When future generations look back on the early 21st century, they will likely call these the Waste Years. Despite having more opportunities to recycle and conserve now than at any other time in history, thanks to single-stream recycling plants and our marvelous technological capacity to produce earth-friendly materials, our desires to consume and discard thoughtlessly certainly outweigh them. Kyle Karrasch has dedicated his artistic career to attempting to tip those scales.
Karrasch, an avid outdoorsman who has always enjoyed fishing and hiking all over the Sierra, says he was always good at, and interested in, making art. He spent a year at the Academy of Fine Art in San Francisco with hope of one day working as an illustrator, but soon discovered a passion for sculpture, eventually returning to Reno to complete a Bachelor of Fine Arts in UNR with an emphasis in that medium. Still, discussions with his parents, particularly his physician father, convinced him that art wasn’t a practical career pursuit, and his best shot at success was to enlist in the military.
That is until his then-fiancée, Kerstin Trachok, made it clear she wanted no part of being a military wife. It was she who encouraged him to pursue art studies in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Master of Fine Arts program.
Shortly after Karrasch was accepted into the program, his artwork began to convey an environmental theme after he made a shocking discovery. Despite Nevada’s small population — 32nd among all states — and the fact that it contains more public land than any other state in the nation, it also produces nearly double the national average of waste. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, Nevada produces nearly eight pounds of garbage per person every day. This is due in large part to the state’s tourism industry and its reliance on single-use consumable materials, as well as to Apex Landfill, the nation’s largest landfill, residing in Clark County.
“I was pretty horrified to realize the truth of my home state,” the 32-year-old recalls. “So I decided this was what I want to do, what I want to talk about.”
To make more plain the problem, Karrasch began collecting the single-use consumables that are the biggest problems — aluminum, plastics, cardboard — and storing them in a studio space on the UNR campus.
“I started heavily working with aluminum cans at first, doing landscapes, adding symbolism that would reference the landscapes I’m depicting,” he says. “At first I was collecting it, and my wife would call me a trash hoarder. But then I started engaging more with the community and telling people all about what I’d been researching, asking if they had garbage to donate it to me and my art practice. Once I did that, I would get these large volumes of materials, and that’s when my work really expanded into large-scale sculptural pieces.”
Installations, he felt, would more deeply and viscerally engage the viewer in his message about consumption, showcasing materials everyone uses and recognizes, in amounts that are easily grasped. This, he decided, would be his master’s thesis show: a sort of data visualization, something real and palpable and overwhelming to help people understand the gravity of the situation.
Waste Aeon, his 2020 MFA thesis show that has been reconstructed for exhibit at Western Nevada College’s Bristlecone Gallery in Carson City, is the culmination of these efforts. The work that went into the pieces, nine in total, was physically arduous and time-consuming. Take, for example, “Fractionary Mass,” a literal picture of the aluminum we Americans consume. The piece is made of 12,000 crushed aluminum cans, formed into building blocks of 156 cans each, that are used to construct a wall. Though impressive in size, it represents only 3.4 seconds of aluminum can consumption in the U.S.
“I wanted this to be like a really large wall that would function as an imposing barrier, something that kind of blocks your path to really put an emphasis on the mass itself, or what’s happening in short increments of time,” he explains.
Then there’s “Nexus,” an intricately formed, chain-mail-like curtain composed of 15,000 linked aluminum soda can tabs, the sum of which equates to 4.5 seconds of U.S. consumption. It casts a shadow as it falls to the floor, implying a second even larger volume close behind.
His favorite piece in the show, “Ascent,” is a sculptural graph composed of corrugated cardboard depicting American paper consumption over the past 20 years. Its light, airy construction allows light to shine through. “When I was designing it,” he explains, “I wanted it to be representative of the total paper consumption, but also to be translucent to represent the out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality that we have. The average U.S. citizen consumes 700 pounds of paper a year, but we don’t see that accumulation.”
The pieces were produced concurrently over the course of nine months and reveal painful attention to detail and thousands of hours of what looks to be mind-numbing, repetitive handwork. Which is, of course, the point. As he told writer Josie Glassberg, who was commissioned by Capital City Arts Initiative to write an essay about the exhibition, “I’m constantly sitting there thinking the same thing, repeating the action over and over. I want the thought behind the action to be really potent to the viewer — I want to get across the idea that this is just continuing.”
In truth, the effect of the exhibition, and the real-time tally of materials consumed worldwide that Karrasch maintains on his website, is disheartening. What is one to do with this information? Karrasch concedes that he’s generally pessimistic about the future, by nature, but he hopes viewers can recognize their own contributions to this mess we’ve all made and perhaps try to minimize their impact — use refillable water bottles and reusable tote bags, recycle more.
“It may seem like a drop in the ocean,” he says, “but an ocean is just a multitude of drops.”
Kyle Karrasch’s Waste Aeon will remain on display at the Bristlecone Gallery at Western Nevada College in Carson City through Dec. 20.
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This article was funded by a grant from the Nevada Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.