Since the mid-1990s, Joe Mangrum has been making temporary installations from found objects. Often exhibiting his designs in public spaces, Mangrum hopes to catch his viewers off guard, inserting something unexpected into their everyday routines. Spark visits Mangrum as he works on a large-scale piece for Red Ink Studios on San Francisco’s bustling Market Street.
Mangrum began his career as a painter, but after 15 years, he began to feel frustrated with his reliance on the gallery system. Thinking that he would be able to reach a larger audience by making and showing his work outside of the gallery setting, Mangrum began assembling installations in public spaces like sidewalks and parks. He also he sought other media in which to work and decided on objects that he could find easily and in abundance, such as flower petals and beans. Mangrum breaks the vegetation into its core components, then reassembles the parts into elaborate patterns.
His installations often reiterate metaphysical polarities — such as man/nature and life/death — and speak to current world affairs. In 1995, Mangrum had his first gallery exhibition of this type of work at San Francisco State University. The exhibit consisted of five mandalas laid out on the gallery floor: one composed of natural materials, one composed of currency, two composed of computer parts and other industrial symbols, and a fifth, amorphous piece composed of a combination of natural and industrial elements. Mangrum intended this last mandala to suggest that nature and industry could co-exist without monetary exchange.
Spark caught up with Mangrum hard at work on “Birth and Death,” a similar design for San Francisco’s Red Ink Studios. The gallery is located in a storefront on Market Street, so Mangrum’s attenuated process of planning and installing the piece is exposed to passersby. The large installation is divided into two sections: “Birth,” which is composed of natural materials, such as seeds, beans, lentils and sprouts; and “Death,” which is composed of computer parts, bullets and bullet casings, cross-sections of engine tailpipes, and bricks covered in gold leaf. As in earlier works, Mangrum places these two sets of objects in opposition, in hopes of starting a dialogue about the use and abuse of industry and wealth. He also aims to encourage viewers to think more deeply about their surrounding environments.
Joe Mangrum earned a B.F.A. in 1991 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 2003, he was selected for the Florence Biennale, where he received the Lorenzo de Medici award for his piece addressing war called “Fragile”. Mangrum regularly shows his work in galleries and public spaces around San Francisco.