Breathing life into old objects becomes art form

Artist Julia Cocuzza with just a portion of her installation “Auto- Reverse,” created from 1,080 spraypainted audio cassettes.

Julia Cocuzza

From the stacks of the Yellow Pages and ArtForum magazines to a hardcover Webster’s Dictionary, the all-too-recognizable book spines present in “Rebound: Dissections and Excavations in Book Art” serve as a constant but crucial reminder that such stirring work is derived from ordinary objects.

Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a common urinal “R. Mutt” in 1917, artists have repurposed objects to make a statement or evoke an emotional reaction to items we would normally dismiss.

Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist Julia Cocuzza prefers to use specific media to invoke a sense of nostalgia. She said fond memories of listening to hip-hop on audio cassettes in her formative years remain a strong influence in her use of tapes in her work. She also cited her admiration for the simple, aesthetic beauty of the format’s physical form.

The cassette’s boxy structure and circular tape heads have a dominant visual role throughout her work, and she chooses not to subvert their shape with excessive painting or other drastic alterations.

“The reason they’re kind of neat isn’t because of what I’m putting on it. The medium is the message,” said Cocuzza, channeling Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase.

Her installation “Auto-Reverse,” in which two walls of 1,080 reflective, spray-painted audio cassettes envelop the viewer, serves as an intimate shrine to the outmoded music format. Viewers can perceive the mirrored environment either as a place of wonderment for the unknown contents of these anonymous tapes, or as one of somber reflection on the relic this once-ubiquitous format has become.

Ian Trask, another Brooklyn-based artist, prefers to use discarded objects as the building blocks for his projects. Initially, his reasons for going the repurposed route were financial — his former job as a groundskeeper at a Massachusetts hospital helped provide a steady supply of fodder for his work.

“I didn’t really have the resources to go and start a normal art career and pay for paint, pay for canvas, pay for whatever,” Trask said. “I don’t have the money, but I have the passion, so how am I going to make this work?”

One of his more recent works is the collection “Strange Histories.” By bringing together specific combinations of slides, Trask creates surreal visual amalgamations from otherwise mundane discarded family snapshots. Each piece simultaneously repurposes the outmoded format of photo slides and creates new narratives from the old memories depicted by combining people and settings within entirely new contexts.

By imbuing forgotten objects with a new function, repurposed art has the ability to make the viewer examine themselves and their own perceptions. “It’s artists finding new connections and new possibilities within things that we think are common,” said Mark Sloan, artist and curator for the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. “It then opens your eyes as a viewer to the world around you in a different way.”

Nick DeSantis is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.