Teaching with Contemporary Art

Rust, Decay and Decomposition: Four Artists to Teach With

Production still from Theaster Gates’ segment in the Art21 Art in the Twenty-First Century Season 8 episode, Chicago. © Art21, Inc. 2016.

Since our current issue explores “notions of rust,” I thought this might provide a unique opportunity to share four artists that use rust, decay and decomposition to tell stories, illuminate histories, and make us think about beauty in new ways. These artists find visual approaches to this particular theme and make us take notice.

For example, this summer Art21 Educators will pay a studio visit to Season 7 artist, Leonardo Drew, known for his tactile sculptures made from natural and “weathered” materials. Through a labor-intensive and purposeful process of aging, burning and oxidizing these materials, Drew forms sculptures that symbolically reference childhood memories and draw the viewer in to make sense of why, as Drew puts it, he “becomes the weather” that affects these materials. For Drew, decomposition and decay are a part of the process he uses to tell stories. In his works you can detect the grids that reference the housing project he grew up in, and the materials that remind us of the landfill that was nearby.

Season 6 artist El Anatsui utilizes discarded metal caps of liquor bottles near his home in Ghana and studio in Nigeria to create beautiful, sprawling, flexible sculptures that can be shaped to fit wildly different spaces. This reclaimed (versus recycled) material comes with a charged history of its own, and the tapestry-like sculptures Anastui creates with his assistants incorporate color and pattern that beautifully reference abstraction as well as elements of African art.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, whose photography confronts industrial racism through the depiction of her home, her family, and the residents of Braddock, PA, casts a light on the decomposition of her city over time. She continues this exploration, choosing to picture how industry even invades our physical bodies and the very control we have over them.

Finally, Season 8 artist Theaster Gates finds ways to literally integrate rust, decay and decomposition into both new works and architectural structures that support communities in Chicago. Gates, through a process of purchasing properties and using the excavated material from these sites, creates works of art that fund new projects and ideas, such as the Stony Island Arts Bank. In Gates’ words, the original building becomes, “the thing that makes the thing.”

Beautiful or tragic, themes that allow for explorations into notions of rust, decay and decomposition make space for our students to carve a story they want to share. Art21 features a wide range of artists that work with this very theme. Contemporary artists will continue to create objects and spaces both beautiful and useful from deterioration and neglect—as Gates said, “The world is ripe for a making, for a remaking, for a reshaping.”

See more films on reimagining rust in a new Art21 playlist, “Deterioration and Decay.”