Essay | Sofia Plater: The Resurrection of Salvaged Goods
Sofia Plater: The Resurrection of Salvaged Goods
Spanning a forty-foot wall, Sofia Plater’s wall sculpture Cultch is composed almost entirely of refuse: plastic packaging from consumer goods, deteriorating metal grates, assorted screens or filters, and other unnameable but familiar forms. A few materials are repurposed art experiments such as Plater’s first welding project and a failed test with foam from her studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. As a whole, the installation is densely-packed with repeating rectangular and circular shapes in dark, industrial hues. The result is a strikingly formal composition from rubbish.
Plater’s lengthy materials list for Cultch describes not only the media but also their provenance. “no 26. Foam packaging from shipped Georgia peaches (Christmas, 2010)” details Plater’s history with this particular item and a diagram indicates where it has been used inside the sculpture. On occasion, the text recalls the moment of discovery: “Rusty sewer grate found buried in the sand (Provincetown, MA).” Many things were found in piles of junk or are by-products from other goods. Plater is a scavenger; some materials are unearthed, others are donated, and all are repurposed.
The practice of working with unconventional media harkens to Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) and his “readymade” art objects. Famously, in 1917 Duchamp purchased a porcelain urinal. Signed “R. Mutt” and titled Fountain, the work was submitted and rejected from the inaugural exhibition for the Society of Independent Artists in New York City. In the second issue of Blind Man, a journal published by New York City Dada artists, Duchamp’s work was defended by an unknown author:
“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.” 
Duchamp’s endorsement of atypical art materials loosened the boundaries of art and his gesture allowed a mundane thing to be seen anew. Decision and discovery became integral to the creative process.
Before Duchamp, other artists were incorporating pieces of material culture into their works in other ways. In the early 20th century, the Cubists Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and Georges Braque (1882-1963) added newspapers and patterned papers into papier collé. Yet the term “assemblage” is linked to the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) and his series of collages from the 1950s called assemblages d’empreintes . By 1961, the practice had become so commonplace in New York City that the Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition titled The Art of Assemblage.
Among the artists working at this time, Plater draws inspiration from the sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988). Like Plater, Nevelson salvaged materials from her environment. After several buildings were demolished in Nevelson’s neighborhood in New York City, she collected the discarded wood that littered the streets. These scraps were assembled and painted a single color. Dawn’s Wedding Feast (1959), the first work that Nevelson painted all white, was included in an exhibition at MoMA called Sixteen Americans from 1959-60. This ambitious work established Nevelson as a pioneer. Installation art was new territory, especially for a female artist.
Nevelson and Plater manipulate found materials and forge parallel contradictions. Both are process-oriented with particular attention to the surface. Their works were built in stages, with each artist responding to their installations as they evolve. The white palette in Dawn’s Wedding Feast feels ethereal and otherworldly, contrary to the origins of Nevelson’s scrapped materials. The restricted materials and palette naturally yield a feeling of order despite Nevelson’s intuitive process.
In a similar fashion, Plater’s installation reverberates uniformity, echoing the repetition of the factory line. She gravitates toward multiples, layering rectangular and circular elements that are stacked in patterns throughout the wall installation. Grids of varying scales are duplicated throughout the work constructing networks within modular elements. Plater squeezes cement and silicone through these square holes. Biomorphic objects ooze out of these sieves, generating loose forms that challenge the grid. Plater and Nevelson piece together elaborate puzzles that mirror the rigor and exactitude of geometric abstraction with its insistence on the grid. At the same time, both conjure harmonious auras from a mess of disorderly materials.
Their shared materials appear to lend themselves to verticality. Nevelson created large totemic forms that accompanied her room-sized installation at MoMA. Across from the wall sculpture Cultch, Plater has placed a series of smaller vertical forms entitled Tilting Totems. Plater’s molds for the totems are plastic containers, ranging in size and neatly nesting together, functioning as “readymade” molds. While Nevelson’s totems were symbols for a bride, groom, and guests at a wedding, Plater’s cylindrical columns of concrete and embedded materials measure the accumulation of waste.
Dawn’s Wedding Feast represented a nuptial celebration and reflected Nevelson’s experiences with a failed marriage; on the other hand, Cultch is a response to Plater’s anxieties about the fate of the environment. During the 1950’s, the art world was dominated by male artists and Nevelson poured her energy into her career as an artist in lieu of her personal life. Decades later, Plater joins other contemporary artists who are choosing to work with found materials, sometimes trash, as a political statement about the wasteful nature of our culture.
Together Cultch and the Tilting Totems offer a soft critique of the society that is responsible for the proliferation of such endless waste. Yet Plater’s sculptures have a hopeful lilt. Regarding her own work, Nevelson said, “I feel that what people call by the word scavenger is really a resurrection” . Cultch and the Tilting Totems become objects of beauty and contemplation, not merely trash. Plater gives the rummaged goods a purpose beyond their fate as used or useless items. Like Nevelson, Plater bestows debris with renewed meaning.
1. Duchamp, M. (1917). The Richard Mutt Case. Blind Man, 2.
2. Dubuffet, J. (n.d.). Jean Dubuffet Head of a Girl from the Assemblages d'empreintes series 1954. Retrieved from https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80135
3. Louise Nevelson, Dawns and Dusks (1976). (1996). In Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings (pp. 511-513). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Sofia Plater is one of six recipients of the 2018 Real Art Awards, a project supported in part by an award from the National Endowment of the Arts. Her exhibition Cultch continues through January 6.
*The essay above was commissioned by Real Art Ways and was originally published in the catalog essay for the show.