Unexpected Materials

Unexpected Materials

Art isn’t always made of paint, pastel, or clay. In fact, artists frequently embrace less traditional materials because they are able to convey meanings in more nuanced ways. Sonya Clark’s Madam C.J. Walker is a perfect example: this portrait, composed entirely of plastic combs, depicts a woman who built her fortune on hair care products. Alternatively, Cildo Meireles’s Missão/Missões [Mission/Missions] is made up of coins, communion wafers, cattle bones, and paving stones; together, these trappings aim to illustrate the complex history behind Jesuit missionaries.

Artists also choose unconventional materials for formal qualities like shape, texture, or movement. Paintings on sheets of copper yield a rare, rich surface quality, for example, while Yayoi Kusama turned to egg crates to create a dense, evocative patchwork in No. 62.A.A.A. Together, this selection of artworks demonstrates how artists have proven their mettle in thinking outside the box (or canvas).

Image of Oliver Herring's "Patrick," which depicts a sculpture of a seated man whose skin is composed entirely of photographs.

It’s a process: how materials influence method

Materials and process are inextricably tied to one another. To make his sculpture Patrick, for example, Oliver Herring photographed his sitter over the course of several sittings to document every nook and cranny of his body; this labor-intensive method is made visible in the hundreds of photographs that comprise Patrick’s “skin.” Antonio Berni’s collagraphs, by contrast, belie the artist’s intricate procedure of making, which began with accruing debris from the street. Finally, tape played an integral role in Jaime Davidovich’s practice—its transparency and liminal nature perfectly captured his interest in boundaries, both physical and conceptual.
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Image of Gyula Kosice (Kosice, Czechoslovakia (Slovakia), 1924 - 2016, Buenos Aires, Argentina) Obra articulada y móvil en bronce [Articulated Brass Sculpture in Bronze], which depicts an articulated hanging bronze shape.

What lies beneath: unique surfaces

In these works, you’ll encounter surfaces of all qualities and textures: from glittery glass microspheres to industrial bronze slats to ruddy egg cartons.
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Image of Cildo Meireles' "How to Build Cathedrals"

Materials and meaning

In many cases, artists select their materials based on a specific significance they carry.
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Image of Marguerite Thompson Zorac: Rites of Spring - Olympic Offerings (Recto)

Reduce, reuse, recycle

Limited resources often yield creative breakthroughs. Such is the case with these works: here, you’ll find art made with everything from reused canvases found in the studio to random detritus found on the street. In each example, the artist has capitalized on the power of transformation, whether it be through rearrangement (as in Louise Nevelson’s Dawn’s Presence—Two Columns), or radical juxtaposition (Rachel Harrison’s Buddha with Wall). Ultimately, they reveal/illuminate how recycling existing materials can prove to be even more fruitful than starting from scratch.
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