Polypropylene – the Next-Big-Thing in Art

If you – like everyone else in the Western world – who has closets and car trunks overfilled with grocery store tote bags, do yourself and the planet a favor and read this.

Polypropylene, an upcoming show by London born artist Laszlo Szabo is trying to make us think of all of that, and maybe feel a little bit guilty(?) in our complicity in the destruction of our home. Szabo takes those branded non-woven tote bags (which, ironically, are non-recyclable) and recycles them into something actually desirable.

His show captures the wondrous side of this modern plastic— reconstituted, mashed up — into things called tote bags. (Remember in the film The Graduate when a young Dustin Hoffman was schooled that “the future is … plastics’?) Szabo saw his future when he first started playing around with the colours, logos and slogans on them. “Then I discovered there was humour in putting some words together that don’t normally go together, right? And humour is always sort of at the backbone of what I do,” he notes. “And had learned from doing fashion store display design that deception or forcing people to look at things in a different way is important.”

Although, Schitt’s Creek almost beat Szabo to the punch on tote bags.

In the Emmy Award winning show, SCTV alumni actors Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy are a husband and wife couple ever on-the-make to make a buck. In the episode Wine and Roses, they try to squeeze more profit from a local fruit winery…a business squeezing the public for a wine Levy’s character describes as “liquid stink”. But the Levy character doesn’t have a problem so much with the plonk as with the branding and marketing on their ubiquitous tote bags. “How about this tote bag? Two-ply toilet paper has more heft! But seriously,” he asks his wife. “How cheap-ass is that bag?”

Most of us realize our collective actions as über consumers are killing our planet, the pristine one of the pre-industrial era.

Some artists like photographer Edward Burtynski have been trying to draw attention to that fact, and whether there are viable solutions to mitigate or reverse course in our lifetimes. We can reduce our carbon footprint, support renewable energy sources, and recycle. Maybe consider our conspicuous consumerist habits? Such as paying for those cheap-ass ‘re-usable’ polypropylene bags chain stores offer to carry their merchandise home to, er, save the planet?

Laszlo has put his finger on the zeitgeist…recycling the already-recycled to create works of art that you will not be able to take your eyes off. Intelligent, with a playful rehashing of the already hashed and hash-tagged.

“The world is going to hell not in a hand basket, but in one of those ubiquitous, un-recyclable reconstituted branded plastic shopping bags that look like cloth,” says Margaret English, Librarian at the Department of Art History, University of Toronto “Our kitchen cupboard and hall closets are full of them. We hate them. They offer false hopes of a greener planet when in fact they are far worse for it than the plastic bags they were intended to replace.

It’s easy to get cynical about such things. Laszlo Szabo employs the hated bags to mash-up political and social commentary with clever wordplay and black humour. Just as Picasso used newsprint headlines in his early collage works to transmit concrete political meanings, Laszlo fucks with corporate-branded packaging – the material closest at hand – to make us look and think twice.”

Szabo does not have a traditional arc of an artist — as if there is even such a thing. He dropped out of high school art in Grade 11 even though he liked Kevin Bice, his high school art teacher who, carrying on in his father Clare Bice’s footsteps, was influential in the London teaching scene at the time. Still, Szabo wound up at Cordwainers Technical College in London England to learn how to design shoes.

Szabo has put his fingers on the zeitgeist: a critique of corporate greenwashing, he’s recycling the already recycled to create works of art that you will not be able to take your eyes off. Intelligent and a playful rehashing of the already hashed, hash-tagged.

Szabo won a design competition sponsored by Dr. Martens.“You need to get your foot in the door,” he chimes. But Szabo… misstepped.*

He didn’t become Canada’s next John Fluevog. (Them’s some tough shoes to fill.) Instead, Szabo went on to work for the Dark Side of fashion commerce designing store displays for multinational brands…you know the ones, Mexx, Club Monaco et al. Then came a stint doing photography, including his first step away from the corporate world for Up To The Minute, an exhibit at Holt Renfrew (Toronto) of Polaroids documenting what everyone was going through during the non-apocalypse that was Y2K.

Click on the pic for a video tour of Szabo’s Up to the Minute show.

More photography jobs ensued. Streeters for the National Post, a “style on the streets” column. Gigs at Toronto Life and Flare magazines followed where Szabo took pics of the who’s who at major events in Hogtown. “That was in the days before people were taking pics of themselves,” notes Szabo.

For Polypropelene — you’ll notice Szabo has borrowed from last year’s cinematic sensation Barbie in the colours and graphic font. “I like the fact that Barbie is plastic,” he adds.

There is also a nod to Warhol, the art of appropriation of marketing graphics, and the history of collage in the last century. Artists like Keith Haring were also important for Szabo when he first came across his work on the streets of New York.

“I revisited a lot of my favourite pop artists…Haring, Warhol, Mondrian, Robert Indiana to name a few. I started sort of reinterpreting their work if I could, and wanted to use the words as whole as possible. I just didn’t want to chop up a bunch of letters and do, like, a ransom note.”

There’s a tribute to Banksy, which seems natural if you’ve seen Exit Through the Gift Shop. I also see Barbara Kruger, though oddly, she’s not part of the inspiration here.

“I looked up Barbara Kruger right after our conversation where you mentioned her 80s work” he says. “And I understand and like the comparison!”

