A group show where plastic is material of choice


“One Word: Plastics”

Through May 31. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays. Free. Sandler Hudson Gallery, 1000 Marietta St. N.W., Atlanta. 404-817-3300, www.sandlerhudson.com.

Bottom line: A moderately interesting group show in which four female artists explore the artistic potential of plastic.

It’s one of the most famous exchanges in American movie history. In Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” aimless recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself cornered by a representative of feared adult life who utters his career advice in a nutshell: “Just one word: Plastics.”

In 1967, the idea of plastic suggested the gateway to the future. Today, in a world where landfills are piled high with the stuff, plastic has very different associations.

The group exhibition “One Word: Plastics” at Sandler Hudson Gallery centers on plastic less as an environmental issue and icon of a consumer culture out of control, and more on plastic as a material as malleable as paint or clay in the hands of four artists: Dianna Cohen, Pam Longobardi, Marietta Hoferer and Ilene Sunshine.

While some artists might use watercolors or oils, Cohen employs plastic bags from around the world as her medium, clipping, overlaying and stitching them into collages that become artworks in their own right. Like the other artists in this show, Cohen transforms something ubiquitous to the point of near-invisibility into an object of contemplation, especially when she adds the unexpected element of embroidery, stitching her plastic bags from various European stores onto paper. Needlepoint is generally understood as a gesture of patience, devotion and care, the opposite of mass-produced plastic.

The content of Cohen’s plastic collages vacillates from an exploration of pure form to mild social commentary. Plastic as a form of critique is suggested in works like “Vessel,” in which a veiled Middle Eastern woman’s shrouded figure is echoed in the black plastic bag included in the collage. In “Recycleman,” a “Mad Men”-era businessman in suit and tie cheerily contemplates the universal recycling symbol seen on plastic bags, an ironic representative of the past considering the environmentalism of another era.

While plastic proves an intriguingly flexible material in the work of these four artists, anyone looking for a deeper critique of plastic’s presence in our lives is bound to be disappointed. While Atlanta artist Longobardi’s body of work focuses on the environmental devastation of plastic washed up on the world’s beaches, her sculptural piece here, “A Distant Mirror,” seems — like the works by other artists — more about plastic as an unexpected material.

In “A Distant Mirror,” a large mirror frame is formed with the kind of filthy, thrown-out plastic bottle caps, lighters, balls and other detritus found on city streets and beaches. Strangely, the plastic in this mirror becomes strangely compelling, if not beautiful: an instance of trash turned into treasure.

Similarly, artist Hoferer creates visually interesting, quiltlike abstract works on 60-by-60-inch sheets of paper. Using small squares of Scotch tape, Hoferer crafts repetitive designs on the paper using penciled-in grids. The works are subtle, lovely, and echo a theme in Longobardi’s work and throughout the show, of the formal appeal of plastic in making art.

Sunshine creates strange, mildly disturbing sculptures integrating plastic refuse like plastic-covered coat hangers, toys and cable and covers them in a skin of handmade paper, blending the manufactured and the handmade, and transforming familiar objects into something unfamiliar.

All four artists in “One Word: Plastics” create objects of contemplation using plastic that may resonate with those interested in such experiments with unexpected materials. Others may wonder how a material that carries such enormous weight and baggage for so many people, a source of environmental outrage and concern, can seem so benign here.