Artist C. Finley has been wallpapering dumpsters for nearly 10 years. Based in New York and Rome, she's beautified close to 50 of the bulky, utilitarian and typically boring-looking objects in 14 cities, including Vienna, Paris, Berlin, Dublin and San Francisco. Now, she's aiming to transform every dumpster on Kohler Street between 7th and 8th Streets downtown, where she's having her debut Los Angeles solo show at Superchief Gallery, called "The Divine Distractions."
The exhibition features mostly large-scale paintings, each filled with many shades of similar colors. Though geometric, they also recall the work of the Great Masters, representing good fortune, creativity, joy and rapture. But while the show inside the gallery is indeed impressive, Finley acknowledges that it's what's going on outside that's the draw. L.A. Weekly visited the artist as she was wallpapering a cluster of three dumpsters on the street on the edge of the Arts District.
Finley worked in the film industry as a set decorator and scenic painter, which she says influenced her fine art. "I acquired my skills and knowledge relating to scale and transformation," she says.
Then, in 2006, on the floor of a shipping container in the Port of Long Beach, she built a mandala out of thousands of pieces of costume jewelry over the course of one week. Just as Tibetan monks do after creating sand paintings, she swept the detailed work away when she was finished, deliberately destroying it.
"Every day I would drive deep into the port, past thousands and thousands of containers," she recalls. "The containers were all earth-toned, so I wanted to disrupt this mono-tonality by wallpapering one with a baroque pattern. Then a few weeks later, a friend let me wallpaper his studio dumpster. That’s how it began."
At first, Finley used to sneak around to wallpaper the dumpsters, guerilla-style. These days, she tries to obtain permission, but if that doesn't work, she's not above resorting to her earlier methods.
Finley remembers wallpapering a public dumpster in the gritty Roman neighborhood of Magliana. After she returned to check on her work, the artist discovered a group of ladies from the local grocery store delightedly discussing the garbage container while on a smoke break.
Also in Rome, the artist says she received another unexpected reaction from the public while wallpapering on a tiny street adjacent to the Colosseum. "The garbage truck came to remove the trash. The driver, with a huge smile on his face, stopped traffic to buy me a coffee and take a selfie with me and the dumpster. That was my favorite response."
The reactions aren't always positive. Shortly after completing a dumpster on Kohler Street, Finley discovered it had been tagged. While she enjoys it when others place their own patterns within the existing ones on the wallpaper, it's annoying for her to see a big, ugly mark on something she transformed with care. "You know, it happens," she says. "It’s just, I put some thought into this — you'd think that maybe they might do something other than write 'Newark.'"
It takes Finley about two hours to apply two rolls of wallpaper per dumpster. In terms of patterns, she prefers anything but stripes, and is partial to designs by the late English textile designer William Morris (1834-1896). "There is just something wonderfully lavish about Victorian wallpaper," she says.
Finley says the best wallpaper she's had, she usually gets for free, though her dream pattern is a palm-fronds design found in swanky old-school hotels. Unfortunately, it costs $200 a roll. In the end, she tries to keep the cost per dumpster at under $50, including the wallpaper, glue, chip brushes and rollers.
When it comes to wallpapering dumpsters, Finley says she has another important rule: "It helps to have a nice, clean dumpster," which usually means it's filled with material such as wood, recycling and paper. "No fishmongers, no grocery stores, no juicy materials whatsoever. I have made that mistake before."
So how does Finley feel about the fact that her dumpsters are getting so much more attention than her canvasses, which are actually much more impressive aesthetically, and take about six months apiece to create? She's surprisingly understanding and grounded about the idea. "[The dumpsters] are like the calling card," she explains. "Hopefully, the wallpapered dumpsters bring people to also see the work."
An expression of environmental activism, the wallpapered receptacles that hold trash are ephemeral, as opposed to the paintings, which are meant to last. But perhaps the dumpsters will last as well, as Finley's been documenting them through photography for a future project.
In the end, the two kinds of works aren't as different as they seem: The paintings evoke transformation through pattern and beauty, which is kind of what Finley's been doing with the dumpsters, too.
"The Divine Distractions" is on view through April 4 at Superchief Gallery, 739 Kohler St., downtown. The gallery is open Thursdays through Saturdays, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. and by appointment. (Closing time extended until 9 p.m. for the "The Divine Distractions.") For more information, contact (646) 281-3189 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit superchiefgallery.tumblr.com.
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