Dan Peterman

Dan Peterman was engaged in the practice of “adaptive reuse” long before the term came into vogue. Distinct from recycling, reprocessing, and rehabbing, adaptive reuse doesn’t run materials through the consumer mill again. Instead, like the artistic practice of working with found objects, it refers to the alteration of things, often the detritus of industrial and/or commercial activity, into something new that reveals their sources while turning them to another use. When Peterman takes the kind of ubiquitous supermarket shopping cart often appropriated by homeless people and efficiently turns it into a Miesian chair, as he does in Thank You for Your Patronage: Chairs from Street Carts, 1989, his gesture seems more rehabilitative than ecological. Slightly absurd but completely functional, there is a poetry of junk here, a salvaging that, ironically, is redemptive of its original material.

This midsize retrospective suggested that Peterman is more rust-colored than green. In his workshop in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago he has immersed himself in the decaying residue of the late industrial revolution, in the dysfunctional junk that litters the urban landscape—signs of systems made redundant and pathetic in their abandonment. In Excerpts from the Universal Lab (good humor), 2004, the artist assembles a kunstkammer of scientific rubbish, a collection of thousands of decades-old outmoded materials from the University of Chicago labs. On a large constructed flatbed he has placed the painted cab of a Good Humor truck, surrounding it with an inventoried array of this exhausted scientific flotsam, organizing it by size, shape, material, and function. Pursuing adaptive reuse only insofar as he transforms this glut into art, he investigates the ephemeral nature of knowledge and the almost immediate redundancy of most human activity.

Ville Deponie, 2002, is a small hut made from recycled sneaker material attached to plywood. The springy dot-matrix sneaker residue ranging from blue to yellow to black to orange and pink makes the hut a pointillist composition, and comfortable to sit inside or walk on, too. This move toward putting the sneaker craze of recent decades to some real use is the kind of thinking that Peterman engages. It is less an effort to light a symbolic candle in the midst of late capitalist waste than a reconsideration of the possible applications of that waste. The gray and taupe benches and planks he began constructing from postconsumer plastic in 1997 are directed toward providing park recreation and communal dance floors, putting waste to work in the service of urban citizenry.

In Standard Kiosk (Chicago), 2004, Peterman takes the massive trapezoidal metal dumpsters now an omnipresent part of the urban environment, cuts them in half, and pieces them together vertically to form kiosks that serve a variety of uses. Two are currently installed in Chicago’s Humboldt Park to disseminate health and cultural information; a third in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art serves as a bicycle station. That a trash receptacle could be made capable of regeneration is Peterman’s way of suggesting a kind of adaptive problem-solving that could be more and more a part of our collective future.

James Yood