Sometimes accident gets tricked into art. That’s what happened when Australian painter and sculptor John Dahlsen – walking along a remote Victoria beach on a search for driftwood to be made into furniture – came upon a more interesting, if less lovely, discovery: endless amounts of litter washed ashore. Dahlsen collected the bits of garbage, and soon had 80 bags full of trash cluttering his studio. He sorted the materials by color, then assembled them into abstract wallworks, plastic made beautiful by arrangement.
For 10 years, Dahlsen worked with such found objects – bottle tops and grocery sacks, Styrofoam and tennis balls, the castaway junk of our consumer society. Like a Mark Rothko painting (an influence Dahlsen acknowledges), the color combinations are at once so subtle yet so strong that they can spur powerful emotions. The garbage offers a complex range of hues, textures, and sizes. Yet any sense of awe is tempered by the dismay of recollecting what the assemblages are made of. It’s hard not to see that it’s trash inside the frame.
Any art, of course, involves some kind of transformation. With Dahlsen, who calls his work “alchemical,” the change is especially stark. Discarded and apparently worthless items are given a new value. Bits of trash, mute alone, tell a story when pieced together. The flotsam is a time capsule, a record of waste and a witness to our recklessness.
Dahlsen is, not surprisingly, often tagged as an “environmental artist,” whatever that may mean. The social message might be difficult to miss (trash turned into art is an obvious irony), but on their own, the works manage to avoid preachiness. There’s no lecture in the collections – just a reminder of the surprising forms recycling can take.
Dahlsen was the 2000 recipient of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Wynne Prize. In addition to gallery and museum shows throughout Australia, Dahlsen’s work has been shown at the Australian Embassy in Washington, DC and the Florence Biennale of Contemporary Art. To see more of his work, visit www.johndahlsen.com.
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