by Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer
Dish racks and ice cube trays, bathroom shelving and rental chairs, trashcans and feed containers, park benches and baby seats, pet food bowls and ball chains: Nancy Lupo gives inordinate aesthetic attention and meticulous, nearly medical care to such overlooked, ubiquitous, and banal goods mass-produced for the janitorial and domestic realms that crowd the periphery of everyday life. A trip to Ace Hardware or Bed Bath & Beyond starts us off in the right direction. Lupo’s growing cast of ready-made, industrial products is economical, utilitarian, clinical, and debased. She negotiates the artificial mutability of plastic, silicone, rubber, foam, wire, and metal. Workaday hardness grounds her vernacular in emblems of manufactured durability, standardized things engineered to be both cheap and take lots of abuse, like recycling bins and heavy duty dog chew toys. Such promises of indestructibility are a real tease – they beg to be probed and melted, if not broken entirely.
In Parent and Parroting (2016), her room-size sculpture presented earlier this year at the Swiss Institute in New York, storage solutions become display strategies. Twenty-eight under-the-sink bathroom racks were covered in Magic Sculpt epoxy clay, encrusted with kitty litter, lined up in three groups, and stacked two high in a U-shaped configuration that the viewer entered like an exploded cage or skeletal monster jaw. Emaciated but fleshy like a Giacometti, the putty-slathered structures seem bombed out and archaeological. Tight rows of white folding chairs facing in at the open end established a theatrical orientation. The jawbone arc gets echoed in the tooth-like shape of each curving rack. Orality is central across Lupo’s practice. The racks were intricately interwoven with spools of dental floss and tied together simply with white twisty ties, kind of like mock braces. Surfaces are characteristically gummy and studded with crud. Choice foreign objects inserted into the armature and on the shelves look like food caught between giant teeth: oranges, melons, stress balls, chocolate, Nylabones, rubber hands-free baby bottle holders, and a wooden spindle. The list of materials is prodigious and partly perishable, requiring selective replenishment over the course of the exhibition. Caretaking is built into her sculptural propositions as an extension of the laborious, cosmetic treatment of things in her studio.
Even with the marked sense of spaciousness that the artist retains across this and other installations, the specter of material excess and consumer waste creeps in through the repetition of identical units, foodstuffs, and a fondness for space-saving organizational systems. The way things fit together or are mutually embedded is a matter of efficiencies as well as sexuality. This ball gags that hole, this finger wants to plug that dike, this lemon goes right in that sucker – such satisfactions are visceral, guttural, pre-lingual, and dopamine-rich. Stackability is prized for its practicality and the implication of other kinds of nesting, spooning, and linkage. Accumulation produces long chains of prefab modules strung up like beads – pictures of perverse profusion. Additive construction of like-parts forms new anatomies, each segment a bone in a skeleton. Elsewhere, stout masses cluster together in a concrete clearing like a mini Stonehenge. Quantities track an attention to relative scale: thousands of grains of black and white quinoa versus hundreds of real and fake cherries versus dozens of rolls of toilet paper versus nine red trashcans and five tumbling Bumbo baby seats versus twinned Parmesan rounds. Miniaturization in the form of small feed containers, little pieces of plastic sushi, pennies, or pet clothing is knowingly non-threatening and adorable. I am pulled in, laughing at the same time that I recoil from the lumpen pudginess and encrusted bulbosity of a Henry Moore-shaped nugget or a vocal pair of The Woofer dog coats suspended in matching blue recycling receptacles. Absurdity and hilarity are present everywhere in degrees of repression.
Rubbermaid Brute containers are also present everywhere, common (in this country) to the point of near-invisibility. Iconic industrial design is so platonic, it’s taken for granted. Making their blunt familiarity strange again, Lupo uses Brutes in a range of sizes, measuring volume and heft in, say, 10, 20, or 55-gallon containers. Lined, empty, or filled variously (one with ice, another with cabbage heads slowly rotting in water), their evident capacity stands in relation to my body’s own fluid contents and aqueous composition. But beyond their bulk, they also figure sonically because Lupo sculpts with sound and syllable as well: “Rubbermaid” and “Brute” are key words with bouncy, rude attitude, while “Parent” and “Parroting” make for a thick title that fills the mouth with lots to chew on. She has a keen ear for the corporate poetry of brand and product names – “Bumbo,” “Magic Smooth,” “FEED-SEED” – and studies the way words contort muscle and bone when pronounced. Mouthfeel guides this sculptor’s hand like another eye, another brain, another intelligence. Sucking, salivating, and thirsting, the mouth is an originary site of animal instinct and desire that frames her larger fascination with gut impulses, intuitions, appetites, metabolisms, and psychology – the mysteries of subjectivity that are determined by the body’s biochemical ecosystem.
The Lupian object world is not quite dystopic but definitely uncanny, disturbing, and a bit giddy. In genre movie terms, I might pitch it as 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Mad Max meets Death Becomes Her with a dash of Porky’s. Sometimes the overall effect conjures a denatured future in which organic and inorganic matter have morphed and merged beyond easy recognition. Her range of materials generates doubt around whether substances are food or not, edible or not, toxic or not, rotten or not. Surfaces coated in Soylent, chia seeds, nutritional yeast, and Swheat Scoop kitty litter produce powerfully abject textures. Anti-spectacular and strategically antiseptic, her objects luxuriate in the color and feel of dried sludge – a pasteurized and muddy mucosal mixture of approximate skin tones that evokes prosthetics, mannequins, Band-Aids, make-up, and vomit. Her future-flesh palette of highly opaque neutral grays, beiges, and browns masterfully exploits the pre-existing color scheme of white cube architecture and serves as the perfect foil for intensely saturated, graphic punctuations of bright tangerines, Eureka yellows, Babybel reds, and salmon sashimi pinks worthy of Jessica Stockholder.
Color punches mightily through an otherwise pallid landscape the way commodity-sized holes riddle the tough plastic skin of her Brute bins: modeling porosity on many levels, Lupo multiplies openings and facilitates release. Leaky, perforated vessels that can’t hold much water undercut an abiding attraction to bone-like solidity with the greater need for permeability and circulation, flow and crosscurrent, penetration and puncture. Bodies break down into pervious membranes because we finally understand how chemically receptive, absorptive, and mutually enmeshed we are in our contaminated environment.