It’s impossible to ignore plastic. At any given time, you’re touching or interacting with dozens of different types of it—from straws to bags to paint to appliances to construction materials to medical devices to adhesive, it’s perhaps the most ubiquitous thing on the planet. And our silent devotion to the substance has led geologists to joke that the current era, the Anthropocene, should be renamed the Plasticene. 

A new art exhibit at the Art Students League of Denver (ASLD), appropriately titled the Plasticene, offers a thought-provoking perspective on our relationship with plastic. Through the work of 15 artists who use plastic at some point in their process, viewers are forced to question if all uses of plastic are equal.

Organized by artist Kalliopi Monoyios and Rachel Basye, executive director of ASLD, the Plasticene thrives on juxtaposition. It’s not necessarily a celebration or a condemnation of plastic, but rather an exposé. 

“I wanted to point out this bizarre relationship we have with plastic,” Monoyios says. “If aliens came down to Earth and saw this wonder material that can be everything from bulletproof glass to styrofoam cups to contact lenses to dental floss, they would say ‘this is the most valuable thing you’ve ever invented.’”  

A work by Kalliopi Monoyois on display in the Plasticene. Photo by Cori Anderson

“Plastic is complex,” Monoyios adds. And the more you look at the pieces on display at the show, the more you’ll agree. Along with curating, Monoyios is displaying her own art, which was the inspiration for the Plasticene. The centerpiece is a plastic quilt composed of beautifully sewn scraps of wrappers, bags, containers, and more, creating a cohesive design that betrays our typical attitude toward the individual pieces. 

“I come from a long line of quilters, and quilts are traditionally made from the scraps of our lives. That used to be fabric when we were sewing, but we don’t sew our own clothes anymore so the scraps of our lives are plastic wrapping,” explains Monoyios.

From this point, Monoyios selected and invited artists who represented the seven recyclable plastics and non-recyclable plastics like silicone and polyurethane. According to Basye, most of the artists who teach or work at ASLD use plastic at some point in their process, making this show a perfect opportunity to frame the relative value of the substance. 

Set beside each piece of art are a few examples of the plastic used by the artist in a different form. This brings it all full-circle so that you must reconcile the value of items that are cut from the same cloth, or pulled from the same plastic. 

For instance, the Tyvek—a brand of high-density polyethylene fibers—used in a Taiko Chandler piece is the same material as the notorious single-use grocery bags. In fact, her entire process is heavily reliant upon plastics, from the plastic plate that she brushes ink on top of, to the Tyvek sheeting that she presses the design into, to the fishing line that she uses to hang it on the wall. But the final product appeals to an organic sensibility—it reminds us of water or flowers or gusts of wind. 

Inside Sarah Mortlock’s pieces are the same plastic beads found in exfoliating body washes. The mesmerizing circles look like specimens in a petri dish. Nicole Banowetz’s inflatable sculpture is made entirely of nylon and vinyl (like shower curtains and synthetic fabric), yet it breathes with a presence of its own. 

These are the juxtapositions that Monoyios and Basye wanted to highlight in this exhibit. It’s in this space of friction, between our disparaging remarks about plastic and our unequivocal use of it, that the true conversation blossoms. If we are OK with copious amounts of plastic as long as it makes our lives better, then the problem we face ahead isn’t about stopping the production of plastic, it’s about teaching ourselves how to use and appreciate it better. And for Monoyios and Basye, relaying that message through art is powerful.

“Plastic is so seductive. It’s so convenient and useful and has all these great properties,” says Monoyios. “We just need to start the conversation about how plastic is so much more than bags and straws.” 

If you go: The Plasticene is on view January 31 through March 15, 2020, at the Art Students League of Denver, 200 Grant St. Information about additional programming, including artist talks, panel discussions, a collage workshop and a book signing can be found online. All events and the exhibit are free and open to the public.

Artists on display: Nicole Banowetz, Brandon Bullard, Taiko Chandler, Laurie Frick, Dylan Gebbia-Richards, Linda Graham, Heidi Jung, Will Lee-Ashley, Sarah Mortlock, Nate Munro, Andrew Roberts-Gray, Joel Swanson, Sarah Winkler, Zelda Zinn, Marcus Eriksen, and Kalliopi Monoyios