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Art Media: What Happens When Artists Experiment with Unusual Materials

art media. Embalmed shark by Damien Hirst.

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 2170 x 5420 x 1800 mm, 1991.
Glass, painted steel, silicone, monofilament, shark and formaldehyde solution.

By Tori Campbell

Art Media

Art observers often focus their attention on the subject portrayed in artistic works — but often the art media used to create the works is just as, if not more, important than the subject itself. Though we usually think of visual artists working in paints, inks, or clays; artists have also experimented with art media as strange and unconventional as bubblegum, elephant dung, and human blood. Take a look with us at some of the more surprising materials artists have created with throughout time.  


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Burnt Plastic

Burnt Plastic art. Alberto Burri, Nero Plastica (Black Plastic), 1963.
Alberto Burri, Nero Plastica (Black Plastic), 1963

Inspired by Jean Dubuffet’s use of dirt, sand, and organic materials; Italian artist Alberto Burri began to experiment with art while in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp in Texas. Thus, he worked with found materials like burlap, coal tar, and oil to hone his artistic style. Though born out of necessity, this practice became his signature style, and has culminated in his iconic series Combustioni Plastica of meticulously burnt sheets of plastic. By using a flaming torch as his paintbrush, and a sheet of plastic as his canvas, Burri creates postmodern pieces that hang from the ceiling and inextricably incorporate light and transparency into his media.

Meat

Artist Zhang Huan meat suit. My New York.
Zhang Huan, My New York, Performance, Whitney Museum, New York, 2002 ©Zhang Huan

Meat as art media crept into popular culture in 2010 when Lady Gaga wore a dress of raw beef to the MTV Video Music Awards, but years prior performance artist Zhang Huan walked through the streets of New York City in a bulging meat suit. His piece, My New York, confronted his experience as an immigrant in the city, his relationship to Buddist tradition, and the animalism of man. Even further back, Carole Schneemann, performance artist and influential player in the Judson Church movement, choreographed and staged Meat Joy in 1964. The piece showed eight men and women chaotically writhing upon the floor whilst biting at raw chicken, fish, sausage, and scraps of meatpacking garbage. An instant shock to her audience, Meat Joy explored the relationship to the body and sexuality through raw flesh and allusions to erotic rites.

Smoke & Soot

Smoke and soot art by Jiri Georg Dokoupil
Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Pusteblumen, 2004.
Soot on canvas, 80 x 130 cm

Czechoslovakian artist Jiri Georg Dokoupil has worked with a multiplicity of art media throughout his career, experimenting with materials such as milk and soap. Never one to be pigeonholed into a singular style or media, Dokoupil has famously built upon the Surrealist practice of fumage, utilising smoke and soot in his art. Presented for the first time in 1936 at the International Surrealist Exhibition in London surrealist artist Wolfgang Paalen’s Dictated by a Candle was created using the fumes from a candle held near a canvas. Dokoupil’s smoke and soot works are extensions of this surrealist technique, studied and expanded upon in pieces like his 2004 Pusteblumen, where he has masterfully ‘painted’ a garden scene with soot.


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Dead Animals

Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock. Lamb and formaldehyde solution.
Damien Hirst, Away from the Flock, 960 × 1490 × 510 mm, 1994.
Glass, stainless steel, Perspex, acrylic paint, lamb and formaldehyde solution

Somewhat of a celebrity in the art world; artist, collector, and entrepreneur Damien Hirst’s most iconic pieces incorporate dead animals as a primary art media. His 1991 piece The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, commissioned by British art collector Charles Saatchi, employed a dead 14-foot (4.3m) tiger shark in a tank of formaldehyde to communicate the mission of his work. The series comprised of more, and other, dead animals in formaldehyde tanks, occasionally partially dissected; including sheep, cows, birds, and even a zebra. The works came under public scrutiny in 2016 when a study reported that high levels of formaldehyde fumes were leaking from his pieces throughout their 2012 exhibition at the Tate Modern. Though these claims are being contested, it is one small example of the logistical and legal troubles artists can experience when utilising strange or controversial art media. 

Elephant Dung

Elephant dung on canvas. Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996.
Chris Ofili, The Holy Virgin Mary, 96 × 72in, 1996.
Acrylic, oil, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on canvas

Another artist that is no stranger to the controversy surrounding their unorthodox choice of art media is Chris Ofili. Ofili is the artist behind the 1996 The Holy Virgin Mary, a massive 8-foot tall work created out of mixed art media including pornographic collage and elephant dung. To be crass the painting is quite literally ‘made of shit’ — or rather, elephant dung that Ofili brought back to London with him after a residency in Zimbabwe, allowing the work to become emblematic of everything that conservative thinkers thought offensive about modern art. The work travelled the world in the late 1990s as part of Charles Saatchi’s show Sensation, and it deeply upset Catholics everywhere it went — to the extent that it was defaced with white paint by a man who deemed the work ‘blasphemous’. Famously, then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, tried and failed to ban the work and strip the exhibiting Brooklyn Museum of its grant due to his aversion to the piece. 

