Words by Ciara Lavelle
At the opening of Save Your Selves, the group’s intricately stacked pile of personal detritus, found objects, lights, and video displays keeps blowing a fuse. As the lights dim, artist David Anasagasti, better known as Ahol Sniffs Glue, hurries outside to the fuse box and returns with a stepladder. Grinning humbly, he shuffles along the wall of Locust Projects while squeezing past viewers — the work reaches 15 feet tall and consumes nearly the entire room — and opens the ladder so his collaborators, artists Jason Handelsman and Jacob Katel, AKA the President and Swampdog, respectively, can reset the screens on top.
Even with the lights out, there’s plenty to keep gallery guests entertained. They lean forward to peer at empty Kool cigarette boxes and years-old ticket stubs. They point excitedly at familiar relics such as a toddler-size Dolphins jersey and a coaster from Mac’s Club Deuce. They marvel at the ATM, laid on its side to display one of Ahol’s characteristic eyeball designs; at a bottle of Evian filled to the brim with cigarette butts; at Bill Cosby’s 1966 album Wonderfulness on vinyl. They become transfixed watching raw footage of the “butthole tattoo girl,” a video that went viral after Swampdog shot it for New Times Broward-Palm Beachin 2012. They step back to take in the entire mountain of immaculately stacked rubble in its grimy glory. Then they dive in again.
Found-object art is nothing new in the art world. Design Miami lists the trend among its top themes this year, with galleries from Chile, London, and New York showing works incorporating reclaimed items. Last month, artist Bhakti Baxter launched “First Light,” which turned ocean detritus into quirky character sculptures. But during Art Basel, a time when local galleries and museums usually present the work of artists from outside the city, Miami-made found-object art does more than turn trash into treasure. It forces viewers from across the globe to confront a real piece of the city, not just the pretty face it puts on for one week each December.
Around the corner at Primary Projects, artist Autumn Casey achieves the same goal by vastly different means. Her exhibit, “Balancing Infinity, While Hanging Upside Down. Watching Lovers Fall From Grace, Underneath the Ground,” combines a collection of 78 collages, each based on a different card in the tarot deck, with pieces of sculpture crafted from personal mementos and found objects. The collages, thoughtfully crafted by the nomadic artist over three years, use pages from sources including art history books, illustrated Shakespeare plays, children’s dictionaries, personal drawings, photos, and other scraps the artist discovered “out in the world.”
If Save Your Selves reflects the gritty work of its three creators, “Balancing Infinity” reflects Casey’s thoughtful, spiritual worldview. The materials used here — a rickety wooden carnival ride seat dating back decades, for instance, or an heirloom sewing machine that once belonged to Casey’s mother, now cut in half — don’t merely conjure memories. To Casey, the objects have a destiny, and it’s up to her to help them realize it.
“I incorporate personal objects into my work because it feels like the natural thing to do,” Casey explains. “I start to view everything’s potentiality as a material or starting point. It’s like everything is always marinating until it’s clear to me that the objects are ready to speak.”
Huffer’s collection speaks too, mainly through juxtaposition. Look closely and you’ll notice how religious votive candles and fortune cookie papers form a superstitious tableau. Or check out the nuanced way a pile of gold-wrapped condoms sits behind that Cosby album. Handelsman calls the connections between the items “constellations of alignment.”
“These are things we’ve been gathering all our lives. We all have our own curatorial type of eyes to things that get our attention, things that have made it through many different moves and many different situations,” Handelsman explains. “It’s been an ongoing collection of stuff, but it just so happens to be the right time for the concept, for us to tell our own story, and make sure it’s told correctly.”
Though both Save Your Selves and “Balancing Infinity” incorporate gems from Miami’s dumpsters and street corners, they present vastly different reflections of the city where they’ll be shown. Huffer’s pyramid is frenetic and visceral; there’s real blood on the thing. Casey’s work is more cerebral and sparser, letting the essence of each piece shine individually. It’s part of a “constant regeneration process,” she says, in which items with great personal meaning to her cross over to a sort of art-world afterlife when they’re sold.
“I let something go, but then in a way it becomes immortalized,” she says, “and then given the chance for more people to relate to it.”
Unsurprisingly, Casey isn’t much for material things. She keeps her collection of personal tokens and found detritus in storage, waiting for the right time and project for each one to reveal itself. For “Balancing Infinity,” she collected materials from the streets of Buena Vista and Little Haiti, bridging the otherwise vast expanse between the residents of those areas and the typical Design District shopper.
“The physical location of the gallery is right in a line of lots of high-end, luxury retail stores. I make my way to the gallery from the other side of the neighborhood. I’ve found a lot of materials that have been incorporated into the sculptures… and they reflect the community immediately surrounding the area,” she says. “Like a bridge where the two neighborhoods meet. And again like finding a balance between the two.”
The irony of showing cast-off items from Miami streets in one of the city’s most expensive retail centers isn’t lost on Casey either.
“I hope that my exhibition will be a breath of fresh air for Basel-goers,” she says, “and that the use of humbler materials might help one reflect more on their own humility.”