“Beautiful Garbage” opens this Saturday in Woodstock

Portia Munson in her Catskill Studio.

There’s an exhilarating element to the recognition of the sublime in all the pieces on show in the new “Beautiful Garbage” exhibit currently open at Byrdcliffe’s Kleinert/James Arts Center, and set for an artists’ reception this Saturday afternoon, July 7 from 4 to 6 p.m. And it’s thrillingly tactile: One wants to touch everything here to get at the disconnects – and connections – underlying what’s at play intellectually.

One enters the room and is immediately drawn to several tables and glass cases filled with what at first appear to be fine glassware and ceramics – until one realizes that it’s all reworked plastic trash from artist Shari Mendelson. She describes her work as “sculptures inspired by historical ceramic, glass and metal artifacts and constructed from found plastic bottles.”

One wall of paintings feels graphic, murallike – and then one realizes that the materials are all old shopping bags, given new lives by Josh Blackwell. Another wall is covered with actual paintings of empty plastic containers, poised somewhere between the abstraction of psychological realities and actual reportage by Amy Mahnick. Tasha Depp, who’s suddenly showing her meticulously painted family portraits and scenes on found garbage everywhere this summer, has a wall of exquisite works that match her painterliness with a deep political knowingness. And a third wall is filled with Ilene Sunshine’s large-scale wall drawing installation, made solely from plastic bags.

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By the back windows, matching the inside works with the beauty of Woodstock in summer, are several oversized doilies from Kristen Wicklund, who crochets recycled plastic shopping bags. And at the center of everything are several of Christy Rupp’s amorphic, sea-creaturelike vessel/skeletons filled with plastic bottles and other refuse.

All has been curated by Catskill-based eco-artist Portia Munson, locally known for her recent series of flower mandalas, but first established with a series of plastic refuse pieces from the 1990s that instantly placed her on the A-List of contemporary artists. “Almost everything we purchase comes in at least one layer of disposable plastic, resulting in massive landfills and huge floating garbage islands in our oceans,” reads her curator’s statement for the exhibition, which runs in tandem with similar eco-themed shows at the Dorsky Museum, Greene County Council for the Arts’ Catskill Gallery and Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Agri-Forestry Center gallery in Acra in Greene County. “Today the USA’s largest exported commodity to China is garbage. If archaeologists examine refuse to shed light on the beliefs and values of ancient cultures, then the artists of ‘Beautiful Garbage’ use the same detritus to reflect the world today.”

Speaking about what sparked the idea for this show and her own involvement with the beauty of garbage, Munson noted, “It’s what I’m interested in: the byproducts of our culture. Our garbage says who we are. Making something beautiful of it can spark the viewer’s mind in new directions.”

Munson said that she has long been collecting garbage for her own art. In addition to her giant piles and vitrines of pink, green and other colors of plastic, she regularly makes oil paintings of castoff items. “I’m always collecting stuff and thinking about what I’m going to make of it, how I’m going to comment on and with it,” says the artist, who has just finished a commissioned New York City subway station, amongst other major works. “I stop and gather things by the side of the road. These items come loaded with meaning.”

She said that she worked hard curating “Beautiful Garbage” to ensure that it wasn’t heavy, in either its garbage elements or environmental messages. The idea was to stress subtle juxtapositions and to work with the challenges presented in pulling together such disparate artists’ works.

She laughs, recalling how one of the giant trash doilies made of plastic bags couldn’t be shown, because when the artist went to retrieve it form storage, it turned out that half its materials were biodegradable, and disintegrated to nothing. “A woman who saw us putting up the exhibit commented how it spoke to her, metaphorically, in the same way people work through emotions,” Munson added. “You learn to take the bad things in yourself, you make them beautiful.”

“Beautiful Garbage” runs through August 12, with a gallery talk from the participating artists scheduled for Saturday, August 11 at 4 p.m., as well as at 3 p.m. this Saturday, July 7, just before the artists’ reception. It all takes place at Byrdcliffe’s Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, located at 36 Tinker Street in the center of Woodstock and open through the summer on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 12 noon to 6 p.m.

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