Rematerializing Care

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Rematerializing Care: Plastic and Plasticity in the work of Shari Mendelson

By Roksana Filipowska

Shari Mendelson, Crouching Sphinx, 2020. Repurposed plastic, hot glue, resin, acrylic polymer, paint, mica. 10 x 13 x 5 inches. Photo by Alan Weiner, image courtesy of the artist.

Shari Mendelson’s work invites close and sustained looking. What first appears as fragile glass coated with vitreous enamel is revealed to be lightweight plastic painted with glitter. Joints are not achieved by the handling of molten glass, but through a generous application of adhesive. Mendelson’s practice could be described as repurposing, or rematerializing, consumer plastic into forms inspired by animal-shaped vessels from antiquity. For those familiar with the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Harvard Art Museums, and the Yale University Art Gallery, the forms are instantly recognizable as referencing particular animal-shaped vessels, yet the act of looking brings other details into the foreground, such as the mold patterns of industrial manufacturing and the uniform stamp of an expiration date. Though based on historical artifacts, Mendelson’s sculptures are not anachronistic: her chosen material of consumer plastic makes the objects decidedly contemporary even as their shape evokes the glass and terracotta bodies of their kin. More so than creating contemporary sculptures that resemble those of the past, Mendelson transmutes ubiquitous plastic containers into objects that inspire care.

As Heather Moqtaderi notes in her exhibition essay for Re-Materialize, Mendelson is a connoisseur of consumer plastic.1 It is unusual to value plastic packaging for its design and yet companies invest much time and money into designing attention-grabbing receptacles for their products. Mendelson sources her materials from an intimate network of family and friends, who know their documents of nourishment will be repurposed into art. This act of gleaning intercepts plastic packaging before it winds up in a recycling facility or, worse, a landfill. Entering into dialog with the often-overlooked labor of industrial designers, Mendelson looks askance at their work and analyzes the shape of their vessels. In experimenting with various brands and packaging, Mendelson has found that the thin necks and barrel bodies of Califa Farms’ plant-based products, for instance, double as the curving outlines of seated sphinxes and standing stags when turned on their sides. Mendelson delights in the tactile. She discovers new formal possibilities by turning the plastic containers around and considering them from various perspectives.

In rematerializing consumer plastic into sculpture, Mendelson activates the imaginative potential, or plasticity, of the synthetic material. Writing about the abundance of synthetics in the United States during the 1960s, historian Jeffrey L. Meikle argues that Americans have an “ambivalent relationship” with plastic.2 On the one hand, as Meikle shows, plastic materials inspire utopian desires and bring with them the promise of a “malleable universe open to human influence.”3 On the other hand, this optimism for “material transcendence” is contrasted with connotations of “superficiality” and “wastefulness”—connotations that materialize as single-use plastic water bottles and reach their sublime contemporary manifestations of the overflowing landfill and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Throughout his work, Meikle contrasts a culture of plastic that is “fake, phony, ultimately unsatisfying” with a culture of plasticity, which is “exuberant, extravagant, and life-furthering.”4 These so-called two cultures are also distinguished in terms of language: the hard “k” sound in the noun “plastic” evokes “finality” and even “death,” whereas the flowing “c” in “plasticity” conjures a sense of openness. Mendelson begins with plastic objects that seem devoid of plasticity. Consumer plastic evokes death both in terms of the finality of its form and in its function as a throwaway item, but Mendeslon’s addition of shimmering surface effects and delicate handles activates its playful and interactive potential.

Mendelson also activates the plasticity of consumer plastic by drawing on animal-shaped vessels from antiquity. These hybrid forms are an especially rich source for Mendelson’s project. To begin, they feature real and imagined animals that are often depicted with open mouths and eyes, as well as prominent ears, to signify life. The very shape of an alert sphinx or a stag, therefore, imbues rigid plastic with a sense of animacy. Animal-shaped vessels are also agile objects. In addition to playing important roles as diplomatic gifts, indicators of social status, and showcasing artistic ingenuity, their use was often accompanied by the communal practices of song, speeches, and prayer.5 Whereas empty plastic containers signify almost nothing, animal-shaped vessels used in ritual contexts cleave the material with the spiritual—they remain full of meaning even when empty. These historic vessels also index a shared, and perhaps even collective, artistic imagination. As curator Susanne Ebbinghaus writes, “the tradition of crafting animal-shaped vessels is not unique to one culture or geographic locale; the affinity for this type of object spans ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean, the Near and Far East, and South America.”6

Mendelson visits these vessels often. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Mendelson spends hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art moving from the Near Eastern galleries to the Greek and Roman wing to look, draw, and think with these objects. Her sketches trace a dance involving eye, hand, and artwork. Each artifact is drawn from various perspectives, revealing Mendelson’s physical effort and care in noting subtle details. Mendelson describes her process as one of entering in “communion” with the object.7 To commune is to enter into intentional community and, in old French, the verb “communer” meant “to share.” Prior to the rise of the noun “commune,” which designates a living arrangement in which people distribute resources and responsibilities, the verb connoted the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings that sometimes took on a spiritual meaning, such as in communing with nature or participating in the ritual of Holy Communion. Mendelson’s intentional language suggests that her communion with animal-shaped vessels is not limited to the gathering inspiration or source material for her sculptures. She is transformed through these visits.

