Some time during the ’70s or ’80s, a man named Robert Leitch came across some curious-looking items on a curb. The objects, contained in boxes and bags, turned out to be intriguing, complex art pieces from things like coins, mirror fragments and cigarette packs. The artist, who has yet to be identified, has been dubbed the Philadelphia Wireman, and he is just one example of the many daring, innovative and creative pioneers reshaping artistic media.
At first, Leitch gave away the items as unique presents, until a curator by the name of John Ollman talked Leitch into sharing the pieces. Now, decades later, 29 of the works are displayed in a new Philadelphia exhibition in the Fleischer/Ollman Gallery.
A variety of famous and underground artists, like the Philadelphia Wireman, are creating art from anything they can get their hands on and are adding excitement to the art world with kooky innovation.
What results is fascinating work even more interesting because of its unconventional media. While every artist learns to use the same basic media, there are some people pushing the boundaries of art and transforming commonplace objects into riveting works of art.
Los Angeles native Mike Stilkey, for example, creates paintings on unusual surfaces like record covers and pages. But his most impressive works are his book sculptures, book stacks whose spines are painted on and arranged to form an image.
Some pieces contain less than 10 books while others contain so many books that they reach impressive heights. Most of the paint is placed on the spines of the books, but Stilkey also uses the front and back covers as well. The subjects of his pieces include anything from whimsical human characters to fantastical, animal ones. One of his largest pieces depicts a man with a top hat playing a long, winding piano. Stilkey still displays his art today; he was a part of the PULSE contemporary art fair at L.A. Live and is currently exhibiting with other artists at Lebasse Projects in Culver City.
Some pieces, such as Simon Rodia’s “Watts Towers,” are even more groundbreaking because they incorporate a vast array of materials. Rodia’s massive work includes 17 sculptures and is the result of 34 years of work on a lot of land Rodia purchased in 1921.
“Watts Towers” is a collection of steel spires Rodia created without the help of basic tools like scaffolding. Rodia worked as a construction hand, which probably helped him technically, but the more compelling fact is that the towers are peppered with details, such as seashells and various abstract, hand-drawn designs. The works are also impressive in their stature, with one spire reaching up to a shocking 99.5 feet in height. Rodia’s work makes use of sundry materials, going beyond the usual idea of a consolidated medium and composition. You can view the site easily without paying for admission, but if you visit, you benefit from the expertise of tour guides and a closer look.
If these concepts and artists don’t seem to pique your curiosity, surely neon art can. A kooky form of art, it has enjoyed some attention in the past — with some pieces even making it into people’s homes as decorations. Lili Lakich, one of the most prolific artists behind the neon movement, has created everything from a neon sculpture of Elvis to more general works, such as sculptures made of things like film reel and neon lights in the shape of a human profile with words like “art” and “cinema” on them. Lakich is also the founder of the Museum of Neon Art in Glendale.
Art will naturally continue to change over the decades, but it won’t truly grow if artists don’t push themselves into exploring new media. When an artist uses something completely new to create a work of art, he or she forces viewers to look at art in a different way. And there is something about using familiar or creative materials that makes art as a whole more inclusive and enticing. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Renaissance paintings or abstract works, there is something immediately captivating about a neon Elvis or a painting done on the spines of books. The world is replete with materials that can be integrated into the next buzz-worthy piece so for new artists, the possibilities are virtually endless.
Eva Recinos is a junior majoring in creative writing. Her column “Art Box” runs Thursdays.