After arriving in Chicago in the mid-80s, art student Dan Peterman started to experiment with different materials: “I lined a cargo net with a sheet of plastic with its edges budged up, stuck a hose in it, suspended it from the ceiling, and turned the faucet on.” He watched the bundle balloon and sag, shutting off the water when the ceiling started to groan. “It was a way of exploring the properties of the materials,” he says, “and of seeing how if you start to push something in a certain direction what it conveys will change.”

As an undergraduate Peterman was impressed by the simple, repeating geometric forms of minimal art, which he felt “represented a reduction to a zero point.” But he would soon move away from this aesthetic. In graduate school at the University of Chicago, he began working with aluminum scrap from the Resource Center on 61st Street. “I could have gotten it from anywhere,” he says, but having gotten it from a recycling outfit he considered its source. “Anytime you see somebody with a shopping cart full of cans or a bag of cans over their shoulder, they’re usually out collecting or they’re heading to a recycling buy-back. My aluminum had come out of this scavenging system and had a monetary value that was really significant” to the scavengers. So Peterman melted his “assortment of aluminum things down into ingots” that he numbered and “placed along alleys and curbsides.” About half were eventually returned for recycling.

In that project Peterman tried to map out the social dimensions of the recycling network, a system that has preoccupied him ever since. In his studio located in the Resource Center’s original building, there’s a weird-looking chair that’s about three times too wide. It’s made of thin sheets of recycled plastic screwed together, each piece identically shaped but of a different color due to the recycled plastic it was made from. The lockstep accumulation of plastic slabs suggests more pieces could be added to the chair, making it even wider. Peterman says the colors and the chair’s unusual width are “arbitrary,” while the repetition of plastic panels and their implied expandability undercut the commonplace reaction to recycling (“look at the wonderful things that can be made from recycled plastic”). He says he wants to “hint at some of the perversity of the abundance of it and its continuous production. It’s a little bit like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice: they might seem helpful at first but then start to turn on you.” For Peterman, recycling is only a partial solution to problems that need to be addressed at the source, in the processes of production.

Six stacks of drywall are lined up in a long gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Peterman’s latest work, Sulfur Cycle. Unlike the minimalists, whose intent was conveyed in the form of their work, Peterman wants viewers to look beyond what’s immediately visible. He expects them to go through a “two-stage process,” beginning with “what the hell is this–it looks like stupid drywall,” and leading to some suspicion, inquiry, and then realization of what’s really at stake.

Some notes on the gallery wall help the inquiring viewer learn. The drywall is made of gypsum produced in the scrubbers of coal-fired power plants, a by-product of pollution reduction. This material “used to be landfilled, but now it’s beginning to be fed into the wallboard industry.” A maquette of the MCA’s new building shows where these particular sheets of drywall will go, for this is “not a finished piece, it’s material in transition.”

Also on view is documentation of Peterman’s purchase–through the Chicago Board of Trade–of the rights to spew five tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, and a certificate whereby he transfers one ton of his pollution rights to the MCA. The wallboard on view contains about one ton of sulfur. In apparently balancing the pollution rights with the recycled material, Peterman takes no simple pro or con position, but is rather trying to make visible the patterns that now exist–such as the recent introduction of free-market trading in pollution rights–and the “decisions that are being made.” Ultimately he seeks to demonstrate that no material exists in isolation, but is rather part of “an infinitely complex series of things.” Peterman says, “All of the work moves toward a heightened awareness of sustainable behavior,” which he describes as “something very different from the way we’re acting now.”

Sulfur Cycle is on view through January 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 237 E. Ontario. The MCA is open Tuesdays-Saturdays 10-5; Sundays noon-5. $5 suggested donation; $2.50 students and seniors; Tuesdays free. For more information, call 280-5161.

Peterman’s Archive (87.5 Linear Feet), another work created from “reprocessed post-consumer plastics,” is currently at the gallery Feigen Incorporated, 742 N. Wells. For hours and other information, call 787-0500.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow, James Prinz.