In Hidden in Plain Sight, which is currently on view at Bellevue Arts Museum, Seattle-based artist Maria Phillips dove headfirst into interrogating her own consumption habits. This two-part exhibition was made using nonrecyclable plastics and single-use items mostly generated by Phillips and her family of four over the course of nine months. One part features small-scale works of takeout box towers, nylon rope clusters, and video installation. But it's the other part that is truly overwhelming in both its beauty and its horror.
In a gallery all its own, Undercurrent: Plasticene takes up the entire space. Referencing the name that some scientists suggest would best describe our current plastic geological age, her piece measures 15 feet wide, 15 feet tall, and 100 feet long. Phillips carefully stitched together close to a thousand different pieces of nonrecyclable plastic using flat irons she bought at Goodwill. The front half of the tapestry is hung to resemble a waterfall, composed of single-use plastic bags of different colors and sizes, pooling onto the floor.
The back of the piece is hung from the ceiling so as to look as if it's a river that leads to the waterfall. Surprisingly colorful, the components were the "usual culprits" of plastic use: chip bags, frozen-food bags, bread bags, garbage bags, etc. But there were items that hadn't really occurred to me when I thought "single-use"—single pill packets, the peel-off tops that keep cat food moist, the clear window panels on envelopes, balloons, plastic film wrap.
It's easy to see your own relationship to plastic when looking at this meticulously built piece. My mind floated back to the four individual plastic produce bags I'd used at the store last week, then thrown away, and the empty popcorn bag I'd stuffed into the trash before heading over to the museum.
The project began during Phillips's time as a Recology CleanScapes artist in residence last year, when she spent time at their recycling centers, interacting with discarded materials. In searching through other people's items, she began to turn the lens back onto herself and her own habits.
"As somebody who considers herself a pretty conscientious consumer, it was hard to recognize how I'm contributing [to the pile], how I'm consuming," Phillips told me recently. That led to her asking her family to keep every last thing so that it could be cleaned, dried, and sorted into type of plastic (foil-lined, film, bubble wrap, container, clam shell, etc.).
What's most difficult to say is that Undercurrent: Plasticene is kind of beautiful. While the takeout food towers and the foil-lined plastic star in the first part of the show are a bit wonky, the plastic tapestry is weirdly alluring. Phillips told me that she tried to avoid beauty and didn't alter the pieces of plastic to be more visually appealing.
Nevertheless, when I stood underneath a certain suspended section, the way that the light filtered through the clear plastic made me feel like I was underwater. If I squinted, the plastic cat-food covers looked sort of like jellyfish.