Shari Mendelson, Double Deer with Cup, 2019. Repurposed plastic, hot glue, resin, acrylic polymer, mica. 20 x 7 x 17 inches. Photo by Alan Weiner, image courtesy of the artist.

Though resembling specific animal-shaped vessels from antiquity, Mendelson’s sculptures are not replicas or reproductions. Plastics are often used to industrially produce large quantities of nearly identical consumer objects, yet Mendelson’s plastic containers make the replication of her source object challenging, if not impossible. As noted by Mendelson, cast-off plastic bottles are not as yielding as soft clay or as fluid as molten glass—her chosen materials resist her attempts to direct the form during the process of sculpting. Mendelson welcomes when things go “wrong,” such as when a handle is too large or the edge of a horse’s leg betrays the rigidity of the plastic.8 In remaining open to chance, Mendelson rematerializes both ubiquitous consumer plastic and well-known aesthetic forms.

The resemblance between Mendelson’s work and examples of animal-shaped vessels is often discussed in terms of likeness. Romanov Grave, for instance, describes her sculptures as being “like ancient vessels” and that vessels across cultures thrive on simile because they are “like bodies.”9 More so than remaining within the rhetorical relationship of the simile, Mendelson’s process draws an analogy between her sculptures and their historical kin. Echoing the work of Kaja Silverman, I do not mean that Mendelson’s analogy of plastic container and animal-shaped vessel is operating within a relationship of sameness or of logical adequation. Instead, the analogy of rematerialized sculpture and artifact suggests that the two objects carry the same ontological weight, and this opens up the possibility of thinking about how consumer plastic and ancient artifacts coexist in the world.10

If Mendelson’s sculptures and her selected animal-shaped vessels carry the same ontological weight and coexist in the same world, then they are also both impacted by the same systems that privilege some and exploit others. Though rarely part of the same discursive frame, Mendelson draws the issues of climate change and museum collecting practices into conversation. Her practice involves the repurposing of consumer plastics, whose mismanagement is detrimental to the environment, and visiting artifacts amassed through a system of cultural imperialism. This uncomfortable intersection of climate change and the history of the museums is not resolved with Mendelson’s work just as it remains unresolved within society. Yet Mendelson does offer a way to navigate this convergence. Observing Mendelson’s intentionality, I believe her practice answers Saidiya Hartman’s call to take up “matters of care” in order to resist the entropic forces of ecological and social neglect. Rematerializing is an act of imagination and care that remedies the impulse to amass certain cultural artifacts while discarding others, and, as Hartman observes, “care is the antidote to violence.”11

Roksana Filipowska, Ph.D., is a researcher, writer, and educator interested in the intersections of art and science. She is the Wurtele Study Center Programs and Outreach Manager at the Yale University Art Gallery and has completed her Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania. Her publications include “Ree Morton’s Celastic Turn” in Ree Morton (2019); “In Simulcast: Archigram and Radio Piracy in 1960s Britain” in Radio as Art: Concepts, Spaces, Practices (Verlag, 2019); “In Defiance of Propaganda: Photographic Failure as Shared Ground” in Too Good to be Photographed (Lugemik Press, 2017); and “Richard Hamilton’s Plastic Problem” in Distillations Magazine (2016). Filipowska’s book project, Take Great Care: Global Plastic and the Movement of Plasticity, examines the impact of plastic materials on art making, conservation, and theory since the 1960s and formulates plasticity as a mode of resistance against such hegemonic operations as sameness and scalability.

1. Heather Moqtaderi, Re-materialize (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Arthur Ross Gallery, 2020), 12.
2. Jeffrey L. Meikle, American Plastic: A Cultural History (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995), xiii.
3. Ibid. p. 9.
4. Ibid. p. 298.
5. “Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings: September 7, 2018-January 6, 2019” in Harvard Art Museums (accessed July 27, 2020)
6. Susanne Ebbinghaus, “Animal-Shaped Vessels from the Ancient World: Feasting with Gods, Heroes, and Kings” in Harvard Art Museums (accessed July 27, 2020)
7. Romanov Grave, “Interview with Shari Mendelson” (November 20, 2019).
8. Mendelson states: “The parts of cast-off plastic bottles are not nearly as forgiving or immediate as clay, or as fluid as molten glass, and, despite my careful looking, things go “wrong”—a handle becomes too large, a horse’s leg too short, the arm of a figure too long.” Romanov Grave, “Interview with Shari Mendelson” (November 20, 2019).
9. Grave.
10. Kaja Silverman, The Miracle of Analogy, or The History of Photography, Part 1 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015), 11.
11. Saidiya Hartman in “In the Wake: A Salon in Honor of Christina Sharpe” (February 2, 2017) at Barnard Center for Research on Women, New York City.