Dianna Cohen’s Plastic Art Speaks to Our One-Off M.O.

Dianna Cohen’s art puts the spotlight on plastic bags in ways that amaze.

If I ever needed a lesson on the ability of artists to make silk out of a sow’s ear, last week provided me one. Shortly after seeing Wasteland, a movie about Vik Muniz who creates art out of garbage plucked from the world’s largest landfill, artist Dianna Cohen came to Duke to show her work. Cohen, whose work will be on display through April 30th, transforms plastic bags into compelling and colorful images.

Shape-shifting Commonplace Items into Visual Feats

Dianna is a multimedia visual artist, painter and curator. But in recent years, she has focused on creating two- and three-dimensional works using recycled plastic bags. That’s right: plastic bags.

Dianna Cohen’s “Falda”

On one level the process is pretty straightforward. She collects plastic bags of various shapes, sizes, and colors, and then cuts and sews them together as you might fabric.

The process may be straightforward, but the results are pretty amazing. For me each piece is a celebration of color and form, shape-shifting from one image to another.

In the case of her piece called “Falda” my first impression was a patchwork quilt, but then I decided it was a bridal train or maybe a giant tree trunk oozing strange and colorful sap, or the foot of an elephant? And then, as I was trying to decide, the illusion suddenly faded and I saw a simple collection of plastic rectangles — but only for an instant as a sense of the bridal train reappeared. And on it went.

One might have the impression that, to feed her art, Dianna is the ultimate bag lady, rooting around garbage bins and such for plastic bags. But Dianna assures me that’s not the case.

Friends and acquaintances, knowing of her artistic proclivity, bring her an endless supply of used bags. Apparently they see this as a way of supporting the arts and recycling. Which brings us to the other aspect of Dianna’s work — plastic pollution.

Just One Word: Plastics

From Cohen’s “Artist’s Statement”
The plastic bag has one of the shortest intended life spans.Plastic which is clean
Recycling you can see
Having worked with the plastic bag as my primary material for the past fifteen years all of the obvious references to recycling, first-world culture, class, high- and low-art give way to an almost formal process which reflects the unique flexibility of the medium. …The somewhat dirty, hands on approach involved in working with what has already become trash and the labor involved in the sewing process directly belie the promise and mythology of convenience that the plastic bag represents. In this juxtaposition lives the alchemy of my work, like the alchemy of plastic itself.

(Read her full statement.)

As Dianna explains it, plastics have come to permeate our lives — they are a symbol of convenience but also the artificial nature of our techno-centric society. (That quintessential line from The Graduate said it all.)

But plastics have also exacted a tremendous cost. A large fraction of the plastic we use ends up in our waterways and flows out into the ocean, huge amounts collect in ocean gyres and islands like the Midway Atoll. Some of the plastic ends up in the bellies of birds and all sorts of marine critters. For many of the young it means death.

Plastics probably haven’t been so a good for our own health, either — think, for example, bisphenol-A or BPA.

At its most fundamental level, plastics are but one more manifestation of our addiction to oil — yep, plastics are one of many household products and “modern-miracle materials” made from petroleum — the stuff that’s adding global warming pollution to the atmosphere and sending U.S. dollars oversees.

For materials like plastics, the environmental community has come up with the ”three Rs” — reduce, reuse, recycle. Dianna goes one better. She proposes the “four Rs” — refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. Refuse to use single-use plastics is her advice. And to spread the word she co-founded the Plastic Pollution Coalition (www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org) whose mission is “to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impacts on humans, the environment, and wildlife worldwide.”

Dianna Cohen is an artist and an alchemist, transforming everyday things into something special — into striking works of art. In turn her art calls attention to the uncommonly insidious nature of these commonplace objects. It’s quite a feat.

Dianna, whose work has been featured on Ed Begley’s environmental HGTV series and on CBS’s EcoZone Project, has had shows around the United States and abroad. If her work makes it to your hometown, you might check it out. And if you decide to buy one of her pieces, I think it would be okay to use your credit card — if you’re like me, that card is most definitely not single use.

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