The Beauty of Awareness
Artists shape plastic ocean debris into visual messages
By Christina Campodonico
Have you ever imagined that a discarded toothbrush from Santa Monica could end up in an art museum?
Artists Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang do when they comb through Kehoe Beach in Northern California, scavenging for bits and pieces of plastic to create works of art — collages of colorful pull rings from juice bottles, toy army men, discarded toothbrushes and much more.
Now on view at the USC Fisher Museum in a traveling group show called “Gyre: The Plastic Ocean,” the couple’s plastic medleys take a global look at pollution — how a piece of litter left on the beach in say, Santa Monica, can really wind up anywhere, even on a museum wall.
“We marvel at the dance of the viewer as they move toward the artwork captivated by the beauty and then recoil in astonishment when they recognize that it is composed of plastic debris and then wonder: ‘Could that toothbrush once have been mine?’” writes Judith Selby Lang in an email to The Argonaut.
Because of giant gyres in the Pacific that swirl with plastic waste and currents that run along their local beach, the couple has found plastics from China, Japan, Malaysia, India, Russia, Mexico and yes, even Santa Monica, says Selby Lang.
The Westside is woven into the artwork and activism of L.A.-based artist Dianna Cohen, whose work is also featured in “Gyre.” Cohen, who lived in Santa Monica for 12 years and co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which aims to eliminate the use of disposable plastics worldwide, has been working with plastic bags as her primary medium for over a decade. Much of her material comes from Santa Monica shops and beaches.
For L.A. artist Cynthia Minet, who started her art training at Infinity Studio under the Santa Monica Pier, her LED-lit sculptures of dogs, elephants and falcons adorned in plastic storage containers, detergent bottles, dustpans and even old baby toys hit even closer to home. Featured in a solo show in conjunction with the Gyre exhibit, these sculptures in Minet’s “Unsustainable Creatures” series trace their origins to the ocean shore.
“When building sand castles and beach installations with my daughter now, collections of dried sea kelp and twigs and shells are mixed with small pieces of eroded plastic and we can hardly tell the difference. My work in the Gyre exhibition engages with this question of the utter dependence we humans have on plastics, petrochemicals and our use of electricity,” wrote Minet in an email.
“The working animals that I portray,” she writes, “are surrogates for human experience. Animals, like humans, will ultimately be part plastic. The fact that the ocean is so polluted with plastic bags and other debris is evident every time I go in for a swim.”
Together, these artists’ works are a reminder that plastic pollution is not just a local issue, but a global one.
“‘Five billion pieces of this, 7 billion tons of that’ blurs the problem away from what’s possible to understand by an individual,” writes Selby Lang, echoing a sentiment found throughout the work in “Gyre.”
“Our parameters give us the opportunity to speak to the global community with sureness and authority. ‘It’s happening here, it’s happening, everywhere.’”
So who knows? That toothbrush really might have been yours.
“Gyre: The Plastic Ocean” is on view through Nov. 21 and “Cynthia Minet: Beast of Burden” through Oct. 10 at the USC Fisher Museum of Art, 823 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. Both exhibits are free. Visit fisher.usc.edu.