When we think of vinyl, we usually think of the material that brings us music in the form of a record. But since its invention in the late 19th century and introduction into mass manufacturing in the mid-20th century, the synthetic plastic shows up everywhere in our everyday lives, in Tupperware, fences, umbrellas, raincoats, packaging, and more.
You don’t usually see vinyl on museum walls. But artists explore all aspects of life, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some choose vinyl as a material. Two works in vinyl were recently displayed in the exhibition New Order: Art and Technology. In Seth Price’s Vintage Bomber, the plastic warps the mold of a bomber jacket, giving the military garment a hard, translucent edge. In Succulent, Rodney McMillian hangs a massive draped form crafted from industrial-grade black vinyl and sewn together with white thread. The stitching creates a yawning aperture that seems organic and synthetic at the same time. Despite the difference in the way they look, both works are made from same substance: vinyl, or PVC plastic.
New Order looked at the ambiguities of technologies. On the one hand there is the intangible – algorithms, videos, and simulations we can interpret, but never physically understand. But one thing that artists make clear in their uses of technology is its physicality. Ian Cheng’s Emissaries creates an immersive artificial world, which sat alongside Anicka Yi’s baths of ultrasound gel with rusting pins inside, Seth Price’s translucent exoskeleton, and Rodney McMillian’s gaping black hole.
If New Order explored the ways in which contemporary artists use (and misuse) new tools and media, then Vintage Bomber and Succulent focus our attention on a material we interact with every day. How do artists shape it and give it form? As part of our Materials series—an exploration of the unconventional and unexpected building blocks of art—we spoke to both artists about how and why they chose to work with vinyl.
Why were you interested in the materials that you used?
Rodney McMillian: Initially, I became interested in vinyl after [curator] Eungie Joo reupholstered her dining room chairs and gave me the leftover material. This was around 2007 or so, when we were neighbors living in Los Feliz in Los Angeles. I sat with that ream of vinyl for weeks thinking about the possibilities. During that time, I was also in the midst of reading [Samuel] Delaney’s Dhalgren. As I began moving the material around in the studio, pinning the material together making shapes, I realized I wanted to make forms that referenced the body.
What in particular about vinyl made it useful and meaningful for this work?
RM: The fact that it’s used in both domestic and commercial spaces appealed to me. I also liked that it’s a stand-in for leather. It’s a synthetic version of skin that can come in many colors.
Was there an everyday object that inspired your use of plastic?
RM: There were probably a few because the material is so ubiquitous; chairs for sure, perhaps the iconographic aspects of a red booth in a nightclub or bar, a bodysuit. There’re probably a few others but these stand out.
How does art change when it uses synthetic materials vs. organic materials?
RM: I’m not sure it does, since art is content and form. If there’s any distinction, perhaps it’s in someone’s attachment to the idea of the organic or synthetic. However, I’m not sure that attachment has any bearing on the art itself.
Does the history of a material like vinyl inform how you use it?
RM: It does. Vinyl has many histories. There’s its history as an industrial material and the context that spawned that development. And we can’t talk about vinyl’s industrial history without first thinking about geological time, because it’s made from petroleum products. Then there’s the more immediate history of its production from factory to consumer that must include marketing and media. And finally, there’s its cultural history, which I briefly touched on earlier in referencing the objects that inspired my use of it. The work I’ve done using vinyl has primarily been influenced by cultural markers.
Could you talk about your interest in science fiction and futurism, and how these might relate to the materials and forms you use in your art?
RM: If I had to cite where my interests in futurism and science fiction come from, I’d probably start with the Labelle concert I saw with my parents in the early 1970s and the landing of the Mothership in the P-Funk Earth tour of ’76 or ’77. My interests in speculative fiction by writers like Delaney and [Octavia E.] Butler, and then early sci-fi books from the 1960s, took off about 15 years ago as I dove back into studying performances by Prince, Michael Jackson, Erykah Badu, and musicians from the 1970s and ’80s that I grew up with.
I think my interest in vinyl was rooted in its usages for the body, like chairs in a home, clothes, booths in a public indoor space, and in the bedroom. It was probably the reference to the bedroom that peaked my interests the most. The bedroom is a place of sex, dreams, sleep, sickness, death, waking up, reading, praying, meditating, putting on clothes needed to walk through a door—a portal. The books, the music, the performances, the different forms of representation presented through all of these forms I was looking at provide an idea of freedom that can be had because it can be created.
The works I’ve made using vinyl are hand-sewn because sewing is a direct action. The materials are shaped, cut, and pieced together to make an object with knowable, legible references to the body or a site, like a church or a tunnel. The objects have been constructed just as cultural, political, and social structures have been constructed: line by line. I chose to sew these materials because they referenced “women’s work” and feminist art histories. I appreciated the relationship between the art object or action and the political call to action that was being proposed. I identified with those politics and aesthetics much in the way I did with the politics expressed by the work of black artists from the 1980s and ’90s, and many of those represented in the ’93 Whitney Biennial. That was and still is some of the thinking that inspired this choice of material.
Why were you interested in the materials that you used?
Seth Price: I used high-impact polystyrene and PVC because they were the materials offered on the day I visited the factory. This piece in particular was golden because the man who owned the shop had a little extra that he couldn’t sell. It was the end of a roll, and he couldn’t offer it to his normal customers because the last few meters got degraded and patchy. I liked that effect.
What in particular about vacuum-forming made it useful for this work(s)?
SP: I had an image in mind, and I was advised that vacuum-forming was the cheapest way to realize it.
Was there an everyday object, form, or style that inspired your use of plastic?
SP: Plastic was just the easiest way to make what I had in mind.
How does the history of a material like PVC or vinyl inform how you use it?
SP: I hadn’t thought about the history before.
Succulent and Vintage Bomber were on view in New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century, organized by Michelle Kuo, The Marlene Hess Curator of Painting and Sculpture, with Lina Kavaliunas, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture.