Johnston Foster’s near life-size safety-barrel tiger, discarded-wood moose, and a zebra head assembled from a stripped leather couch and a broom brush; Hong-Yo Ji’s twin-headed tire ram; a rhino head of gold-tipped matches by David Mach: the realism of today’s “trophy heads” resides in materiality. Rather than celebrate the power of humans over animals, these sculptures attest to the proliferation of commercial and industrial products, recycled and transformed. These artists appropriate both everyday and fine art materials to create simultaneously familiar and fantastical species, referencing a range of environmental and social issues. Art-historical influences echo through Found@Counting House, from Dutch still life painting to Marcel Duchamp’s assisted readymades to iconic Pop Art imagery: these works demonstrate the adaptive reuse of material, myth, and metaphor to address the current human condition.
Canvasing highway medians, dumpsters, and urban alleyways, Johnston Foster crafts his sculptures from discarded, cast-off objects. “I use materials that are easily manipulated, like plastics,” says the artist. “I have access to more synthetic materials; it’s as if my environment is providing for me.” Transformation is both Foster’s practice and the subject of his artworks, which explore the conflict of adaptation—of animals to changing environments and to each other, as in the infestation of wasps harassing The Keeper.
Conflict and instinct—animal and human—are hallmarks of Michael Combs’s art. Although raised by generations of hunters, fishermen, boat builders, and decoy makers, the artist responded to this upbringing by developing a passion for preserving nature and exposing the vanity of gaming sports. Employing hand-carved linden wood, along with found materials, such as wooden blocks, animal antlers, leather, rubber cladding, birch branches, and other appropriated elements, Combs’s art references a broad spectrum of American history and popular culture—from guns to game to the Dallas Cowboys. Exposing what the artist describes as “man’s competitive nature and the attendant need to seek validation through sex, discrimination, societal trophies, power, and control,” Alpha Male subverts the mythology of the hunting hero by rendering the trophy head as an aesthetic object, while How the West Was Won offers a meditation on the historical notion of Manifest Destiny within the context of a late 20th Century football rivalry.
Yong Ho Ji’s Ram Two Heads 2 (Mutant series) also explores the duality of human nature and desire. “’Mutant’’ literally means ‘something unusual and abnormal,’” explains the artist. ”In my work, I want to express how a truth or a fact is distorted by the selfishness and desire that are at the root of our being… I created the series of heads hanging on a wall inspired by mounted animal heads hung to decorate houses of the wealthy, partly because they seem to give a sense of invisible power, or intimidation.” While visually alluring, the title and form of this two-headed ram made from repurposed tires belongs to a world gone awry, due to overconsumption of resources and potentially risky scientific experimentation.
Consumption provides the narrative theme in works by Tallur LN, Valerie Hegarty and others. Tallur employs repurposed jute grain sacks in animal sculptures that reference traditional Indian culture. Bon Appetite alludes to both the digestive system—an anthropomorphic metaphor for decay and consumption—and to the souvenir, itself a process of consuming place and culture. Hegarty’s Still Lives with Crows, a paper assemblage resembling a flock of crows tearing bloody hunks of meat out of a painting of a steak, recalls Dutch vanitas still lives, and updates the ancient Greek myth of the competition between two artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, to determine who could paint most realistically. Zeuxis’s painting of grapes attracted hungry birds, but Parrhasios’s winning depiction of a curtain fooled the human eye—his opponent’s. Here, the art eats the art, creating, as Hegarty says, “a picture of image culture cannibalizing itself.”
Franco Mondini-Ruiz makes found objects from fine art in his Modern Piñatas series of papier-mache replicas modeled after works by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons. The glossy, smooth surfaces of Koons’s monumental metallic fabrications are deflated in Koons Bunny, which transforms an artistic icon of appropriation (Koons’s inflated balloon and toy sculptures) back into a hand-made, nearly hand-held art object, presented as a party accessory intended to be filled with candy and beaten apart with a stick. Like David Mach’s Golden Rhino made of wooden matches, Mondini-Ruiz’s Modern Piñatas suggest their potential for destruction; Mach’s performances have included the burning of his matchstick sculptures. Vulnerability, not virility, is the message of the 21st Century animal trophy. Rather than asserting power, these assisted readymades emphasize aesthetics, even fragility: Chris Roberts-Antieu’s Deer Head is adorned with elaborate fabric applique, while Kohei Nawa’s PixCell(Toy Leopard) is obscured by prism sheets within a Plexiglas cube, his animal form alternately doubling or disappearing from view. The 18,000 plastic toy soldiers Dave Cole assembles to form Memorial Flag recall the pleasure of childhood play as well the human cost of real war games, while referencing Pop Art flag works by Johns and Warhol.
In the art Found@Counting House, recycling is synonymous with reinvention. Decommissioning a commercial product, Duke Riley explores past, present, and future in It Will Warm You Twice. The cigarettes and mini cigars Riley utilized to create this large-scale mosaic reference the ubiquitous role that tobacco has played in the development and history of Durham, North Carolina, as well as the decline of its influence. Early 18th Century explorers to Durham called the area “the flower of the Carolinas;” the English colonists who first settled the area cleared and worked the very fertile land, most notably transforming the territory into the tobacco farms for which Durham became famous. Riley’s piece, created for 21c’s newest home in the Hill building, makes note of that shift in landscape from virgin forest to tobacco farms, and to the current cycle of reinvention, as this former shell of the Durham tobacco and banking industry is repurposed as a multi-use cultural center.