Styrofoam as Art

One of the newest art installations on display in Houston is made from an unusual medium. Styrofoam doesn't typically spring to mind as high art — but as Laurie Johnson reports — it takes on a sort of life-like quality in a new exhibit at Rice University.
Michael Salter crouches on the ground, wearing rumpled jeans and a t-shirt. He's a tall, lanky guy in a room surrounded by snowy mounds of styrofoam. He's scraping, carving and cutting it into an enormous robot.

"Sometimes people confuse me with some sort of super-recycling guy. But the fact of the matter is it was just around and I saw it as kind of mechanical in nature. And I really just started sticking it together and it really looks like robots. And the more I looked into it and collected it, I was fascinated by the volume of it. The sheer volume of it is incredible."

The robot slowly takes shape as he glues and tapes chunks of styrofoam. It's like putting a jigsaw puzzle together — but all the pieces are white and there's no picture on the front of the box to guide you.

"It's actually a little bit like drawing or painting because the way I work is really fluid and I'm cutting pieces and I'm throwing them over my shoulder and I'm picking and selecting. It certainly reminds me of my younger days with Lego's and blocks and such."

So what's the artistic significance of a 16-foot styrofoam robot? It's really about his surroundings. He sits slumped in a corner, depressed and overwhelmed by all the images plastered on the walls around him.

"I've noticed there's a street in just about every city on the way out of town and it's lined with strip malls and fast food joints and discount stores and every city has it. And it's really like the belly of the beast, it's the most horrific evidence of our visual culture. Everyone competing for my attention."

One of the first things that caught his attention here in Houston was something many of us have already become immune to.

"As I drove in from the airport I saw a particular fast food place that we're all familiar with and a very high sign, you know 60-70 feet in the air. And it was completely broken and I thought wow, that's actually a beautiful image — this giant looming sign that's broken. But the closer I got to town, they were all broken."

Salter's exhibit, titled Too Much, is critical of mass consumerism. But it's also humorous and playful...letting the consumer off easy. Too Much is on display in the Rice Gallery through December 14th.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF-Houston Public Radio News.
Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...