are found objects which today complement the aesthetics of this writer’s Oaxacan home.

Opportunities abound to find smaller found objects, manageable for export, to transform into art, simply by exploring villages in the state’s central valleys.  Examples?  Just keep a keen eye, and remember to think out-of-the-box.

Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com) with his wife Arlene.  Alvin writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and its central valleys, including articles about art and antiques.  He also consults to documentary film companies, tours couples and families, and together with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo organizes culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

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