Artists were some of the first environmentalists, whether they knew it or not. Early 20th century Cubist painters like Pablo Picasso used chair bottoms, newspapers and smoking pipes to create depth and a sense of the everyday in their artworks. Later, Jackson Pollock dropped cigarette butts in the pools and paint blobs of his Abstract Expressionist paintings. And mid-century artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Ed Kienholz used junk like mattresses, taxidermy animals and abandoned cars to break free from traditional art materials like paint and stone.
But toward the end of the 20th century with the theory of climate change largely accepted, a number of artists have used garbage in their works as much more than jokey metaphor. These artists “upcycle” trash into works of art like a neon arrow pointing at the piles of refuse threatening to overwhelm the earth’s landfills and oceans. Working from literal garbage, enviro artists create works, some gorgeous, with darker messages about humankind’s impact on the planet.
For German-American designer and conceptual artist H.A. Schult, his use of trash is anything but accidental. In 1983, he created a paper river in downtown New York to highlight the amount of paper waste cities generate. He later directed his focus to landfills and hired a stunt pilot to crash a Cessna into a Staten Island garbage dump. And in 1996, Schult and 30 assistants created over 1,000 “trash people” sculptures that he placed in various installations around the planet, including Moscow’s Red Square, Piazza del Popolo in Rome, La Defénse in Paris and the pyramids at Giza in Egypt.
Schult also created the “Save the Beach” hotel in central Madrid last year – part art assemblage and part working hotel festooned with garbage collected from the mountains of trash washed up on European beaches. Says Schult, “The philosophy of this hotel is to expose the damage we are causing to the sea and the coastline. We live in the era of trash, and we are running the risk of becoming trash ourselves. Do we really want this world?” he asks.
IMAGES TOP TO BOTTOM: (1) Marilyn by Tom Deininger (from InterActiveBlend.com), (2) Trash People, (Giza) by H.A. Schult (2002, from AdaptiveReuseBlog.com), (3) Dirty White Trash (with Gulls) by Tim Noble and Sue Webster (1998, from JimOnLight.com), and (4) Shell by Tom Deininger. Made from cigarette butts picked up in beach parking lots around Newport, R.I. (from PotionCollective.com).
For British artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster, trash is a metaphor for humanity’s dark unconscious– psychological aspects relegated to distant (mental) dumps and landfills. Yet these expanding garbage repositories (both real and psychological) overwhelm the boundaries that hold them.
The artists started using garbage as a primary art medium in the mid-1990s, and even hired celebrity architect, David Adjaye, to design their studio – The Dirty House – as a creative warren and a trash warehouse. In their “Shadow Works” series of assemblage sculptures, the art duo creates seemingly random piles of junk that, when illuminated from the front, cast human shadows and silhouettes – people confronting or disconnected from each other, lost in drink or peeing in private. With artwork titles like “Real Life is Rubbish” and ”Dirty White Trash,” Webster’s and Noble’s pieces suggest a parallel side living in shadow – unaware, detached from self, others and the natural world, illustrated by the metaphor of overloaded landfills.
American garbage artist Tom Deininger says his favorite art-making tool is a glue gun, and he sticks together refuse like broken CDs, Coke crates, bottle caps and cigarette butts. “I find almost everything visually stimulating from NASCAR smash-ups to Hubble images and shit just lying around the streets,” he says. “When it comes down to it I am a real visual slut. I try to look at everything and not to judge beauty with a hierarchy of value or the source from which it is derived.”
Deininger works in the same vein as early 20th century Pointillist painters like George Seurat (“Afternoon at the Grande Jatte”) who almost mathematically arranged dots of paint – imperceptible at a distance but predominant on closer inspection. Deininger uses a cornucopia of trash – bottles, candles, masks, paper and all manner of useless plastic – creating portraits of pop icons like Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, Impressionist painter Monet’s bridge at Giverny and even natural forms like seashells. The images are lost in an inescapable smorgasbord of garbage up close, but at a distance, the pieces merge, and the whole becomes beautiful.
For Schult, Webster, Noble and even Deininger, they intend their trash works to roust viewers out of complacency about what they see as the rivers of waste threatening the planet. Some of these artists’ works are beautiful, but most are jarring. Says Noble, ““I think anything that’s a bit of a rocket up the arse, anything that kicks against the routine, against the mundane things that close down your mind, is a refreshing and good thing.” 
 Wikipedia.org, “Tim Noble and Sue Webster, The Work.”