A mind’s eye description of the visual arts often includes conventional materials such as pencil, stone, and paint, along with subjects drawn from the classic genres of historical painting, portraiture, landscape, still lifes, and so on. While these traditional materials and themes are still used, the use of more unusual, everyday, and visceral materials has a well-established history in the art world. The trend gained its early momentum with the Duchampian readymade and includes the movements of pop, land, shock, and conceptual art. This article is a sampling of artistic practices from the past 50 years involving unconventional artistic media. I have organized the survey loosely according to theme, jumping between decades to highlight parallels between artists.
Ed Ruscha, the Southern California darling and pop art pioneer, experimented with countless materials in his drawings, paintings, and prints throughout the 1970s, including fruit and vegetable juices and other food stuffs, such as chocolate syrup, caviar cherry pie, coffee, and Bolognese sauce. Ruscha’s approach is deadpan and sometimes whimsical. He wielded gunpowder in a way that made the material indistinguishable from common graphite and brilliantly concocted paint stains from grass clippings and flowers, channeling the paint-making tradition of Native Americans. His use of axle grease gestures back to his 1963 photography compilation, Twentysix Gasoline Stations, and his iconic Standard Station screen print from 1966.
Another Southern California artist, Paul McCarthy, uses chocolate syrup and table condiments like ketchup and mayonnaise as symbolic substitutes for feces, blood, and semen. McCarthy takes a page from Viennese Actionist artists who devised ritualistic performances involving mystical taboos, animal sacrifice, and the human body. This Dionysiac tradition of subversion has carried forward into the twenty-first century. Marco Evaristti, for example, tested the morality of audience members in Helena, a 2000 installation of 10 blenders with live goldfish inside. Though decried as a shameless example of animal cruelty and exploitation, the exhibit does open up questions about the conditions under which ordinary human beings can show a tendency towards evil—a theme that was also explored by the 1970s Stanford Prison Experiment. One visitor to Evaristti’s exhibition did choose to turn on a blender, which liquefied two of the goldfish.
The Viennese Actionists preferred big dramatic gestures such as splattering buckets of blood onto audience members, but later artists used smaller quantities to good effect. Marc Quinn collected pints of his own blood for the creation of Self, a sculpture cast of his own frozen blood. Quinn creates a new version of the sculpture every five years—a testament to the work’s ability to make viewers ponder their own mortality and the circle of life.
Quinn has also produced sculptures of disabled people, a marginalized group associated with Julia Kristeva’s abjection theory as discussed in her 1982 book Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection. Another artist who examines the abject is Kiki Smith, whose 1990 Untitled sculpture tackles social issues by depicting discarded wax figures leaking semen and breast milk from their bodies.
A more one-hit approach was taken by artists John Beagles and Graham Ramsay with Sanguis Gratia Artis, or Black Pudding Self-Portrait. The video recording chronicles the artist’s blood being drawn by a nurse, followed by a cooking demonstration where the artists mixed their own blood with oats, barley, cream, and suet to prepare the traditional British breakfast treat.
Although these materials—blood, breast milk, feces, urine, and semen—are some of the most natural, organic substances in the world, their use in art often receives the bulk of negative media attention, often ignoring or misrepresenting the motives and themes of the artists who use them. Culture wars in the 1990s showcased hysteria over key works of art made in this way: most famously, Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ and Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary. Serrano regularly uses urine, blood, and semen to create well-executed photography; his work has even been featured as the cover art for two Metallica albums.
News stories written during the Rudy Giuliani vs. Brooklyn Museum controversy of 1999 inaccurately reported Ofili’s painting as being “smeared” with elephant dung, though it was actually carefully used as a decorative element reflecting Ofili’s Nigerian roots. The uproar was caused partly by what was perceived as anti-Christian bias.
Just a few years before that controversy, British art duo Gilbert and George released their Naked Shit Pictures series, taking on the Bible for producing so much shame over the human body and its functions. Their work, in turn, owes a debt to Piero Manzoni, who challenged notions of artistry and commodity through works like Artist’s Shit (1961).
Aside from the use of bodily fluids, the novel juxtaposition of natural elements is a common thread in twentieth and twenty-first century art. Maurizio Cattelan (Novecento) and Damien Hirst (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living) often use taxidermied or preserved animals and carcasses in their work, while earth and sea are the media for Land art artists like Michael Heizer (Double Negative), Robert Smithson (Spiral Jetty) and Walter De Maria (The New York Earth Room).
Of course, a unique artistic statement can be made without the use of fluids, bodies, or rocks. Conceptual art is the key example of this, since much of what makes up the art associated with this movement is nonmaterial, like ideas and cognition. Robert Barry famously used invisible media in his 1969 Inert Gas Series and Telepathic Piece.
The works and artists mentioned above reveal the liberating and equalizing tendencies in modern and contemporary art. Art is no longer accessible only to those with the money to purchase paints and lacquers or pay tuition for drawing and sculpting classes. It can be informed by personal topics or social issues often forced to remain in hiding or by exploring “art as idea as idea” and the limits of the human body and mind.