Plastic as artistic medium, won’t last

Plastic is not an enduring artistic medium. Remember this image from a month ago?

vinyl siding

I’ve always wondered about the use of plastic in sculptures; it didn’t seem like a material to be employed on a whim (not that any really are). Slate recently published an article, Does plastic art last forever?, confirming my suspicions. Museums are currently scrambling to preserve plastic objects and artworks that are yellowing, peeling, crumbling in their cases. Works by the likes of Duane Hanson are beginning to look like zombies (and were so even before his death in 1996). Slate also warns that modern works which contain plastics by artists such as Jeff Koonz and Damien Hirst will inevitably face a similar fate, unless research finds a way to preserve them. So far it has not. The research is being funded mainly by companies insuring the galleries.

I’ve been amazed at the polymer clay rage of the past few years. The popularity of this media has been driven home lately when I search Twitter for “clay sculpture.” Probably 1/3 of the tweets in the search results refer to polymer clay. I asked the Twitter community a few months ago why this product is so popular, and someone responded by suggesting it was an easy way for women to get their foot into a traditionally male-driven art market. That didn’t really make sense to me, but I didn’t know how to argue my sentiment.

Last week I followed a link in one of these tweets to an Ebay auction of a polymer clay sculpture, of a faerie (not a very modest faerie, FYI). I don’t understand people’s fascination with faeries, but that’s beside the point. This particular sculpture, about eight inches tall, was well-crafted. It sold for $2,683. I was very surprised. The artist seems to be fairly prolific, and sells quite a bit of her work on Ebay, although that’s about all I know. The “About the artist” section of her website is “under construction.”

Polymer clay is, coincidentally, plastic. The Slate article teaches us a little bit about plastic:

    At a molecular level, plastics are long chains of a single molecule repeated over and over. Such long chains would be uselessly brittle on their own, but chemists realized they could add chemicals, called “plasticizers,” whose molecules work their way between the chains and soften the plastics up. This greatly increased malleability, and virtually all plastics today employ plasticizers. Unfortunately, plastics will squeeze the plasticizers out over time. This process pushes the chemicals to the surface of the object, leaving the underlying plastic fragile. Different plastics deteriorate in different ways under different conditions, depending on what plasticizers or dyes were added. But the end result tends to be forms of matter rarely seen outside the reject piles of industrial chemistry labs. You can recognize “bleeding” or “weeping” plastics by the slimy plasticizers pooling on their surfaces. Other plastics push powder to their surfaces and feel sugary to the touch.

Just because plastic degrades over time does not make it a poor medium for sculptures. Personally I prefer more natural and enduring materials in general, partly because they are more natural and enduring. The use of more temporary materials such as plastics can add meaning to an artwork, but I wonder if sculptors who use polymer, or plastic of any kind, realize their works have a fairly short life-span.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

8 Responses to Plastic as artistic medium, won’t last

  1. That photograph is exactly why I refuse to put vinyl siding over my stucco home. Stucco lasts for centuries and I’ll keep it, lumps and all.

    • pcNielsen says:

      I quite like stucco in general, although I don’t think it works well in the South. Seems to attract mold.

      • PCL says:

        Like just about any other siding, stucco needs sufficient drainage for the climate in which it’s used. In the South, that means a small cavity, backed by 2 layers of bituminous paper, with a weep screed emptying at the bottom. The lath supporting the stucco should also be nailed or stapled only into the areas in the sheathing backed by studs to avoid letting water into the stud bays. With these precautions, there is no reason why stucco can’t be used anywhere. There were similar problems with fiber cement when it was first used in northern regions. It tended to stay wet for too long, shrink and warp. Once they changed the installation instructions to include a small drainage gap and flashing, it was fine.

  2. jim janknegt says:

    What about acrylic paint? It is a polymer.

  3. John Lein says:

    Yes, that makes me wonder about acrylic paint as well. I tend to stick to oils partly just because it feels like a “more natural and enduring material”, and I like working with it better. However I’ve used acrylic as a quick wipe-on base after seeing it done by another accomplished artist (my uncle @, as well as for certain types of effects. I wonder if I should be more careful in the future with that.

  4. Tobias says:

    That’s an interesting point, Paul, and should really be a warning to other artists. Looking at that faerie (immodest though it is) it struck me that all that work for detail (did you see the toess?!?!) is not a really lasting medium.

  5. Paul S. says:

    Even most oil painters use acrylic today in using the acrylic gesso as the primer. I read some stuff on wiki that talks about how the oil paint may “de-laminate” from the acrylic ground over decades beacause the oil paint and acrylic don’t chemically fuse; but the manufacturer’s of pre-primed canvases deny it.

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