Weeds and trash, Scott Wolniak noticed after he and his wife bought their Humboldt Park home in 1998, had one thing in common: “They were very tenacious–they kept coming back.” In 2001, a year after he entered grad school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he began collecting weeds and rubbish and photographing the overgrown rectangle of parkway between his portion of the sidewalk and the street. Later one of his professors suggested he somehow re-create the rectangle, and he began making weeds out of discarded stuff, much of it scrap paper. Eight of the sculptures are now on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, along with two videos. Covered with advertisements, Wolniak’s brightly colored plants are almost pretty but also a bit scary, like mutants from a future in which debris has replaced nature. The horror-movie idea is reinforced by one of the videos, Growth Spurt, which shows a trash plant springing out of the soil.

Each sculpture is a replica of a weed from Wolniak’s neighborhood. He reproduces the plant with a wire frame and wraps sections of collaged scraps around the stems, then cuts leaf shapes out of the same material after tracing actual leaves. “I find weeds really beautiful,” he says. “I love empty lots that are completely overgrown, dense and wild. I scuba dived a shipwreck once in the Virgin Islands that was overgrown with coral–it was beautiful.” He also likes intricate man-made patterns, like the honeycomb relief designs on the Alhambra’s ceiling, which he saw on a trip to Spain in 1996: “You can’t tell how close the ceiling comes to you or where it ends–it appears to go on forever.” Before his undergrad studies at the School of the Art Institute, Wolniak lived for a year in Colorado, where he hiked in the mountains. “If you’re staring at clouds or bark on a tree or a rock face, there are patterns,” he says, “but when you look closer you realize that nothing repeats exactly.” A vegetarian, he recently made a video of himself chopping fruits and vegetables in which their ghosts appear to rise from them as they’re cut.

After using his garage for five years as Suitable Gallery, opened in 1999 with his friend Derek Fansler, Wolniak made the space into a studio and has recently been concentrating more on his own art; his weed sculptures have been exhibited in New York, Berlin, and other cities. His playful attitude toward making art was evident even as a child: after perfecting a realistic drawing of a football player in fourth grade, he found it “more interesting to try to make ‘bad’ drawings with a lot of humor.” His art interests took a more serious turn when he discovered the work of de Kooning and Pollock at the Art Institute when he was first at SAIC, in 1991: “They felt endless–there was a connection with the vastness of nature.” He began painting in the Ab Ex manner but later introduced collaged and cartoony elements a la Robert Rauschenberg and Philip Guston. Working as a dog walker after receiving his BFA, he began collecting discarded cushions and doing paintings on them, such as an image of a La-Z-Boy recliner on a La-Z-Boy cushion.

But Wolniak’s art lacked a strong conceptual component–he calls his early attempts to “make an idea” one-dimensional. At the University of Illinois, he started to “allow ideas back in.” He let the vibrations of machines guide his marks in a series called “Automatic Turbulence,” riding the el while making the drawings or placing his sketch pad on top of a washing machine. For an installation on multitasking he kept track of the times when he was doing more than one thing, then recorded them on wall labels–“Feta and Tomato on Toasted Roll on Sofa With TV Law Drama” for eating and watching TV–and just exhibited the labels. To spoof plein air and action painting, he tried to make a painting while riding in the back of a pickup truck around the city, recording his efforts on video. “The easel kept falling over,” he says, “and the climax was when the painting blew away.”

Scott Wolniak

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

When: Through July 31

Info: 312-397-4010

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Joeff Davis.