He returned the woman’s coat to the side of the highway, just where he’d found it.
In the exact same spot. Arranged in precisely the same position.
That’s what the waiter overheard artist Dario Robleto explaining to our group of Nasher Museum staffers at dinner the other night.
We allowed the perplexed waiter to walk away thinking whatever he wanted to think!
The altered highway coat is part of the story behind Dario’s 1998-99 work, “Sometimes Billie Is All That Holds Me Together,” now on view in “The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.” The work is one of many mysterious and beautiful sculptures he has created over the past 12 years by pulverizing or melting down vinyl records of pop songs and casting them into unexpected objects. In this case he transformed Billie Holiday songs into buttons he then hand painted in bright colors.
Dario talked about the Billie buttons and some of his other work at a free workshop for about 70 K-12 teachers last Thursday at the Nasher Museum. The term the artist invented for himself, “materialist poet,” emphasizes that his lists of materials and descriptions for each work are just as important as the sculptures themselves.
“Several new buttons were crafted from melted Billie Holiday records to replace missing buttons on found, abandoned, or thrift store clothing. After the discarded clothing was made whole again, it was redonated to the thrift stores or placed back where it was originally found.” That is the description of “Sometimes Billie Is All That Holds Me Together” that visitors find on the gallery wall.
The wall text does not mention that each of the colorful Billie buttons represents an article of clothing repaired and returned. Somebody finds it and maybe puts it on with no idea that Billie Holiday’s music, or something of her essence, is infused in the buttons. “It goes back into the world,” he said, “to do its thing.”
Dario’s work is infused with wicked humor and music. He also likes to think of his art as functional.
“What can art do?” he asked the teachers. “Can art hold your shirt together? Can art light your cigarette?”
He looked out at the teachers’ faces and told them about Miss Kirk, the first-grade teacher who saw some creative spark in him. He went to visit her more than a decade later, he said. “She still had a drawing I gave her on her wall.” He would not decide to be an artist until many years after that.
One teacher asked the artist to explain the point at which his work becomes art.
It’s a long and complicated process, for sure: the brilliant idea (buttons made of Billie Holiday records), the research (no how-to manual exists for melting records down into buttons), foraging (for just the right abandoned clothing with missing buttons), creating and painting the buttons, stealthily returning the clothing into the world–details inherent in all of Dario’s work.
Dario did not try to definitively answer that perennial question, “When is it art?”
But it was clear he loved the question!
Afterward, Alexandro Madrigal, who teaches fifth grade at Central Park School for Children in Durham, said what struck him most about Dario’s talk was learning where the works of art came from. (Full disclosure: My daughter is one of Alex’s happy students!)
“There was this certain magic to it all: frailty of threads, puffs of chorus lingering in the air, Shaker potions of vinyl dust and the unforeseen relief that Victorian doctors and the soulful divas of Motown never crossed paths,” Alex said. “It was important we teachers saw the themes and development of pieces over time, but it was also apparent that the entire talk could have centered around the inspirational phases and creation of just one piece. Knowing the history embedded in each one and hearing it straight from Dario was doubly satisfying.”
See pictures of work by Dario in “The Record” here.
Learn more about Dario’s upcoming exhibition at ACME Gallery in Los Angeles (Oct. 16-November 13).
Please visit our website for more information about how to take part in free K-12 teacher workshops at the Nasher Museum.
IMAGE: Houston-based artist Dario Robleto chats with K-12 teachers during a workshop at the Nasher Museum. Photo by Dr. J Caldwell.