Artist Lara Whitley transforms antique Aspen trash at the Art Base
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Still,’ Lara Whitley
Where: The Art Base, Basalt
When: Friday, Feb. 9 through March 2; opening reception Friday, Feb. 9, 5-7 p.m.; art talk Feb. 22, 5:30 p.m.
More info: http://www.theartbase.org
At some point during the mining era or the early Quiet Years, someone tossed their dinner plates into a ravine in the Maroon Creek Valley, somebody trashed several old, wood barrels and others dropped hundreds of bottles from a tavern and window panes from a home.
These generations later, the Aspen-based artist Lara Whitley picked them up (or what was left of them, anyhow), and now she’s given them a second life and new forms in five works in her site-specific installation “Still,” which opens today at the Art Base in Basalt.
“I want to show the beauty,” Whitley said in the gallery Tuesday in the midst of installing the show. “I don’t know if other people will see it as beauty or as junk.”
It’s not difficult to find some beauty here. One piece features tiny shards of glass separated neatly into 10 small piles, sorted distinctly by color. They shimmer like precious gems in purples and blues and six shades of green.
In another, she’s arranged the old, broken plates into a meandering river-like formation against a steel wall.
A collection of heavy bottles — Whitley believes they were reusable bar bottles — that have been broken at a variety of angles near their bases are arranged on the gallery floor in biomorphic shapes, reminiscent of choral plants or barnacles.
Up above, the crude metal ties from the wood barrels — now coated in rust and lichen — have been linked together in a chain that undulates along and over three walls of the gallery.
“I’m experimenting and trying to transform these things,” Whitley said.
Whitley has spent a lot of time in the past few years foraging for these bits and pieces on the site of an old dump near what is now Iselin Park. She walks the area regularly with her dog, and rappels into the ravine on an anchored climbing rope, looking for what was left behind there.
In a heavy canvas bag, she collects these small treasures, then heads to her nearby home to scrub the century-or-so’s worth of dirt and grime off them, then sorts them meticulously into bins in her art studio.
“(Then) it’s laying it out on a table, touching it and moving it around and seeing what quality I’m drawn to,” she said. “I try to isolate that element and then push it to the fore.”
The new installation is a quirky act of time travel and transformation. These items were tossed away in a very different Aspen from the city where Whitley found them. Rediscovered in this 21st-century ski town, they’ve all been given new life and new forms. These found materials also carry the weight of history, in what the English sculptor Cornelia Parker dubbed “unfinished narratives.” (Whitley credits Parker as an inspiration for the work, along with Aspen legend and “King of the Dump” Freddie Fisher.)
“All this stuff is domestic, so it’s an intimate relationship,” Whitley said. “These were in someone’s house. They were held in their hands, they were brought to their lips, they were beheld by their eyes. So it’s an intimate relationship working with these things.”
The Art Base show is something of a sequel to Whitley’s “Homecoming,” a house-shaped sculpture shaped from found antique glass suspended on string. She spent two years making that transcendent piece, and showed it at the Launchpad in Carbondale during the autumn.
As she was collecting the glass for “Homecoming,” of course, Whitley found these other things, too. She didn’t know what she’d do with them, but wrote down ideas for these odd bits as she was working on “Homecoming” and then dug in on “Still” this winter.
“I didn’t know what I was going to be building this time,” she explained. “I wanted the materials to lead me.”
She has included one direct link to “Homecoming” in “Still,” suspending 84 pieces of window glass to form a floating planar surface, installed near the gallery entrance.
Whitley does outreach and public relations for the Community Office of Resource Efficiency, so she is frequently working on issues around sustainability, conservation and waste. But she said this project isn’t directly inspired by her environmental work — it’s about her process and the hunt for beauty.
“When we throw things away, the word ‘away’ is usually code for ‘out of sight,’” she said.
Whitley’s adventures in antique trash-collecting have proved fruitful for the artist and has now produced two art exhibitions. She still has bins of these materials in her studio, waiting to be reborn. But Whitley is unsure if she has more to say with them.
“I’ve really thought, ‘Have I played with this long enough?’” she said. “And I don’t know.”
It’s almost time to ring in the new year and if your holiday schedule is shaping up to be as packed as mine, I wish you a well-deserved rest in 2024. In the meantime, it’s our chance to party, and party we shall.