One man's trash is another man's art masterpiece

A thrift store changed Charles Phoenix’s life.

“Thrift stores opened me up to the treasures and the underbelly of our mass-consumption culture,” says Phoenix, whose collection of vintage slides would turn into sellout performances and coffee table books. (His latest slide show, “Retro Disneyland,” bows at Redcat tonight.)

Phoenix isn’t alone in his love of digging. Ever since a 26-year-old Picasso glued an advertisement onto canvas in 1908, artists have used collage, assemblage and montage to create art. The technique has a rich history in Southern California, from the beat poets and the assemblage artists of the 1950s to the guerrilla artists of today.

This month, an entire junk-filled spectrum of collage and assemblage artwork is on exhibit at these galleries.

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The Little Room of Epiphanies

Green with Envy: A Celebration of Celebrity
Retropia, through June 1
The Little Room of Epiphanies
Santa Monica Museum of Art, through Aug. 19
With a nod to Warhol, Jason Mecier makes campy portraits out of items sent by his celebrity subjects. His Phyllis Diller portrait includes an old tube of Poligrip and a can of Swanson Beef Broth. New work by admitted hoarder (and Sundance Institute exec director) Ken Brecher has transformed SMMOA’s project room into your grandfather’s work shed. Thousands of small items — early 20th century coffee pots, Brecher’s hotel laundry lists, a jar of ashes labeled “My Dad”– combine to create a tapestry that’s hypnotic, nostalgic and downright weird.

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines

Fitzpatrick

Robert Rauschenberg: Combines
MOCA, Grand Avenue, May 21-Sept. 4
The Wonder: Portraits of A Remembered City, Volume 2, The Dream City
Billy Shire Fine Arts, May 27-July 8
More than 70 painting/sculpture “Combines” made by Robert Rauschenberg, the granddaddy of assemblage art, from 1954-1964. Unlike the Dadaists or his contemporaries in the California assemblage movement, Rauschenberg avoids socio-political content. “Monogram” has a stuffed Angora goat wearing a rubber tire on a wood platform covered with paint, paper, metal and tennis ball. Part-time actor Tony Fitzpatrick makes collages out of old matchbooks, wrappers and printed materials he finds at home in Chicago. Not as overblown as Rauchenberg or as campy as Mecier, Fitzpatrick’s small-scale pieces are understated, delicate and augmented with his own poetry. “I see myself making a diary,” he says.

The Société Anonyme
UCLA’s Hammer Museum, through Aug. 20
Collage in the most famous sense of the word. In 1920, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Katherine S. Dreier founded the Société Anonyme to introduce Americans to European modernism. The Hammer exhibits 240 works held by the Société, including DuChamp’s “Tu m’,” made of paint, bottle brush, safety pins and one bolt.

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