Thursday, March 25, 2010

Recycling Art

I have mixed feelings about recycling existing art into new art. I will admit that I often reappropriate existing objects into my work and that I will sometimes steal frames from other pieces, especially if said frames didn't enhance or worked against whatever they were framing. And I sometimes disassemble older jewelry, clean it thoroughly and refashion it into new pieces. But I have issues with artists completely painting over existing original artworks as if they were nothing more than blank canvases.

I do understand the desire to reappropriate existing canvases, boards and frames as it can be friendlier on both the environment and the artist's pocketbook. And I am not at all opposed to completely repainting over one's own artwork (though I highly recommend documenting the various stages of that process in some way so that you can reference those phases later on to come to a better understanding of yourself and your artistic development). But there is just something about the practice of painting over other artists' works that bothers me, even if those works are "outdated" or "primitive" or whatnot. (Note: I am not referring to mass-produced things but original one-of-a-kind artworks.)

Essentially, I think it amounts to a matter of respect. If an artwork is older (showing wear) or in desperate need of repair, I can better understand why one would want to just start over (this is often the case with the jewelry I reappropriate). Some things just aren't worth fixing up or are simply not repairable. But when it solely comes down to matters of personal tastes and convenience, I find it a pity that so many artists are so willing to assert their own importance over those who came before. It just seems very self-indulgent to me.

I hate thinking that any artist would so nonchalantly judge what is worthy of keeping versus being painted over. Few artists realize that the canvases they are painting over could someday be their own work in the hands of another. And a lot of "outdated" works are an important part of art history and exemplify the breadth of what has come before, not just what was deemed worthy of appearance in coffee table books and intellectual & educational circuits. Some pieces are genuinely worth something as collectibles unto themselves, including several things that one may not expect, so one may be painting over an invaluable masterpiece that is alone worth more than enough to buy several blank canvases and frames of similar size and quality.

But rather than just bemoaning the practice, I want to point out an even more important factor in this. Not all materials are compatible. A lot of materials will react badly to one another and to various finishes. Some can be applied to the same surface but only in the correct order while others are completely incompatible and sometimes even dangerous when they come in contact with one another, potentially leaching carcinogenic or toxic chemicals and compounds into the air and surrounding environment.

Also, if media are improperly handled or combined, a huge array of horrific things can go wrong within the artwork itself, including large chunks of media falling off of the surface or chemical reactions that cause things to be tacky or cloud up. Some of these reactions are immediate while others develop and build up over the course of time and aren't noticeable at first. And, while some reactions may go away over time, others may be recurring problems exacerbated by sunlight, darkness, heat, cold, humidity & so on, and still others may never seem to go away. So it's hard to say exactly what the long-term effects will be.

So if you're considering reworking over something that someone else did before, you may want to reassess, out of respect for the previous artist, to avoid reworking something that you later come to learn was itself worth a lot of money or was a priceless bit of art history, and/or to avoid the frustration of creating a masterpiece or major work that is unstable and falls apart.

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