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Art People: Patrick Miceli's cups runneth over


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When confronted with Patrick Miceli's recent art installations--huge piles of fast-food paper cups--most viewers are stunned. "There's the initial impression it makes," Miceli says. "A certain immediate kind of visual gut response you get."

Then they start asking questions. "They say, 'Gee, did somebody drink all these?' Or 'Who drank all these? Where did you get these? Did somebody give these to you?'"

Almost every night for over a year, Miceli has scoured trash receptacles for paper cups outside the dozen or so fast-food outlets and convenience stores within a 12-block radius of his house near Western and Addison. He washes, dries, and sorts the take for the night--usually about 200 cups--making sure that each looks pristine, with a plastic lid and a straw.

Miceli admits that trolling for cups has become a compulsion: "I can't help but wake up at two in the morning and go out and pick up cups." He says he's often mistaken for a bum and has been harassed by obnoxious high school kids and weirdos. "It's not my nature to dig in garbage cans. Like, this morning I was going through a garbage can--and there's a rat sitting on it. I think twice about it, but at the same time I'm really caught up in the behavior. I also wouldn't do this if I didn't see the value in the cups. I really think there's something quite wonderful about them. They are quite incredible."

The cups--in all sizes and colors--are from McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Checkers, J.J. Peppers, Pizza Hut, White Hen Pantry, 7-Eleven. There are red Cokes and blue Pepsis, Super Big Gulps and Slurpees. Bags of them are stacked against the walls of Miceli's studio, all the way to the ceiling. More bags are piled in the hallway. Boxes hold another 15,000 cups. "It's like an anthropological research project--like a slice taken out of a particular neighborhood at a particular time," he says. "You could do a survey and find out what people bought and used and what they liked more. If you dig up an archaeological site and find potsherds, you can decipher what people were doing in the culture. Here, you could make basic deductions about the habits of a Chicago neighborhood."

Miceli has used some of his cups in earlier projects. Diet/Cola/Other, at ARC Gallery in August of last year, was composed of 5,000 cups. Other, a cascade of 3,000 precariously balanced cups spilling out of a door, was included in "Stuff," a group show at TBA Exhibition Space last spring. Other was bought by Altoids, the breath-mint company, for a traveling exhibit set to open in New York later this month. Miceli finds the whole thing ironic, since his pieces are made from discards. "They defy commodification," he says, "the idea of having a product to sell."

Miceli, who's 46, graduated from Gordon Tech in 1970. Afterward he bounced around the University of Illinois at Chicago, the School of the Art Institute, and Columbia College, starting out as an engineering student and ending up in performance. In the mid-70s he dropped out of Columbia to work for his father's custom window business. After his father died in 1989, Miceli's mother closed the company, and he returned to academia, receiving a bachelor of fine arts from UIC in '93 and his master's from SAIC two years later. He makes his living teaching drawing and ceramics at local colleges and community arts centers.

Miceli started out painting "realistic, straightforward city scenes," showing them at galleries in Chicago, Wisconsin, and Indiana. Riding his bike to school, he began "picking up little pieces of scrap metal and junk on the street," and his paintings became more abstract as he incorporated images of the detritus. Then he focused on painting images of the junk. "After a point," he says, "it didn't make sense to me to keep painting images because they were a pale representation of the objects themselves. The object was always more interesting to me."

Miceli's first installation, in 1995, was a wall covered with 3,000 found gloves. "You could smell the gloves before you could see them. I had complaints about it--it smelled like oily rags." It was followed by an installation of toy guns and a curtain made of thousands of promotional toys from fast-food restaurants.

The floor of Miceli's studio is entirely taken up by boxes filled with over 20,000 of these small toys, sorted by color and gleaned from thrift stores, garage sales, and the street. He'll make a "carpet" out of them later this month for a show in Indianapolis. "They end up being little tools of acculturation," he says. "They teach our kids about gender identities, and they also promote this idea of consumerism."

Fast-food cups are a more recent obsession. At first Miceli collected them simply because he thought they were "attractive," for the colors as well as the ideas and pop-culture products they promoted. He keeps a personal collection he doesn't use in his art.

"They represent the best and worst that our culture has to offer," he says. "If you think corporations are an important part of our culture, then McDonald's is obviously the best because they're the most successful provider. On the other hand, some people think they represent the worst, because it promotes consumerism, the waste of resources--you use the cup once and it's thrown away."

Miceli has just built his most monumental shrine to mass consumption. Order Here, at the Chicago Cultural Center, is a site-specific installation of over 20,000 cups arranged in two massive spills. He expects his work--like all his fast-food installations--to speak for itself. "There's a certain element of neutrality," he says. "I don't intentionally set them up to critique anything. They kind of critique themselves."

Order Here is at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington (312-744-6630), through December 5. Admission is free. --Jeff Huebner

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Eugene Zakusilo.

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