Critics tend to have a hard time describing the work of B. Wurtz.
It’s "found art," some say, though that doesn’t quite cut it. Wurtz’s art is made from discarded objects, but the finished product is so perfectly detailed and thoughtfully curated, it’s tough to lump Wurtz into the Duchampian tradition. Artist Steel Stillman describes Wurtz’s work as "mind-bombs of often-philosophical meaning," hitting much closer to the mark.
For 40 years, Wurtz has worked steadily on an oeuvre that elevates the trash of contemporary life—yogurt lids, shopping bags, wire hangers—to the realm of lyrical abstraction. He makes kinetic sculptures that rise from plinths of cardboard, supporting trembling wires that fly "flags," including a single white sock and Calder-esque pieces of pastel plastic. Shopping bags appear frequently—in Wurtz’s hands, they take on an alchemical glow, as though his exacting process of arranging and composing has imbued them with new value.
Which is exactly what Wurtz intends. "Objects that are already considered desirable or interesting don’t need me—there’s nothing left to contribute," he told Stillman in 2002. "But there’s something I really love about all the stuff we use and overlook—commonplace things whose connection to life is strong."
At Wurtz’s first career survey, on view at St. Louis’s White Flag Projects, curator Matthew Strauss has pulled together 42 years of Wurtz’s work. In a collage from 2009, Wurtz has cut out sections of plastic bags and tacked them to a canvas, layering the fragments with yogurt lids and upside-down shopping bags. The piece is thick and tapestry-like, composed with all the geometric precision of Ellsworth Kelly. In another series from 2010, Wurtz painted the undersides of aluminum takeout containers with bold, poppy colors. Installed on the gallery wall, the tins look like folk art or even pieces of textiles, until you’re close enough to recognize them for what they are.
In one sense, Wurtz is a portraitist whose chosen subjects happen to be inanimate objects, easily tossed in the trash or overlooked. "The beauty I’m after often goes beyond aesthetics and celebrates an object’s true nature," he explains to Stillman in White Flag’s exhibit publication, recalling Doug Huebler’s now very famous statement: "The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more." His sculptures, like the three shopping bags of Untitled (2012), make something out of what most of us would think of as next to nothing.
In a recent interview with Amy Bernstein, Wurtz was adamant that his work isn’t a critique on consumer culture. "It is not about them being items of capitalism or consumerism or advertising," he explained. "I think of it more as the stuff that is all around us, so I have a great love for it." It’s worth noting that the 64-year-old Wurtz was born in Pasadena, a city that’s run the gamut from resort paradise to blighted urban corridor with a major homelessness problem. As Stillman points out, Wurtz limits himself to items related to food, clothing, and shelter—portraits of the hyper-disposable goods that keep us alive.
The exhibit is on view until October 20th at White Flag Projects.