• U.S.

Sculpture: Mud-Flat Museum

3 minute read

To the 2,700 citizens of Emeryville, Calif., Art is mostly just a convenient and genial way of addressing men named Arthur. The town, a square mile of land wedged between Oakland and Berkeley on San Francisco Bay, is chiefly noted for its cut-rate property taxes, which have drawn so much industry that during working hours the population rises to 40,000. Yet in the last few months, culture-shy Emeryville has become the nation’s center of “derelict sculpture.” A branch of “found art,” derelict sculptures are built on Emeryville’s bay-side mud flats from driftwood, discarded tires, broken toys, beer cans, jugs and other rubbish — treasures of pop art, and readily come by because a high proportion of bay debris washes up there. The artists are amateurs, art students or real pros. Singly or in expeditions, they come clad in jeans and bikinis and armed with tools, nails and beer, to squish out across the oozing, odorous, umber mud and whack away at the driftwood. They use only what they find, in deference to the DUMP NO RUBBISH sign and its $1,000 fine.

Most of the derelict sculptures wash away with the tide. But some are such masterpieces that they regularly cause crack-ups by gawking drivers on the nearby freeway. One is a 12-ft. gallows with the 13 steps and a hanging effigy, its neck snapped at a medically correct angle. Another is a dinosaur and pterodactyl combination well planted in the muck. Last week a 17-year-old high-schooler named Wayne Saxton finished his fifth dereliction — a mammoth Viking warrior standing almost 20 ft. high. “I like Vikings,” said he, as if that explained everything.

There is — or has been — a Christ on a cross, a battered old bus, a man in a rocking chair, a huge hand, a praying mantis. Social significance marks some of the sculptures: one has the broad arrow of the British “Ban the Bomb” movement. Many derelict sculptures are abstract, weather-worn totems that look curiously free against the steel-and-stone panorama of San Francisco across the bay. Another piece forms the word love, the o supplied by a treadless tire.

But, as the old question goes, is it art? James A. McCray, chairman of the art department at the University of Cal ifornia in Berkeley, describes derelict sculpture as “unusual — but legitimate in every sense of the word.” Says one local artist, John McCracken, 29: “I’m amazed at the quantity of works that has arisen out of the nothingness that was there before.” Most amazing is that they are there at all, unpretentious products of a leisurely society, which prove that some waste has taste. The mayor of Emeryville did not even know the sculptures were there until a few days ago. But he liked them. “They give this town some class,” he said.

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