One man's trash… 

…is Missoula assemblage artist Michael deMeng’s treasure

If you’ve ever seen Michael deMeng’s art, you can pretty much guess what his studio looks like: a jumbo cardboard box full of cut-up and yet-to-be-cut-up magazines here, the rusty innards of a mechanical cash register there. A bag of bottle caps. Buckets of gears and cogs. Threaded brass bushings and odd bits of rusting iron everywhere. There’s crap all over the place.

Mixed in with all this clutter are pieces of art in various stages of completion and, sometimes, willful neglect. A half-eaten foam apple with a riveted faux-brass skin sticks out of a bucket of mechanical whatsits, looking like a cross between Pinhead from the Hellraiser movies and the ironclad Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A few finished pieces line the walls and fill the corners, but elsewhere deMeng’s backyard studio is a paradise of the finished, the half-finished and the altogether unbegun decorated in Discriminating Packrat style. And this, deMeng admits, is after a recent cleaning bender.

Yet with deMeng’s art, the clutter reflects the results as much as the process. His assemblage pieces—light boxes, decorated matchbooks and sardine cans, sport coats cocooned in plaster and acrylic paint—are essentially junk reincarnated, though not necessarily long for one body. He has to hustle finished pieces out of the studio as quickly as he can, he says; the ones that stick around are at constant risk of being dismantled, stripped and repurposed. Nothing here, you quickly gather, is truly finished until it’s been evacuated to a safe place. Even then, you might wonder where “safe” is; a silverware organizer filled with spoons looks as though someone might come looking for it until deMeng mentions that his wife just bought new flatware and told him he could have his way with the old stuff.

DeMeng says his studio has been filling with junk faster than usual lately because he’s been giving so many workshops. He’s had to put more friends on the lookout for good junk to set aside for him, because too many of his workshop participants seem to miss the point. When he tells them to bring junk, he says, they usually take it to mean knick-knacks. No, no, no, he insists: “When I say junk, you gotta bring junk.”

DeMeng, as you might expect, has a connoisseur’s eye for junk and the street smarts for where to find it. One of his favorite places to cruise for art supplies is Pacific Steel, where he can buy gears by weight—a 40-pound bucket of them for six or eight bucks. He scours alleys and loading bays for discards and castoffs, like the disemboweled cash register currently antiquing au natural in the “rusting yard” adjacent to his studio shed. He says he once shelled out $25 at a secondhand store just to get a gear he wanted on an item he otherwise didn’t, but insists he’d never do that now: The less he has to buy besides paint and glue, the better. Then again, he says, he’s also got an affection for certain objects that no amount of local foraging can turn up in sufficient quantities, like the lenses he’s working into a series of small pieces that look like Victorian spy gadgets. Discarded lenses he orders—again, by weight—from a scientific supply company. And sometimes an opportunity will just present itself, which is the story behind his “Eye of Fatima” series of decorated aluminum hands. Those he got on eBay, and without much of a bidding war.

“It was pretty easy,” he admits. “There weren’t many people looking for aluminum latex-glove forms.”

DeMeng says that the genesis of a particular project or series usually depends on what’s lying around at the time. Lately he’s been concentrating on smaller pieces, like the matchbooks and sardine tins currently on display at the Saltmine art space on Front Street. Mostly for pragmatic reasons, he says; smaller means more portable, and generally cheaper:

“Yeah, a lot of the stuff I’ve been working on lately has been smaller. Next year I’m going to be traveling around teaching a lot of workshops, and there’s something to being able to sell things that people can pack in a suitcase. And, on a local level, people who really jibe with my stuff often can’t spend $3,000 on a piece of art. They can spend $100. They’re hip, they don’t have quite enough money to buy art, but they try. It’s nice to able to make stuff that’s a little more accessible.”

The objects in the Saltmine exhibit are for sale; a matchbook will set you back about $45 and a sardine tin roughly twice that. But calling any of the pieces a matchbook or a sardine can only really describes the original function of the object; you’re not really looking at either anymore. Of the Saltmine exhibit, deMeng says he admires the way the work was mounted because it suggests the Mexican folk art he counts among his biggest influences. The arrangement of sardine cans, he explains, makes them look like a santo, a shrine erected to one of the various Catholic saints, often using personal effects, found and repurposed objects.

DeMeng brooks passing comparisons to American assemblage icon Joseph Cornell with good humor, although a loose kinship in the genre is about as far as those comparisons go. Cornell’s shadow boxes, says deMeng, emphasize “sacred” objects in small groupings; his own pieces are intended to emphasize the whole conveyance. A bank of salvaged post office boxes in several chunks collecting ambient decay in the rusting yard cries the loudest for a Cornell-style assemblage, he admits, but he’s more interested in the tiny doors than the actual boxes. Maybe he’ll reserve one chunk for such a piece, and maybe not; he says he tends to shy away from projects with a series seemingly built right into them—mostly, he says, because he doesn’t like falling into a routine. Regardless of what he would choose to place in them, he’d still have to wire each compartment for a light bulb and doubts he’d have the patience to follow through.

Or the electrical know-how. DeMeng also admits a tendency to avoid learning new disciplines when he can work around structural problems with existing methods; that’s why he hasn’t learned to weld, he says, even though his friend and fellow artist George Ybarra has been offering to teach him for ages. “People think I do a lot of welding,” he says. “I don’t do any welding. It’s mostly screwing things in or attaching them with nuts and bolts, various epoxies and things like that. Liquid Nails is the mother of all inventions, in my opinion—that stuff is just the best.”

Though deMeng’s process might be described colloquially as organic, his materials generally aren’t. He prefers metal to wood (and most materials to plastic), and almost never uses living or once-living tissue. The warmth of his studio sustains a few beetles through the winter (in fact, they look right at home scurrying over his workbench, invoking not damp or squalor but living clutter), but deMeng says that his one experiment to date with putting an insect into a piece was kind of a disappointment: “The bug fell apart.”

“I started rethinking that a little bit,” he says, alluding to possible insect inclusions in the future. “I’m really intrigued by hornets and other winged insects—and winged things figure all throughout Mexican art—but I think it’s going to require some additional experimentation. Their wings tend to wilt a little when you put glue on them.”

Bones, on the other hand, have been ruled out for the time being: “A lot of people have asked me about using bones and do I want any bones, and even though I’m drawn to them on a personal level, I think I’ve always steered away from using them in my work because a lot of people see my work as being darker anyway. I figured if I started adding bones to it, it would feed into a stereotype that I’m trying to break a little bit.”

Michael deMeng’s sardine cans and matchbooks are on display through the end of the month at the temporary Saltmine art space, on Front Street across from the back entrance of the VFW.

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