On first blush, viewed straight on, Tom Deininger’s large collage looks like an homage painting to Monet’s impressionistic Water Lilies, the one with the Japanese bridge. Until you get closer, and realize, with jaw-dropping shock, that the “painting” is really an incredibly complex three-dimensional amalgamation of hundreds of discarded plastic toys: the yellows, Bart Simpsons or SpongeBobs; the greens, Kermit the Frog.
Deininger, 43, toys with the eye, the mind, sight lines and how our brain sees. How good is he at turning another person’s trash into an artistic treasure? The Smithsonian Museum of American Art has commissioned three pieces for an October display that they first saw at one of his private exhibits.
A former waiter, cook, dish washer, taxi driver, construction worker, white water raft guide, surfer and snowboarder, Deininger did almost everything to make a buck before becoming a full-time artist.
He attended Salve Regina University, majoring in art. Several awards and a wife and four children later, Deininger works in Bristol, very close to his home, “so I can be disturbed by my wife and kids when they need it. The history of Bristol is kind of inspiring in a weird and twisted kind of way,” says Tom.
He works out of a very raw 8,000-square-foot brick building in the Bristol Industrial Park on Wood Street. It has large walls on wheels, so reconfiguration is easy. Usually, many of his projects are going on simultaneously. There are big bins filled with plastics sorted by color and kind; bins filled with action figures, others twisted with wires, shoes, others consumed by fabric. There are milk crates filled with a variety of magazines and mailorder catalogs, video equipment and old TVs, and, of course, paints and easels.
There is also a large movie screen and huge bookshelves, and skateboards for transportation. “My process is a kind of controlled chaos. A.D.D. has a way of fostering that kind of habit,” says Tom. “What I do in a nutshell? I make everything from paintings to short videos and really everything in between. I am probably most well-known for large found object assemblages or ‘wall reliefs’ that look like representational paintings from a distance but are very abstract amalgamations of consumer detritus up close.
“This work came from a process of pulling on a ball of string and just allowing things to happen,” he adds. “It was a way for me to challenge myself in a variety of artistic frameworks. All of my work ultimately was born from drawing and painting. The first objects I used were old license plates and scraps of wood. All the objects are kind of unusual in their own way.”
Like other true artists (not the repetitive hacks who try to pass themselves off as such), Tom’s unique style roughly reveals his own vision of the world. You have to be scrappy to work from scraps. “I don’t worry about what others are doing. I try just to be myself,” he says. “However, I do look at all kinds of art from ancient to modern for inspiration and ideas. I enjoy looking almost as much as I like making. I don’t really know what the public thinks about me because I don’t even know what I think about me. The best reaction and the worst reaction (to my work) were one in the same, I think. Attraction and repulsion are actually more similar than most people want to admit. What gets under our skin generally holds a kernel of truth. And I like to make Trojan Horse-like pieces that attract and appall. I am interested in delivery systems that unravel things we might not want to think about.”
Exhibiting in both commercial galleries and museums, Tom is currently working on a few pieces for the Smithsonian in October. “It’s been a process that has been going on for a few years now,” he says. He is humbled at the thought that his work will be on display with other great works of art, finishing the circle that transformed him from viewer to artist years ago.
“I think when I stood in front of the statue of David I was just so incredibly honored to be a member of a species that could execute such an amazing thing,” says Tom.