Junk bonds: Caldwell and Whitehill rummage around

I come to clutter naturally. Whatever the Latin is for “Don’t throw that out! I might need it!” should go on my family’s coat of arms. But if Eric Caldwell or Murray Whitehill were to say those words, I might actually believe that whatever was at hand— whether a plastic McDonald's fork or an out-of-ink ballpoint pen— could end up as art rather than in the junk drawer.

Repurposing found objects in art is nothing new. (Hello, Marcel Duchamp. Hello, outsider artists.) What distinguishes Caldwell and Whitehill’s work is the clarity and balance of their mixed-media assemblages. Their joint exhibition, “Flotsam with a Jettisonian Influence,” on view at the McGuffey Art Center, displays each artist’s distinctly uncluttered response to salvaged elements and their shared sense of humor.

Of the two, Whitehill is the bigger jokester, often literally playing with words in his pieces, even as he plays on words in their titles. For instance, in the wall sculpture, “The Wordsmith Prattles On,” he arranges dismantled typewriter parts on a background of collaged book pages and scatters crimped and shredded pages over them like confetti. But the composition is careful both in its geometry and palette, the white lettering on the black typewriter keys contrasting with the black print on the white book pages.

In several works, Murray focuses on abstract composition and the relationship of forms, e.g. the colorful “Three Circles, Three Halfs,” but in many pieces a certain nostalgia surfaces, fueled by components like yellowed newspaper ads and 1950s-era linoleum flooring.

In “The Greggwriter,” Whitehill pays homage to the lost skill of shorthand by creating a steampunk-esque writing machine with a roller, reminiscent of an antique player piano’s, studded with a spiral of fountain pen nibs.

Caldwell, for his part, is less concerned with producing meaning than with fostering appreciation for the materiality of found objects. His abstract pieces divorce their elements— keys, gears, marbles, etc.— from their original purpose to focus on their aesthetic qualities. Caldwell’s “Linear B on Slate” features a sometimes-buckled quilt of corroded pennies encircled with lead, mounted on fractured slate that subtly echoes the oxidized and sulfated colors of the coins. His pièce de résistance, “Tapestry of Secrets,” offers a curtain of keys, in which function is lost in a stunning mesh of colors and shapes. 

With a wink and a nudge— and a lack of clutter— Whitehill and Caldwell prove anew that one person’s trash is another’s treasure.

Eric Caldwell and Murray Whitehill’s exhibition, “Flotsam with a Jettisonian Influence,” runs through October 30 at the McGuffey Art Center, 201 Second St. NW. 295-7973.