Making Beautiful Art out of Beach Plastic- page 3 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Since 1999, Richard and Judith Lang have found countless ways to turn their huge collection of beach debris into extraordinary art. (Courtesy of Richard and Judith Lang)

Making Beautiful Art out of Beach Plastic

Artists Judith and Richard Lang comb the California beaches, looking for trash for their captivating, yet unsettling work

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(Continued from page 2)

Dozens of banker’s boxes are stacked in the artists’ studio (and in a rustic barn along the driveway of their home). Their sides are labeled by color or category: Red; Shoes; Yellow; Cutlery; Large Lids; Turquoise.

“And here’s a new category,” says Judith, holding up an unrecognizable chunk. “Plastic That Has Been Chewed On.”

The Langs often assemble sculptures from their beach plastic. Judith, working independently, fashions exquisite jewelry from some rather audacious objects. “I just sold a beautiful necklace made of white, pink and blue tampon applicators to Yale University,” she says merrily. “Along with a shotgun wad necklace. I’m hoping they’ll display the two together—and call it Shotgun Wedding.”

Most of their current work, though, involves large-scale photography of the beach plastic arranged in evocative groups. Their palette of objects is spread over a wide table covered with butcher’s paper. Surveying the objects, I spy paint can spray heads, doll arms, picture frames, a flamingo head, plastic fruit, rubber cement brushes, a toy horse, bits of plastic spaceships, dental floss picks, umbrella handles, cat toys, cheese spreaders, chunks of AstroTurf and squirt gun plugs.

“One of us will put a few pieces together,” Judith says, placing a few blue and green objects in a kind of arc. “That’s a beginning.”

“It kind of drifts around,” explains Richard, adding a pink hair curler. “Imagine the pieces as larval plankton, bumping against a newly formed volcanic rock.”

The artworks accrete slowly, like coral atolls. Arguments and epiphanies ensue. When the Langs are satisfied with their creation, they transport the objects to the Electric Works, Richard’s photography studio and art gallery in San Francisco’s Soma district. There, using a large-format digital camera, they capture their assemblage down to the finest detail.

Visually captivating and ecologically unsettling, the Langs’ pollutant-based artworks inspire a wry ambivalence. Beautiful as they are, I can’t help but wish they didn’t exist. But despite the “message” inherent in their work, Richard and Judith don’t treat it as a political statement.

“We’re artists first,” says Richard. “What we care about is creating beauty.”

By way of illustration, the Langs show me a striking photograph of luminescent domes glowing against a dark, textured background. After a moment, I recognize the dome-like objects: they’re highly magnified nurdles.

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