John Dahlsen’s work in New York

CLOSER LOOK Turning the Tide

Recycled items make artful social commentary. By John T. Spike

Published in the International Art Magazine ‘Art & Antiques’ Summer Edition

Artists can be compared to bees, American philosopher Buckminster Fuller has pointed out. A bee gathers nectar to make honey; yet what it’s really doing, one might say, is pollinating flowers. So artists often find that their actions have unexpected consequences.

John Dahlsen is a contemporary Australian artist whose wide-ranging interests lead him in many directions—from abstract painting to digital photography to sculptures in public squares. In his leisure time, Dahlsen enjoys strolling along the splendid sandy beaches near his home in Byron Bay. Unfortunately, even the virgin coasts of Australia are besmirched by picnic litter and soda cans washed up by the tide and on occasion, Dahlsen will pick these items up, as many of us would.

One day about a decade ago it struck him just how much brightly coloured junk was lying about in plain sight.

The shore and dunes were sparkling with pieces of red, blue, black, white and clear plastic. In a gesture that initially seemed futile, Dahlsen started filling sacks with refuse and bringing them home to sort.

Most of the bottle tops, children’s combs, bubble pipes, hair clips and innumerable other broken and sundry bits of plastic turned out to be dyed in the same few colours. Soon his rubbish bins were over-flowing with colourful assemblages of objects that were indistinguishable except for their shapes. Unified in this way, the beach debris seemed less ugly.

This made Dahlsen wonder if he could somehow make his pickings seem almost beautiful. Unlikely as it sounds, the answer turned out to be yes. Even back then, the idea of composing with “found objects” was neither radical nor new. Forerunners like Kurt Schwitters in the 1920s and Robert Rauschenberg in the ’60s used ticket stubs and auto parts for much the same reason that the Old Masters painted gold watches and sputtering candles: as signs of the ephemerality of life and our worldly possessions.

Dahlsen, by comparison, is an optimist. To begin with, he’s already made a positive statement by clearing off the unsightly stuff that is lethal to fish and fowl. (Australia’s wildlife conservancies adore Dahlsen’s work, which was hardly his intention, but so be it.)

He wanted to impart a kind of Minimalist stability to his jumbles of deep true colours. One early assemblage of coffee lids, cooler fragments and bottle tops shared the ethereal white-on-white aura of a Robert Ryman abstraction or a William Bailey still life—only much more energetically. Piling up black combs, disposable razors and pieces of rope yielded a Louise Nevelson-like sculpture with attitude.

Beachcombers are always on the move, of course, and “Blue Rope (Triptych),” a new work, shows that Dahlsen has started to take the risk of mixing his colours.

One would never suspect there could be anything “romantic” about a stratified miscellany of nylon ropes, plastic garbage bags and fish nets, but it is hard to avoid the impression that its undulations evoke a deep blue ocean and the tangled ropes are a little like storm tossed clouds. But it would be absurd to read anything into such mishmash. Or would it? Besides, unlike Rauschenberg in pursuit of a decisive detail, Dahlsen likes to group his finds in categories and ask himself what it means that our age works in plastic, as opposed to stone, bronze or iron. Dahlsen, in other words, has become an artful archaeologist.

John T. Spike has been the director of the Florence International Biennial of Contemporary Art and is an internationally renowned art Critic who is widely published.

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