After the first pop-up of Polypropylene in February, accolades from NYC and L.A. started coming in. “I love them. I think they feel very true to you – your wit and commentary on everyday items – similar to Andy Warhol, taking everyday items and elevating them to another level – a little twisted and dark but I like it,” said Anthony Keegan, designer at DKNY, Versace and Armani. And Paul Zumbo, designer at Calvin Klein and Michael Kors: “These are FANTASTIC!!!! Love!!!! I want some of them!!!”

“I’ve tried working with Joe Fresh bags and the weird thing is, I’ve tried six different glues and none of them stick,” says Szabo, and which may say a lot about that brand’s post-sweatshop-catastrophe strategy.

Perhaps the jury is still out on how detrimental polypropylene bags are for the environment versus the paper or old-school plastic bags we used to get for free, but, in a recent article on the topic, The Globe and Mail’s Robyn Urback reports:

“Ottawa’s ban on what it calls “single-use plastics,” which was waylaid by a Federal Court. never made much sense considering that studies have that the majority of consumers were, for example, reusing plastic grocery bags to line their garbage bins. Paradoxically, the ban has forced consumers to buy plastic bags that are truly single-use, in lieu of the dual-use free bags they used to get from grocery stores (while simultaneously accumulating an obscene number of reusable tote bags). Research has also shown that from a production perspective, the environmental impact of reusable bags – and even paper bags – is much more significant than that of plastic. A U.K. study showed that reusable cotton bags have to be used at least 131 times, and paper bags at least three times, to equal the environmental impact of a single plastic bag. Plastic bags simply require less energy and less water to produce, though they of course take longer to break down and contribute to plastic pollution.”

The problem isn’t just here in Canada. William Scaldwell reports from London, England:

“Here’s an article (promo) from the grocery store/shop called Co-op. It’s part of the Co-op group that sells house insurance, petrol and even funeral services. We used to have one just down the road, but we’re sorry to see it go when their 10-yr lease ran out. Now it’s just another Sainsbury’s…

Anyway, one of the reasons we liked the Co-op is that they use these flimsy plastic bags still. I say still, because all the other big grocery retailers here have changed bags from these thin, disposable bags to thicker, more durable ones that use 3 times the plastic. Also, there is a huge sector of the populace that doesn’t believe they should recycle/reduce/re-use. They just keep buying the same dumb bags each and every shop. So the point of these bags – that use even more plastic than we used to, is completely useless. Save the planet has backfired! And no one seems to recognize this.

The Co-op, on the other hand, still sells flimsy one-use bags (for ten or so years now we have to pay 10 pence per bag we use at the check-out) , but now they are BIODEGRADABLE. A much more nuanced and sensible approach. They know people are going to need new bags more often than not, so lets go the other way and make them biodegradable.

We like these flimsy bags as they fit our kitchen bin. So we do use them twice. And then they can go in landfill. They are strong enough, and don’t last for thousands of years. They are certified biodegradable and can be composted. The other grocery stores/shops claim to be helping the environment – and their customers too, but they are really not.

Ironic isn’t it. That people use sturdier, re-useable bags, but likely only once, are adding more plastic (polypropylene) bags to landfill – not less.”

“So… when the 10p charge for carry bags was first implemented” says Scaldwell “the joke was that people could pay off their mortgage by cashing in on all the carry bags stashed in their cars and under the kitchen sink. My inadvertent collection of unused carry bags must be worth a fortune!”

Szabo is playful right down to the ‘marketing’ side of the work in Polypropylene. “The other thing that’s happening with this is that they’re all tagged on the back. I’ve ironed on my logo and attached it to the back of each canvas, and then each piece comes with a receipt. You know, sort of the whole shopping thing and the receipt has a photo of every bag that I used in the works creation.”

I have a precious tote bag too. I just might donate it to the cause of art, my little part for the environment. I won this bag from CBC Radio One, it’s even autographed by the host and producer at my local station. So it’s, uh, like precious. My Precious. Almost…holy. But I can’t wait to see what Laszlo can turn it into.**

Stay tuned. Check out Szabo’s website, or more images, and what becomes of the CBC graphics logo at his next pop-up show of Polypropylene in Toronto, May 23- 25. colonbracket.org

“It’s an incredible space,” he says. “It was the original Bell operators hub back in the day. Now it’s called “The Boat – Healing Creative Space” at 207A Cowan Avenue, Queen West and Cowan.

Fun fact: if you use the typographical characters for colon and bracket you get a self-portrait of Laszlo. : {

Even though he sort-of looks like Freddie Mercury. Makes sense, though, he’s trying to channel Freddy’s magic and mojo, be it in a graphic context. 

Oh, and don’t forget to bring one of your 5,000 polypropylene tote bags to fill up with recycled, um, polypropylene art. Get some groovy cool inspirational graphics and save the planet!

As if. 

Vincent Cherniak is a writer, with (count’em) 43 tote bags, soon to be 42 after he donates the CBC one, in London, ON

*Laszlo misstepped, but he eventually corrected his stride. He now wears non-polypropylene shoes. He adds, “You can only imagine the police in the near future kicking down your door and counting your tote bags, see if you’ve exceeded your quota of two per person.”

** I misstepped too. Forgot to read the fine print on the CBC tote bag. Mea culpa.

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  1. says: Michael Sinkins

    A fantastic article on the occupation of how we all can get into a system of buying into a “good cause” but it is not, certainly not in the long run, not for the planet. Laszlo really hits the nail on the head in this situation.

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