PRINT January 1968

Plastics West Coast

ONE OF THE MORE SPECTACULAR and informative group exhibitions of the current San Francisco season was a show entitled Plastics West Coast, organized at the Hansen Gallery. Intended as a general introduction to a series of one-man shows projected by the gallery, the ambitious exhibition surveys West Coast artists working with various of the synthetic materials derived from polymer chemistry and popularly classified as plastics. The range of processes encompassed is impressive.

Recently there has emerged a considerable group of artists who have become “plastics craftsmen” in a fundamental sense, who have, that is to say, gone far beyond merely making things out of plastic materials as already industrially processed and available in sheets, cans or tubes at the hardware store. Such procedure alone (called “fabricating” in the new jargon of “plasticraft,” to which the gallery has provided its visitors with a useful mimeographed glossary) is not novel, nor would it, at this late date, merit a survey exhibition. The new pioneer of plasticraft has invaded a domain which the fabricator was content to leave to the laboratory and the foundry, for not only is he becoming a chemical technician and mastering the theory and routine of already established procedures for producing and processing polymers, but he is actually experimenting and, in some cases, innovating techniques and potentially useful modifications not hitherto explored in commercial applications. While the exposition and illustration of technology and process, and of novel uses of novel materials is a large part of the fascination and broad general appeal of this exhibition, lines must be drawn as between matters of scientific and artistic interest. Polymer substances and processes in themselves are artistically significant solely insofar as they provide artists with a repertoire of effects, the achievement of which with traditional materials would be either impossible or prohibitively difficult and uneconomical; they are only technically significant where they merely afford shortcuts (or mass production possibilities) to effects demonstrably within the practicable scope of time-honored media.

The most outstanding single exhibit in this show, technically as well as artistically, is an untitled organic free-form sculpture by Bruce Beasley in cast acrylic polymer. On the purely technological side, this remarkable piece represents the successful culmination of two years of research and experiment on Beasley’s part devoted to examining some of the more challenging problems involved in casting acrylic from which he evolved a new and special process expanding the possible applications of this medium, and winning him recognition within the plastics industry. While casting acrylic in sheets is simple, the casting of cubic volumes of even relatively modest dimensions presented great difficulties—the more so if complexities of surface configuration were involved. Beasley’s process not only surmounts these problems, but paves the way for casting acrylic in units of even greater all around cubic volume. On the artistic side, Beasley’s cast acrylic pieces combine sculptural qualities and effects with the exploration of an entirely novel range of prismatic optical properties unique to acrylic, which, while actually clearer and more transparent than glass, yet tends to “trap” light and internally diffuse it in intriguing ways.

Also exploiting the special transparencies and translucencies of plastics are Mel Henderson and Terry O’Shea who work with polyester resin and transparent color dyes, as well as Robert Stevenson whose elegant fabricated geometric constructions of sheet acrylic explore subtle reflective-refractive reverberations of light through long acrylic-walled columns internally chambered by regularly spaced rectangles of transparent sheet acrylic.

The most exceptional exhibit in an opaque polymer material was Mowry Baden’s monumental Irish Position of fibered polyester which reveals an unusual imagination for shapes and lithoid textures.

Finally there are a fair number of works in the exhibition for the execution of which polymer materials were perhaps a convenience but hardly a necessity, works not depending for any integral texture or effect on any property unique to plastics, and in which the polymer material is so modulated as to resemble appearances of other media in which the works could have as effectively been realized and into which they could without loss of validity be transcribed. Among such works are Tom Rose’s quasi-ceramic heads and tenderly conceived, life-size sculpture Couple; as well as Sam Richardson’s Zappin Right Through That Guy’s Farm (fiberglass, polyfoam, sprayed lacquer), representing a twister in the sort of schematic stylization that characterizes classroom “scale models” and the illustratively vivid, yet artistically unconvincing, mock up “environments” for stuffed animal tableaux in natural history museums.

Palmer D. French