“There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!”

Rudy Guiliani

Blood

art with blood. Marc Quinn, Self, 1991.
Marc Quinn, Self , 1991, Sculpture, Blood (artist’s), stainless steel, Perspex and refrigeration equipment, 208x63x63cm, 1991.

Inspired by the realism and true-to-life nature of life casting, Marc Quinn uses the technique in a brand-new way, employing blood as his chosen art media. In his sculptural Self series Quinn uses ten pints of his own blood to craft a self portrait that is both an image of him, and literally a part of him. Drawn to the medium as blood is the essence of life, a material that has deep symbolic and true function, Quinn has also used animal blood and placenta to create his pieces. His upcoming work Our Blood, set to open as public art on the steps of the New York Public Library in June 2021, comprises the blood of over 10,000 donations. Meant to illustrate the equalising power of blood, and that we are all one as humanity, Quinn aims to raise money and awareness for the rights of refugees with this ambitious work. Learn more about Our Blood by watching the video below.

Pornographic Magazines

art with Pornographic Magazines by Jonathan Yeo.
Jonathan Yeo, Bush, collage on board, 103cm x 70cm, 2007.

One of the leading figurative artists in the world, Jonathan Yeo creates his portraiture out of art media not typically seen in galleries and museums: pornographic magazines. By meticulously collecting snippets of flesh and genitalia, Yeo crafts collaged portraiture that might seem perfectly normal from afar, but far from it up close. Coordinating his media with his subjects, his Bush piece is a perfect example of how his chosen art media can poke fun and provoke the people he depicts. Given former United States president George Bush’s puritanical views about sex and human sexuality, Yeo is able to shed light on the hypocrisy of the political right with his work.

Chewing Gum

gum on unprimed canvas. Dan Colen, Untitled (Bubblegum), 2011.
Dan Colen, Untitled (Bubblegum) gum on unprimed canvas, 12 × 18 in, 2011.

Bubblegum: emblematic of the childhood fantasy-like wonder and enthusiastic playfulness of the artist that has been known to utilise the substance as art media. Dan Colen began to make ‘paintings’ out of chewing gum in 2006, ushering in an era of exploration around materials and medium as opposed to his previous tendency of representational subject matter. Primarily concerned with being guided by his art media instead of manipulating it himself Colen has mused upon this technique as a loss of control and an excitement with letting go, commenting that his paintings have taken on “inevitable forms — almost like destined forms” as if they have a life of their own.

Cassette Tapes

Cassette Tapes artwork by Gregor Hildebrandt
Gregor Hildebrandt, Coming By Hazard, Installation View, 2015.

Enchanted by an event in which he cut out and carried the tape of a cassette around with him throughout the day, bringing a song physically in his pocket artist Gregor Hildebrandt has brought this inspiration into his artistic oeuvre. Defined by art media surrounding musical artefacts like cassette tapes and vinyls; Hildebrandt’s work literally incorporates songs, films, or poems within the visual art. Repurposing materials often found in garage sales and rubbage heaps, Hildebrandt purchases his art media from eBay in massive batches, displaying visually that which is recorded in audio — just like the grooves of a vinyl record.

Lottery Tickets

art media. Art using lottery tickets.
Lauren Was & Andrew Eckstrom, Dream Car, $39,000 worth of discarded lottery tickets, cardboard, wood, cast plastic, & steel, 2008.

While walking their dog Banana, artists Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom noticed discarded colourful bits of paper; lottery tickets. The poetic implications of dreams unfulfilled or hopes dashed that accompanied these thrown away tickets was not lost on the artists, and their inspiration to create the series Ghost of a Dream was born. While collecting tons upon tons of the tickets, they also conducted research to find out what people buy when they win the lottery. They found that often, the first thing winners do is buy a car. Thus, Was and Eckstrom set out to create a full scale Hummer H3, the first piece of the dream trilogy that also included Dream Vacation and Dream Home, the top three things purchased with lottery winnings. Dream Car made of $39,000 worth of lottery tickets to represent the retail cost of the new car in 2008, is a large-scale installation that ruminates on money spent on dreams and the risky behaviours that accompany these goals.

art with discarded lottery tickets. Adam Eckstrom and Lauren Was, The Price of Happiness, 2011.
Adam Eckstrom and Lauren Was, The Price of Happiness, Discarded Lottery tickets and afterworld money on panel with UV coat, 430x880cm, 2011.
Courtesy of Davidson Contemporary, New York and Galerie Paris, Beijing

Relevant sources to learn more

Learn from the Tate about what an art medium is
Read for yourself about the controversy surrounding Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde
Have you learned about the medium of textile art? Take a look at the work of our top ten favourite textile artists

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