Monday, June 24, 2013


Unless you were plugged into the art scene forty years ago (or were even alive at that time), you probably never heard the term “Arte Povera.” It referred to a movement that began in Italy in the late 1960s. Defined as the “Art of Impoverished Materials,” it is artwork made out of found objects, detritus and cast-off, unconventional, often impermanent materials. Arte Povera was a radical movement, both artistically and politically, attacking the corporate mentality of the art world both through materials and style.
Since I lived in an artistic backwater, Stamford, Connecticut, with very little opportunity to get into New York City (long story – another time), Arte Povera was in and out of fashion without my even being aware it existed. For some reason, however, I always had a liking for funky, impermanent materials: box cardboard, brown wrapping paper, junkyard scrap metal. I figured that since my work was never going to make it to Madison Avenue or be bought by a major museum, I didn’t have to worry about whether or not it was “archivally stable” and would last forever. Besides, it appealed to the anarchist (small “a”) in me to believe that my work was not a commodity and I was not creating merchandise. Take that you for-profit-art world! I’m never going to be bought and sold like the rest of you whores.

My first foray into Art Povera (although I didn’t know that’s what I was doing) was when I created a hundred or so urban dioramas out of discarded cardboard boxes. These miniature worlds were peopled by a huge cast of hand-drawn characters right out of the streets of downtown Stamford before the city was “redeveloped” in the 1960s. I once exhibited stacks of boxes in the windows of a SOHO gallery where they were at home with the grungy (at the time) art scene. The closest my boxes ever came to art world acceptance was when a scion of the Goldman Sachs family installed a dozen of them in the waiting room of the local health center. My patron was convinced that patients waiting for their ct-scans and x-rays would be both distracted and entertained by what was going on.

After the boxes, I set about creating giant puppets made of eight-foot sheets of cardboard purchased for a couple of dollars at the local packaging store This time, my theme was corruption and power: twenty savage figures masquerading as respectable businessmen along with their equally dissolute wives and associates. The crowd is still hanging around my studio, waiting for me to come up with the Brechtian "Power Play"  I promised to write for them. I’ll tell you more about it later when I get further along with the script.

I’ve always been fond of “detritus,” a fancy term for cast-off junk, especially the kind that turns up as scrap metal. I usually buy it by the pound at a place in Stamford called “Vulcan Surplus,” a favorite haunt of sculptors and tinkerers. I forage for scraps on the ground and use them in miniature, Schwitters-like collages with mud still clinging to them.

My most recent foray into Arte Povera is what I refer to grimly as "road kill,"  beer cans squashed by passing cars into convoluted abstract shapes. If I find a good can, but one that lacks “character,” I kick it back into the road and pick it up the next day. When I am satisfied with the patina, I mount the can on black velour and set it in a faux baroque frame. The nice part is, I know I can get at least a nickel deposit back for the piece.

Photo #1: A nest of cardboard boxes currently cheers visitors to the Tully Health Center in Stamford.

Photo #2: Sheets of box cardboard are used to create giant satirical puppets.

"EATS" right side triptych 72"x46"

For reasons that make very little sense, I have decided to write an art blog. You can read my first few efforts now and make up your mind if you want to continue with me. God only knows, the world does not need another egocentric screed about "Me the Great Artist," but hopefully, mine will be fun to read and more informative than most. I hope to give you some insight into the mind of the 'working' artist and will cover new topics once a week.

I promise to keep my comments short and sweet, insightful without being pseudo academic jargon or one-up-man-ship. If you enjoy what I have to say, please pass the site along to your friends and colleagues. My goal is to get my work and ideas out into the wider world before it's too late.

Thank you,
Renee Kahn