Artist to Speak about His Work Using 'Found' Objects To Explore Memory, Experience, Connections

December 13, 2007

A Rochester artist widely recognized for his work transforming discarded items – what many would call “junk” – into pieces of art that evoke a stir of memory and debate in viewers will speak about his work at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Allen C. Topolski, M.F.A., associate professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History, will discuss his work, which he describes as “artifacts” that are designed to provoke in viewers a complex set of thoughts and feelings about objects they have known – or thought they knew – throughout their lives.

Topolski will speak at 4 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, in the Class of ’62 Auditorium (Room G-9425) at the Medical Center. Topolski’s talk is geared mainly to faculty, staff and students at the University, though the general public is welcome as well. The talk is free.

Topolski showed such early promise as an artist that his kindergarten teacher encouraged his parents to enroll him in formal painting classes. Topolski initially pursued painting, but as an adult he found what he calls a freedom in sculpture that he hadn’t experienced before, and he switched mediums, finding delight in a whole new set of materials.

His studio today is a tinkerer’s dream, filled with what many would call junk and what Topolski likes to call “found materials” – items often scavenged from trash heaps and household junk around Rochester. These are the items on which his art is currently based – old appliances like toasters, hair dryers, coffee pots, blenders, and strangely shaped lamps.

In his hands, the discarded devices are transformed into new creations – still resembling what they were, but yet somehow completely new – that evoke a mix of recognition, nostalgia, and even bafflement in the viewer. Common objects that you thought you knew, like that Thermos bottle or the freezer – perhaps you don’t know them at all.

“We are surrounded every day by objects that we have relationships with – psychological relationships, physical relationships, and the like,” said Topolski. “Each of the objects we surround ourselves with carries a history and a set of connections in the same way that people do. My work is an investigation of these relationships, and how these objects lead to a larger sort of collective memory that we share in this culture.

“Viewers often don’t recognize the objects, but they know they are somehow familiar, and this leads viewers to reflect on their personal experiences and on our collective perceptions of domestic life. We all connect through the vestiges of the object’s former function. Memory is ethereal. We think we can recall things when we are actually continually reconstructing things.”

As Topolski drives along a roadway, occasionally out of the corner of his eye he’ll see a shape that grabs his eye. Even before he recognizes the object, he finds himself drawn to it for whatever reason. The object might be the plastic dome of an ancient humidifier, an old Tupperware container, or some electronic gizmo on the fritz. It’s those brief moments of sensation, and subsequent perceptions and feelings, that Topolski seeks to evoke for his viewers.

“I don’t think of what I do as making art,” said Topolski. “The work is not about the objects so much as it is about putting viewers through the creative process. If an artist can engage the viewer in a sort of discussion or process, then we are accomplishing something.”

The talk is part of the “Second Friday Science Social” lecture series that usually highlights biological and biomedical research at the University of Rochester. But each year during the holidays, scientists take a break from the science and learn about a topic far afield from the usual fare like DNA, genomics, and astrocytes.

“No matter the topic, all the talks have this in common: They are given by people who can speak about the creative process that leads to new discovery,” said Dirk Bohmann, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biomedical Genetics and the organizer of the series. “These are all people who are highly successful at what they do, and it’s fascinating to learn about their thought processes and how they got to where they are.”

To learn more about Topolski’s work or view samples of his work, visit http://www.rochester.edu/pr/Review/V66N1/feature4.html or http://www.facstaff.bucknell.edu/rk023/topolski.html.

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