Quiet and thoughtful in tone, multidisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers says a lot in his sit-down interview, but even more in his art. Large trees sprout from disco floors and through pianos. Huge mandalas quoting Buddhism double as floors for break-dancing competitions. This is what Biggers loves to do — take culturally loaded objects (lawn jockeys, Buddhas) and “bling” them out in a similar way.
His re-appropriations aren’t obscure, and the commonplace nature of many objects in his art provokes and amuses upon first sight. A chance to sample Biggers’ most recent work is happening this month, with a new exhibition already open at Contemporary Arts Forum, part of a series of events stretching into April that intend to introduce the artist to a larger audience.
Biggers’ mash-up of Buddhist icons with hip-hop and other urban signposts stem from his time spent in Japan back in his 20s. His interest in sculpture grew as his earlier attachment to painting waned. Plus, he says, he was inspired by the high quality of trash left in the streets in Nagoya.
“Fully working televisions left out, with the cord all neatly wrapped together. Packages of trash, neatly tied together,” Biggers said.
For raw materials, it was a promised land.
“Objects speak to me, and in turn, I like to create objects that are visual and speak to others,” he says. “I believe there’s inherent narratives, anecdotes, politics, that are born into the materials themselves. And they provide another context for the work. It’s an alchemical type of combining process, to allow each material to contribute to the finished work.”
The pieces in “Moon Medicine” were about “having the materials and playing with them,” he says. But improvisation is key to all his pieces.
The video piece “Shuffle,” shot in Germany, shows off Biggers’s improvisational technique. The germ of the idea came from seeing a father teaching a son how to put on clown makeup during a trip on the subway from Harlem. In Germany, while on residency, he struck up a friendship with the star of the film, a Brazilian immigrant, and that, combined with a visiting friend who was also a director of photography, spawned the piece. Biggers had a loose idea and the faith for it all to come together in the editing room.
“I like to have a very loose structure,” he says, “and then rely on the talent I’m working with to feed and fill in the gaps.” It also offers a contrast with the more laborious work involved with his installations.
Biggers was born in Los Angeles but has set his home base in New York since 1999. His studio has been in Harlem for years.
“For me, Harlem is part of a personal mythology,” he says, “and I always had a desire to be there and be a part of Harlem’s history. … The culture is very different from Brooklyn and other parts of Manhattan. I found it very accepting.”
Not that he’s had much time to become a homebody. As evidenced from his trip to Santa Barbara — here to install and celebrate the opening, then back once again in April for a special First Thursdays performance — he spends a lot of time traveling the world. He swears that soon he’ll slow down.
In his April show, Biggers will appear with Los Angeles-based DJ Jahi Sundance and local ensemble Gamelan Sinar Surya. They’ll form a real-time mash-up of Biggers’ video, the gamelan ensemble providing a soundtrack and the DJ providing ambient soundscapes.
Sounds complicated. Has Biggers ever done anything like this before?
He smiles. “Nope! I have no idea how it’s going to go.”
‘SANFORD BIGGERS: MOON MEDICINE’
When: through May 2; Forum Lounge performance Thursday, April 1, 7 p.m.
Where: Contemporary Arts Forum, upstairs in Paseo Neuvo
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday
Information: 966-5373, sbcaf.org