Eugene Rosa
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Toward Ecolage©: Art and the Environment

Garbage and beauty. Junk and elegance. Trash and aesthetics. Rubbish and style. Waste and glamour. Toxins and artistry. These expressions confront us with  obvious contradictions. Refuse is the unsightly, the ugly, the unwanted. Beauty is the elastic word covering anything that is pleasing to the senses. Their pairing is cacophony to many of our sensibilities. Their juxtaposition confronts us with an incongruity that seems all but absurd. The tandems, simply enough, defy ordinary logic.

“Seek simplicity, but mistrust it,” philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once admonished. The key theme underlying my art is to mistrust the simplicity of our first impression—to challenge the idea that our discards can only be conceived in ugly, unaesthetic ways. It seeks to confront our ordinary categories of what constitutes the beautiful and the unsightly. It seeks to introduce fluidity into our conventional classifications. It does so by re-arranging or recycling ordinary or discarded objects in new ways, ways that, even if not visually beautiful to all, are an artistic representation of the challenge.

An artistic representation of the challenge, however, is not enough. Also needed is a larger vision and conceptualization for rendering harmonic the seemingly cacophonous. We can find this vision in modern history. One of the monumental, but hyperbolically understated discoveries of the twentieth century, is the enormous scale of our wastes. The physical environment has been forced to absorb the byproducts of our exponentially growing consumption patterns. It has been forced to absorb matter of unprecedented toxicity. It has been forced to absorb materials unknown to history. What are the earth's ecological limits for absorbing the garbage of high modernism? We, simply, do not know.

But, limits there must be: nature is obdurate on this count. So, if the planet is to sustain the human species, the issue of waste must be addressed. How? Through know-how, especially science and technology, is the conventional answer to this question. But, we know now that that is not enough. Science and technology are both part of the solution, but they are also part of the problem. Something is missing. Absent is a vision for seeing what is not ostensibly there. Absent is our aesthetic sensibility and our creativity for challenging what is waste and what is artifact. Absent is a vision for converting waste into artifact. Who better to fill this functional void than the artist? While countless are the answers to the question: “What is art?” the thread of Ariadne that runs through them all is; the manipulation of materials. This is what artists have been doing since antiquity. They are masters of the manipulation of materials in service to our aesthetic and other senses—and to our sensibilities. This is their métier. So is their creative vision.

The term “Ecolage” is the codification of these ideas. It combines the Greek root oikos (from whence comes the word “ecology”) with a variety of art styles—collage, décollage, découpage, assemblage, bricolage—that emphasize the manipulation of ordinary or found objects to produce new forms of reality. Ecolage, too, is the manipulation of ordinary, found, or discarded objects. In style, therefore, it bears close resemblance to assemblage, bricolage, and others. But there is a key difference: an environmental self-consciousness. At its core, ecolage is an artistic expression of ecological sensibility. This is not a passive outcome of art for art's sake, but an active relationship between the artist and the world. Ecolage is another technique for seeing a unity in hidden likenesses, what the brilliant Jacob Bronowski said only of scientists. It challenges us to see likenesses between a perfectly shaped flower and a crushed object at the side of the highway. It stimulates us to see symmetry between the bicycle wheel as bicycle wheel and as a kinetic artifact. It is a lens for focusing on the possibilities for our junk. It is a consciousness about the ecological consequences of re-arranging the ordinary and the discarded (our technological garbage) with artistic creativity. It is a vehicle guiding us to refashion Picasso's observation that “art is a lie to make us realize the truth.”

Just as science and technology alone are not the solution to the fouling of our ecological nest, neither is ecolage alone. But ecolage can provide both the mental template and aesthetic sensibility needed to guide our solutions. As art it springs from the same creative urge as does science and technology. It is another rationality, another tool, of human creation. And many tools are needed. For the task of dealing with our wastes is one of the most daunting challenges of our age; of all ages for some of these wastes. By using all of our tools there is hope of meeting this challenge. And by using all of our tools we might lay bare, in the words of Bronowski, “one of the most destructive modern prejudices that art and sciences are different and somehow incompatible interests.”

View artwork displayed at Gallery II show, at 2005 Faculty Show, at 2007 Faculty Show, and at 2011 Faculty Show. Other works can be viewed via the links at the top of this page.

Washington State University Department of Fine Arts
Washington State University Museum of Art

Gene Rosa
September 1998


Photo: Think Again I
Think Again I

Photo: Gene Rosa with Jim Dine
Artist Gene Rosa with internationally known artist Jim Dine.

The Dadaist Impulse
The Dadaist Impulse.