The Complex Elegance of Waste: Paul Druecke Creates boutique of Found Object Artworks
Paul Druecke is captivated by the strange beauty of an empty Cheetos bag. He’s thinking about how human beings live, and how the synthetic remnants of our behaviors linger on in our environment. He’s pausing to notice the world around him, and to collect the trash he finds and produces. He then transforms these pieces of garbage into art objects.
The unfolding result is Druecke’s Corner Collection, a new rotating installation on view in his studio space at the Riverworks Toy Factory. Through the exhibition of sculptures, paintings and assemblages, Druecke is putting his thoughts and questions about materiality on full display. He hopes to engage with visitors to spark conversations about material and artmaking, and on humankind’s interaction with the natural world.
Druecke is fascinated by the taboo nature of creating art with trash. He welcomes the tension inherent in use of materials that others might prefer not to see. The resulting works are sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes meditative, sometimes uncomfortable, and sometimes whimsical. They range from framed paintings made from woven, hand-stitched and collaged garbage, to looser sculptural installations integrating natural materials. There is, at times, something other-worldly in the reverential treatment of discarded materials coexisting in contradiction, as in a case of a pile of large black rocks with aluminum, plastic, and natural embellishments perched atop and placed alongside the rocks. And yet, it's uniquely of this planet. A Cheetos bag on the floor with a spray of plastic straws arranged like a toppled bouquet is a disquietingly specific product of our contemporary life. More traditional pieces—like a micro embroidery on a piece of aluminum — are a bit more familiar, harkening to art history canon we can call to mind. Druecke cites painter Giorgio Morandi’s work as inspiration for this work and others: still life works created with a “scale of intimacy" and "through the use of immediate objects.”
As you might imagine, with The Corner Collection, Druecke is interested in confronting disillusionment with America’s material prosperity and its repercussions. A dream since awoken from that began in the 20th century with the large-scale production and use of plastic.
“Sixty years out, there’s ramifications that we haven’t confronted or thought about,” said Druecke.
Those ramifications include a present when we can’t escape our refuse and there’s no end in sight to its proliferation. Trash congeals in our landfills into literal mountain ranges, generates inhospitable islands in the oceans, and lives on and on on lawns and road medians as a brutal and, some would say ugly, reflection of the ways in which we consume without afterthought.
Druecke is a longtime Milwaukee artist and fixture within the artistic community. Among many accolades and honors, he is a past recipient of the Mary L. Nohl: Individual Artist Fellowship and was awarded a Mildred Harpole Artist of the Year Award from the Milwaukee Arts Board in 2023. His work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and has been featured in The New York Times. Today, Druecke is known for being the imagination and producer behind Milwaukee Kitchen, a "dream-like," unscripted cooking show that features Druecke's friends, neighbors and a cozy, often luxuriating cat named Penita. The themes in The Corner Collection works are a continuation of several throughlines of Druecke’s aesthetic and practice. He’s long been known for memorializing the mundane in his work, and applying deliberate, wrapt attention to towards the ephemeral.
In the late nineties, he created The Migration Series, a series of photographs of plastic bags caught on tree branches. One photograph from the series was made into a billboard and was installed on Southwest corner of Center and Pierce in Riverwest, on a building that became an arts incubator with studios and galleries including the first iteration of The Green Gallery. Since 2020, Druecke has been documenting the trash he encounters on Instagram, pairing assemblages of found discarded objects with poems in an onoing project called America Pastime.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about the reclamation of things that are found on the ground, of landfills versus blowing around on the ground... there’s a difference, but not as much of a difference as we think," said Druecke.
With his use of material, Druecke is confronting “the hope, versus the reality of recycling,” in America; how it’s not living up to the dream of an efficient system to balance out our pace of consumption of manufactured materials. But he’s enjoying the bounty of mediums that are available as new art materials, and being playful. Can a deflated gold mylar balloon be a sculpture? Druecke has formed questions like this into artworks.
“There’s a very maximal approach in my work. There’s so much of it (trash). Part of what’s daunting but awesome is the variety of the colors,” said Druecke. “100 years ago, having a swath of material that is so shiny and gold would be luxurious,” he said. “There are things of the natural world that we revere... but then there are things that we made that are so convenient, but then we hate them once their purpose is over,” said Druecke.
He, too, experiences internal tension and conflict in making works that are so starkly both “high and low” art in their very nature, but Druecke trusts the process that led him to making these works.
“I come from a long history of artist production, where I really value artist intuition,” he said. And engaging in this work has changed the way he sees refuse.
“My default now is not, 'oh that’s litter, that’s horrible.' It’s there... and it’s an adornment, an embellishment, it’s an accent.” He also wonders at the chemical engineering and cultural resources that created the Cheetos bag—both the individual object, and its perfect, endless supply—which he sees as “capitalism merged with fine art.” He’s compelled to engage with the material’s abundance and slow degradation.
“What is going to become of the landfills in 100,000 years?” He asks. In Druecke’s view, his creation of art from refuse that breaks down in a time scale beyond a human lifespan is a way of poetically interacting with and disrupting what he describes as a “mystical unfolding of material.”
Druecke invites the public to experience this unfolding by visiting The Corner Collection to engage with the works with the artist. Visits are by appointment only and are made by contacting the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org. All inquiries welcome.