From Grave to Gallery

Two Minnesota artists use supplies you won't find in any art store.

by Chelsey Knutson
Most people consider art to be something entirely original. Paintings and sculptures are mostly associated with an artist's manual brushstrokes or molding. But what about the wealth of existing materials cast aside for years? Animal carcasses, old cast iron and deteriorating prints are more likely to be interpreted as trash than artistic media. Some minds see these things as opportunities for reinterpretation-- like Chatfield artist Karl Unnasch and St. Paul-based painter and illustrator Allen Brewer. The two talked to Chelsey Knutson about their interest in dead objects and the methods of bringing them back to life.

Can you to tell me specifically about your background with ephemeral media?
Karl Unnasch: I grew up and maintained a rural lifestyle. My history has been rife in dealing with death and life cycles. Hunting, fishing, planting, harvesting, nature, livestock, the challenges and potential hazards of rural life, the extra work involved with succeeding.
Allen Brewer: I started collecting carbon paper, and have just come to terms with it as a medium within the last year. Magazines from the '70s (my childhood years) constantly inspire my color choices and ideas of language and text. As a kid, this meant hoarding trash and animal remnants that held special meaning for me. As an adult, I am finally learning how to contextualize these experiences, with the help of years and decades of materials and words.

How do you rebirth these objects?
K.U. I often see them as potential landscapes, worlds, and places. They become the basis for potential narratives, stories and open discussions about our place in the world-- a world where death is inevitable and assured. How do we interpret (or ignore) our mortality?
A.B. The rebirth of the objects takes as much time mentally as it does physically. Since each item I use to create is one-of-a-kind, my decisions for mark-making have to be well thought out and appropriate to the materials. I intend on responding to the "thingness" of materials, letting stains and text influence my steps and purpose for the response. If there happens to be a bit of text on the found paper, I will try to invent a personal context, usually drawing from my own experiences and memories.

What are the challenges of working with these materials?
K.U. Recontextualizing them is a tough challenge. Dead fauna are "pre-charged" with intense subjective connotation. Folks are scared of death and dead things, and there are plenty of negative reactions. The trick is to create something interesting and beautiful with such material.
A.B. Some challenges with working with older papers are mainly archival. 40-year-old paper is brittle, and carbon paper, when transcribed, is incredibly light sensitive. All in all, the main challenge and goal is respecting the found materials. There is a reverence whenever I enter an estate sale in strangers' homes, just as there is when I find refuse or discarded photographs. Without getting too witchy, I tend to gravitate and want to work with things that have been inhabited by others' thoughts and hands.

What draws you to the use of these materials?
K.U. They represent some of the least attractive aspects of our lives: rot, death, disuse, disappearance, loss, forgetting, fear, and pain. They are "ripe" material for recontextualization and referential iconography.
A.B. I enjoy the challenge of responding to a piece of paper or image that may be 50 to 100 years old. I find a personal connection with the materials and let the age and inconsistencies influence and conjure my own memories and responses. The used object, trash, [and] found things to me represent life cycles and death. My goal is to stop time momentarily with the artwork.

See Karl Unnasch's work, go here
See more of Allen Brewer's work, go to MN Artists or AltPick




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