Found Object as Art: Observations and Application in Oaxaca,
saddle in foyer of Starkman home
As a consequence of the innovative thinking of Kurt Schwitters,
Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and others,
the 20th century bore witness to the concept of found object
as visual art becoming a mainstream European and American
medium of artistic expression. In the southern Mexico state
of Oaxaca, itself known for quality, cutting edge art, found
object has received attention over the past 20 years. Take
for example the masterful works of Damien Flores, the collages
produced by Rodolfo Morales during the final years of his
life, and young Mixteco artist Manuel Reyes use of archaeological
pieces as well as local sands and soils as aids in expressing
the strong sense of indigeneity he seeks to impart through
Oaxacas 16 native cultures, the diversity of its landscapes
and climatic regions, and its rich human history beginning
with pre-Hispanic times, continuing through the era of the
Conquest, to ongoing 21st century human struggles, provide
a diverse, ultra rich proving ground. Within it, visiting
and resident artists, tourists with a bent towards antiques
and collectibles, and both expat and native born Oaxacans
who are inclined to think out-of-the-box, can readily encounter
found objects to incorporate into their aesthetic lives.
Contemporary Manifestations of Found Object as Visual Art
A found object within the context of visual art may be defined
as the artistic use of an object, man made or otherwise,
which has not been created for a predominantly artistic purpose.
It can be a toaster, a shoe, a car part, a beaded jacket,
a newspaper, a simple tool or a farm implement, a leaf or
stone, a wrestlers mask, a clump of clay, or a Coke
bottle empty or full.
One can designate three broad categories of found object which
are then transformed into the realm of art:
object encountered by chance or sought out by design, for
the purpose of using it essentially as found,
to enhance the aesthetic environment of a home, an office,
a store or other workplace environment, or a landscape.
Of course it can be a featured artwork in an exposition
(i.e. Duchamps seminal display of a ceramic urinal
in 1917) which eventually finds its way into one of the
three foregoing contextual environments or as a permanent
object or objects encountered by chance or sought out by
design, and incorporated into a traditional piece of art
such as an oil or watercolor, for the purpose of enhancing
its overall aesthetics, or the imagery its author seeks
to impart, or both (i.e. Manuel Reyes use of potsherds).
usually sought out by design for the purpose of employing
them to create a specific art form, which may or may not
include a utilitarian function (i.e. rusted horse shoes
made into a wine rack or polished old metal car parts fashioned
into a twirling ballerina).
Found Objects in Oaxaca for the Expat Resident and Tourist
Artists resident in Oaxaca should have no difficulty advancing
the breadth and quality of their works within the realm of
the last two categories noted above. They already have a trained
eye and a mind yearning to continually grow in different directions
with a view to keeping the art fresh, both on a personal level
and for their benefit of public consumption.
Its the availability of the broadest selection of Oaxacan
material culture, objects which can be used as found,
which should attract the attention of non artist expat
residents and tourists alike. The case can be made within
the following parameters:
and upper classes have an eye for a different and often
broader continuum of objects which they deem aesthetically
pleasing, than working and lower classes.
is a much larger per capita middle and upper class in the
United States and Canada, than in Oaxaca, of which a significant
segment of the former is inclined to visit Oaxaca.
relatively difficult for members of those same two classes
in Oaxaca, having grown up surrounded by and conditioned
to ignore much of their day to day material
culture (indigenous or otherwise), to appreciate its aesthetic
value; they are accordingly less interested in its acquisition.
on the foregoing, relative to the American and Canadian
phenomenon over the past 50+ years, found objects in Oaxaca
have only to a minor extent become deemed collectibles.
The Transformation from Found Object to Collectible
When an object becomes a collectible, its acquisition price
tends to increase exponentially. The first time an American
saw a discarded or stored away pine foundry form, he probably
picked it up for free or at a nominal charge (perhaps its
value as firewood). After he took it home, and then cleaned
and oiled it and put it on the wall in his den, he began using
the found object as art; a piece of wood used to fabricate
industrial metal, now adorning an upscale contemporary household.
Foundry forms became collectibles, offered for sale in antique
stores and interior design galleries. Much in the same vein,
old working wooden duck decoys have been transformed from
utilitarian hunting paraphernalia into thousand dollar (and
indeed much more) adornments of fireplace mantels; and wooden
tongue and groove Canadian Butter and Southern Comfort boxes
initially used to transport product from manufacturer to market,
have become aesthetically pleasing receptacles to store kindling
for those fireplaces.
These days one rarely picks up a foundry form, a decoy or
an old wooden advertising box for a song, because
each has been transformed into a class of collectible. In
Canada and the United States, and it is suggested throughout
most of the Western World, a solitary found object as visual
art is virtually non existent outside of the context
of being offered for sale as art, folk art or otherwise for
interior design purposes. On the other hand, objects found
for the purpose of either incorporating them into a traditional
art form (newspaper comic clippings, potsherds, shoe laces)
or fabricating a piece of art using only that class of object
(the car part ballerina), will be easily encountered for generations
to come, bought outright based on non aesthetic value,
scrounged on the street, or found in a junk yard and purchased
by the pound.
Found Objects in Oaxaca Still in Abundance for Aficionados
of Art & Aesthetics
Insofar as Oaxaca remains a developing state, with a middle
/ upper class contingent as previously described (small, generally
unconditioned to appreciate a certain level of aesthetics),
its realm of collectibles has not reached the level one encounters
in the Western World, or even within the Mexico City environs.
This provides interesting buying opportunities for visitors
Although in each of the three or four downtown Oaxaca antique
stores one does encounter found objects, these particular
objets dart have been transformed into collectibles
over the past few decades and in some cases merely years (stone
metates or grinding stones, well worn ritual masks,
pine votive candle holders, chango mezcalero clay painted
mezcal bottles, etc.). However, by getting out of the
city and knocking on villagers doors, and even simply
walking along dusty roads, visitors can still stumble upon
a treasure trove of found objects which when brought home,
with proper placement and juxtaposition are easily transformed
into visual art.
Of course residents of Oaxaca are not restricted in the size
or weight of what they choose to transform, nor by customs
and immigration rules. Hence, one might find in their homes,
now as art, an old rusted iron plough adorning a well landscaped
garden; or a pine mule saddle riddled with tiny holes evidencing
a period of insect infestation, now gracing an interior wall
of a new home, draped with colored twine and worn leather
parts, all as originally found in a farmers shed.
Indeed the traveler on a brief visit to Oaxaca can also return
home with a bounty of found object art. The big old rusty
plough and the well-worn wooden saddle are found objects which
today complement the aesthetics of this writers Oaxacan
Opportunities abound to find smaller found objects, manageable
for export, to transform into art, simply by exploring villages
in the states central valleys. Examples? Just keep a
keen eye, and remember to think out-of-the-box.
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
) with his wife Arlene. Alvin writes about life and cultural
traditions in Oaxaca and its central valleys, including articles
about art and antiques. He also consults to documentary film
companies, tours couples and families, and together with Chef
Pilar Cabrera Arroyo organizes culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).
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