Giving Junk a New Life

IN the right hands, old junk becomes new art. Jeffrey Keith has the right hands. He transforms old paint brushes, bird cages, scrap lumber, rusty tools, and any other junk that comes his way into challenging new forms laden with metaphorical meaning and an edge of sardonic wit. From a junk Noah's Ark in a wire mesh storm to a junk fish cast in bronze, he makes all kinds of weird and interesting objects.

"Junk" sculpture has a long history in this century. It's roots lie in Dada. Marcel Duchamp mounted a bicycle wheel on a kitchen stool in 1913 and called it a "readymade." Since then, recycled junk has stimulated angry debate - sometimes laughter, sometimes painful emotions, sometimes awe - in the art world.

Over the years, the use and function of found objects - from the anti-art of Dada to social protest to eco-art to the rediscovery of everyday things - has challenged the very definitions of art and has even helped us see despised objects around us quite differently.

Mr. Keith is interested in transformation. There is a consistent intensity in his work that comes from his own zeal about transformation in art. He started out as a painter, and after 15 years of successfully showing and selling his paintings, he began asking basic questions again: Am I an artist? Do I have a reason for painting?

Since childhood, Keith had been making little goofy objects, many of them toys, or visual jokes, out of whatever was at hand. Feeling his life was out of balance (tilted toward the cerebral), he went through a period of reevaluation.

"These little objects kept popping up," he says. "The question was answered for me. I couldn't control whether I was an artist or not because the art just kept getting made. My definition of what art was was changing because of that."

Instead of thinking of himself as a painter, Keith began to work in a variety of media. He did installations in Europe and the United States. He took up the camera and made pieces exclusively for the camera - a painted wall with constructed objects placed on it and then photographed. Keith even spent seven months studying traditional painting in China. But all the time he was making his little sculptures out of things at hand. A scrub brush on wheels becames a hedgehog, a Chinese washing board became a p ull toy, and a rat trap, something too strange to categorize as playful. The artist is currently most interested in small bronzes, although he continues to paint.

Keith's work is about regeneration and transformation. He takes trash and turns it into beauty. His sculptures have too much force in them to be soothing.

In "Birch Fish," a paint-brush tail emerges from a piece of birch-tree trunk. A tiny head sticks out of the other end of this irrational object, which was then cast in bronze. "Saw Fish" was cast in bronze from a piece of junk lumber, with a handsaw stuck in it for a tail and dowels for a dorsal fin.

Both fish leave you with a slightly eerie feeling. They are funny, and they say something significant about the environment we inhabit. At the same time, they gently remind the viewer that even the lowliest of the low, the throwaway, used-up objects that surround us, may acquire further meaning when seen with a creative vision.

"The whole idea is to create something greater than the sum of its parts - which is to say, giving new life to something that has been cast off," Keith says.

"I include a lot of formalist joking about art making - pulling the rug out from underneath the seriousness about art."

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