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ART REVIEW

Exhibit is a fun way to take in the trash

Among the animal sculptures on display are “Sweater Dogs’’ by Kitty Wales (above) and Ann Smith’s “Camel.’’ Among the animal sculptures on display are “Sweater Dogs’’ by Kitty Wales (above) and Ann Smith’s “Camel.’’
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / July 9, 2009
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SALEM - A cuddly bunny crafted from used cigarette filters. A giant moth made from old piano keys and lawnmower handles. A huge centipede built out of discarded Bundt cake pans.

These are some of the unlikely creatures populating “Trash Menagerie,’’ a lighthearted and informative exhibit of animal sculptures made out of recycled rubbish at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Art & Nature Center, an interactive gallery aimed at kids and their families.

There’s no end to art made out of recyclables. The idea came into vogue in the early 20th century, when such artists as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque started recycling newspapers and the like in collages and Marcel Duchamp dubbed a urinal “Fountain’’ and called it “readymade’’ art. It has never really gone out of style, and in recent years heightened focus on the environment has given it a particular cachet. Having a green sheen doesn’t necessarily make art good, of course.

By and large, the sculptures here are quirky and appealing, playing to kids and grownups alike. Jane Winchell, director of the Art & Nature Center, has tapped artists from around the country for this ample if not entirely original show.

There are 30 critters in “Trash Menagerie,’’ ranging from micro-organisms to horses and giraffes. A few too many of them have a familiar mechanical charm that begins to grate. Works such as Leo Sewell’s “Elephant,’’ made of campaign buttons, jewelry, and knitting needles, and Ann Smith’s “Camel,’’ crafted from electronic bits and machine parts, can’t shake the whiff of the flea market: low-end thingamabobs cleverly constructed into cutesy knickknacks. Smith, though, adds an intriguing dimension by bringing her sculptures alive in clever stop-motion animated shorts, on view at a computer station in the exhibit.

The best of the works make fresh use of unusual materials. Tom Deininger’s “Filter Rabbit’’ is a great example: What could be more revolting than working with cigarette butts? Never mind; best not to go there. Deininger collects the used filters along the beach. The rabbit, sitting alertly on his hind legs, stands just over a foot tall and looks like a well loved stuffed animal.

Heidi Aishman draws perky, snuggly animals such as rabbits and guinea pigs with discarded, sparkly makeup. They’ve got the dazzle and appeal of great children’s book illustrations and a wonderfully subversive agenda: The drawings, such as the plump, pink-cheeked “Outrageous Guinea Pig,’’ depict animals used in the testing of cosmetics. Talk about all dolled up and no place to go. Nemo Gould’s “Centipede,’’ more than 4 feet long, undulates across the wall in Bundt-cake swells; nested with green LEDs, it casts a delightfully eerie glow.

Several other artists play with scale to great effect; huge versions of tiny things have inherent humor. Michelle Stitzlein’s “Sulphur Blue Smeck,’’ the moth made of piano keys and lawnmower handles (plus roofing metal, light fixtures, china, a fork, and more) has a majestic, 7-foot wingspan. The lawnmower handles, naturally, are the moth’s antennae.

Noble as it is to recover plastic bottles, it’s a challenge to make them into art that does not, inevitably, recall their source. Aurora Robson succeeds in turning them into outsized, swirling, ephemeral microorganisms in “Eyeshrimp Cluster # 1,’’ twisting in the air and quietly aglow with LED lighting. Miwa Koizumi’s “PET Project’’ does a mighty job of it, as well; the piece is like an aquarium filled with hovering translucent jellyfish and anemones.

David Edgar has recycled colored plastic bottles in a bold preschool palette of blue, red, green, and yellow for his “Raggedtailed Dragon Fish.’’ I marvel at Edgar’s craftsmanship, but the piece looks more like an eye-catching toy than a sculpture, precisely because it’s made of colorful plastic. In order to overcome that stigma, artists will have to implicitly acknowledge it in their work; Edgar does not.

Not many of the sculptures are actually interactive. Kitty Wales, who made frisky shepherd dogs out of metal armatures and old sweaters, contributes more old sweaters for visitors to apply to a cow shape. And Chris Green’s weird and wonderful “Umbrella Horse’’ is a shadow puppet machine: Crank a handle, and you’ll see the shadow of a horse galloping, ingeniously crafted of umbrella skeletons.

There are other interactive elements to the show; visitors are invited to make their own animal shadow plays, origami turtles, and magnetic animals on a metallic board. Text panels and a hands-on computer program are concise and illuminating about animal life, artists, and recycling. “Trash Menagerie’’ is a thorough, engaging exhibit, if not always aesthetically brilliant. But it’s a kids’ gallery, and I don’t know a single kid who values theory and concept over good fun.

TRASH MENAGERIE At: Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, through May 2010. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org

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