Two Sides of Plastic Pop

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

Carl Cheng, "U.N. of C.," 1967, Film, molded plastic, Styrofoam and Plexiglas, 15 x 20.75 x 9 in

Artist Craig Kauffman had been living in Europe and was on his way home to L.A. in the early 1960s when he stopped in New York and saw the work of former friend and neighbor, Billy Al Bengston, on view at Martha Jackson Gallery. Bengston, one of L.A. cool motorcycle-savvy surfer artists had been an abstract painter at the end of the 1950s, as had Kauffman. But now, his canvases were lacquered, spray-painted and shining. That’s what I need to be doing, Kauffman decided, and, when he returned to the Sunshine state, Bengston helped him out, teaching him to spray paint on glass and plastic.[1] It was when Kauffman discovered vacuum-formed plastic, however, that his work really hit its stride. He started using the same technologies the aerospace industry used to make its curved plastic plane windows, creating sleek, clean plastic wall reliefs that he called plastic “erotics.” They had the newness of industry innovations and the lightheartedness of pop.

Craig Kauffman, "Untitled," 1968

Craig Kauffman, "Untitled," 1968.

Because, for me, vacuum forms have more or less become synonymous with Kauffman and cleanness, I was thrilled to discover a different take on molded plastic at Cherry and Martin gallery in Culver City last weekend. Cherry and Martin’s current exhibition, Photography into Sculpture, restages a seminal exhibition that initially occurred in 1970 at MoMA, then traveled across the country. Curated by photo historian Peter Bunnell, the original show put its finger on the pulse of a trend: 3-D photography. Bringing L.A.-based artists and photo-conceptualists together with Vancouver-based photographers, Bunnell showed images that had been re-embodied, so that the flat, condensed space of the picture plane  no longer “depicted” but became multi-sided, dense and object-like.

Carl Cheng, "Sculpture for Stereo Viewers," 1968, Film, molded plastic, wood and Plexiglas, 16.5 x 18 x 8 in

Photographers, it turns out, were tuned into plastics, too. But their take didn’t optimistically celebrate the finish fetish of industrial production. Instead, by using molded plastic to “inflate” formerly flat camera imagery, artists like Carl Cheng and Michael Stone made photographs feel overstuffed in a sort of messy way. In U.N. of C., Cheng’s humping  yellow bears and top-heavy waving U.S. and California state flags are visual comedy: regionalism is blown-up like a flimsy toy, and the vacuum-forms that looked so imperturbable when Kauffman used them, here look like cartoons. That the L.A. Look–which critic Peter Plagens defined in terms of “permanence,” “technical expertise,” and “preciousness (when polished)”–had a more complicated, less polished underside isn’t news, but it’s great to see in the flesh nonetheless, because it drives home the point that no aesthetic trend, not even one toward pristine plastic, is incorruptible.

[1] Hunter Drohojowska-Philp gives this account in her new book Rebels in Paradise.