Galleries

The Plastic Bag as Artistic Muse

by Howard Hurst on August 25, 2011

The Journal Gallery on 168 North 1st street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (photo by the author)

In Patrick Griffin’s recent exhibition at The Journal Gallery in Williamsburg, Common Courtesy, he focused on an unusual subject matter: the plastic bag. If you live in a major city then you are more than familiar with these little guys; they accumulate under your sink, get stuck in that storm drain you always walk by on your way to work and blow like urban tumbleweeds across the street at all hours of the day and night.

Though the artist’s focus is playful and somewhat off kilter, his approach to this body of work seems almost scientific. Griffin collected, catalogued and scanned an army of plastic bags into the computer. Using this databank as his starting point, the artist made paintings directly from the two dimensional planes of these photographs.

The main wall of the gallery is occupied by a quirky array of 12 paintings. Red “Thank You” signs, typical of plastic bags, float eerily across the white surface of each picture. The feeling is ghostly and kind of sad, like a sugary sweet postcard sent from that giant plastic Gyre in the Pacific Ocean that is a major trap for trash and other man-made debris.

Installation view of Patrick Griffin's work. From left to right: "Nice Day" (2011); "Bag Bouquet" (2011); "Untitled (Smiley 1-12) (2011) (photo by the author) (click to enlarge)

The main wall of the gallery is occupied by a quirky array of 12 paintings. Red “Thank You” signs, typical of plastic bags, float eerily across the white surface of each picture. The feeling is ghostly and kind of sad, like a sugary sweet postcard sent from that giant plastic Gyre in the Pacific Ocean that is a major trap for trash and other man-made debris. It is tempting to treat this show flippantly, it is after all dedicated to trash. There is sensitivity in these paintings though, that transcends the mundane subject matter.

Patrick Griffin, "Untitled (Smiley 1-12)" (2011) (photo courtesy of Journal Gallery)

The left hand wall of the gallery is home to three large paintings; all three depict shopping bag bouquets. These are loose, disconnected arrangements of multicolored plastic, adorned with a variety of sayings that float in soft color washed backgrounds. The result is both beautiful and disquieting, like something a zombie might give his sweetheart in the golden years of the oncoming apocalypse. What I love about these is that, as imaginative and weirdly personal as they may be, they are essentially portraiture, even though they might have more in common with Disney’s Toy Story than with portraitist Chuck Close.

Left: Patrick Griffin, "Silver Striped (Large)" (2011) (photo courtesy of Journal Gallery)

The third and final wall is a stark break from the whimsy of the rest of show. Gone are the cutesy sayings, the half deflated smileys and the sumptuous folds. Instead we are treated to the taught, gold geometries of the black bodega bag. In this series of smaller canvasses the artist has taken an interesting if not altogether different approach. In another context they would read more New York School than New York deli. The artist has decided to re-appropriate the decorative elements of the bag into a kind of abstract painterly tradition. If nothing else these canvasses serve as an unpretentious reminder of the pleasure of the line. They bring to mind early sparse paintings by the American abstract painter Frank Stella. Perhaps this is why painters began making working like this in the first place; because at the end of the day we would rather have some nice gold stripes than nothing at all, because they are fun to look at and sometimes that’s enough.

The Journal Gallery (168 North 1st Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn) is closed for rest of the summer and will reopen on September 19. Patrick Griffin’s Common Courtesy was officially open July 9 to July 30, 2011.

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