In most cases, walking into an art gallery and proclaiming that the exhibit looks like garbage would be considered rude. But in Boulder, such criticism only earns you thanks.
A Rocketman Crashes and Rises in the West is an exhibit of assembled art by artist Jimmy Descant on display through Dec. 1 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. A believer in the messages told by art, Descant’s pieces shed insight into a self-described “severe reconstructivist” and the life that he has lived.
Evoking space travel of a time before, Descant says, “They made the space shuttle look like a Toyota,” the exhibit is a colorful array of assemblage art where something new can be discovered with each viewing. It’s all stuff that might come from a junkyard, a flea market or your messy closet. None of it is welded together, yet Descant somehow finds a way for each piece to fit into a bigger picture. The result may be an intricate-looking rocket ship fashioned out of an old Thermos bottle, a washboard and antennas, adorned with tile spacers, flickering electric candles and billiard balls. Pictures don’t do the exhibit justice, as each piece seems ready to take flight from the wall of repurposed junk upon which it is perched.
Descant has no formal art training, and has pieced together his dream job by working through the school of life. Years ago, after spying his first rocket ship — an old vacuum cleaner — at a flea market, Jimmy knew that his future would involve sifting through nuts and bolts to construct a bigger picture.
“It was a worldwide education,” Descant says of the places, times and cultures that have helped to shape his work. Descant did plenty of artwork as a child, but it wasn’t that mechanical. Before becoming a full-time sculptor, he spent time working on cars, tinkering with vintage pinball machines and worked in the music business as a tour manager, sound man and guitar tech.
At first, Descant would just buy all the junk he could find, scouring thrift stores, garage sales and back alleys. Now he gets loads of material dropped anonymously at his residence. Finding pieces isn’t the problem. It’s finding the right fit.
"Vote and/or Die" by Jimmy Descant
“All the parts come from different places, so [my art is] finding things that fit together perfectly that have never seen each other before. It’s a mix and match,” Descant says. He has learned how to sift past the everyday junk that seems to consume so much of the American life.
“So much that’s manufactured is just instantaneous junk, and I have to go through a lot of stuff to find the good quality stuff that works. It always comes back to that Golden Age of American manufacturing when everything was built to last a hundred years,” Descant says. “So much that’s manufactured these days is just junk right from the beginning, it’s not even a planned obsolescence, it’s instantaneous obsolescence. The sculptures that I build with the parts that I use could have been around for 80 years already, and they’ll last forever.”
"P.A.T.H.O.N. Polyphemus at the Heart of Nigeria" by Jimmy Descant
Most of Descant’s work revolves around a large operating table where he lays out his pile of junk. Through trial and error, each piece eventually builds itself through the vision of the artist.
“It’s just putting things together to see what will step down or step up in the right form in the process,” Decant says. “The inspiration can be from a single piece, or it can be an idea or a title that I’ve had. These days I know pretty much when I start laying things out where it’s gonna lead to.”
It’s been described as steam punk art by some, which evokes 19th century simplicity fabricated with intricate iron and steel work. But since Descant only uses materials culled from what he calls the Golden Age of American manufacturing — the sturdily built utilitarian machinery of pre-space age time but of futuristic thinking — his works take on a more organic appearance while still evoking strong messages.
“Steampunk is more H.G. Wells, whereas I’m more of a Buck Rodgers,” Descant says of his style.
As for a message, Descant says that since 2000, the American way and the politics of life created a darker theme. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed the New Orleans native’s home and belongings, he became more focused.
“I think I became more intense after losing everything,” Descant says. “All my early art, the things I never wanted to sell. The emotions I went through, I just became more intense and more critical of the world around me.
"Woody Says 'Let's Eat!' (Here)" by Jimmy Descant
“There are a lot of artists that use a lot of modern pieces and parts in their assemblage to comment on the modern world. But my comment is not just about vintage, it is about the modern world and it’s about ideals and culture/ space/time ideas and ideals with the quality of life or the quality of the vision behind the sculptures.”
Settling into Salida has helped to mellow the intensity and underscore the positives for Descant. Native American and Western influences regularly dot his work. But for the artist, the biggest thing is looking for the message in his creations.
“It’s not only the beauty, it’s the statement. It took me a little while to get to what I was actually trying to do as an artist rather than just a craftsman,” Descant says.