By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, June 2022
Artists make political art because they have meaning to deliver so they will incline to illustration as with the green-skinned Nixon in Warhol’s Vote for McGovern, Fernando Botero’s Abu Ghraib drawings, Leon Golub’s gun toting death squads or to dark metaphor as with the feral performances of Karen Finley. It’s not often though that a political artist will find the raw materials for their physical art-making in their actual target area but so it has been for the Eco Artist, Christy Rupp.
Her lightbulb moment came early. “I’m from upstate New York,” Rupp says. “The Great Lakes Rustbelt. We were under a cloud of carbon. When I was a teenager we spent summers on the shores of Lake Erie. In the 1960s the water was oxygen-deprived, the sport fishing industry collapsed and they declared the lake was dead. I was 13 and we would step through this crusty algae to go swimming and wonder about that. So I knew that that language around environmental issues was skewed and you couldn’t trust grown-ups.”
Rupp was hyperactive in the Downtown Manhattan artworld through the 70s and the three week garbage strike of 1979 prompted her first piece of Public art, Rat Patrol. The images of a line of rodents she posted on walls on garbage-strewn streets, got her instant attention, and were shortly supplemented by rat sculptures.
Eco Art would be a natural growth from these. Such as Red Tide of 1980 which included a mock turtleshell, embedded with real Tide bottles. “It’s fun to forage for materials out in the world, and find them,” she said.
When Warhol used an image of a Coke bottle it was ironical/celebratory, I noted. But clearly not the Tide bottles. “Do you remember Red Tide in Long Island?” she asked. “It was an algae bloom from pollutants and temperature rise. We’re all really part of it now, with climate chaos. Warhol did those prints of endangered species in 1983. Like the tiger, the eagle, the elephant, a panda. His motive was to make them celebrities. He thought people would want to save them if they became celebrities.”
Rupp has been formally versatile. Her Acid Rain Brook Trout series of 1981 are painted cardboard sculptures, seemingly playful, until you absorb such titles as Spawning with Dead Mate and Adult Eating Its Own Young. She has swaddled oil cans in felt, constructed mimic frog skeletons from welded steel and sliced credit cards and made images of aquatic algae from steel and plastic debris. “You’ve really got to think about the stuff before you make it,” she says. “Because the world has got so many objects in it when I make a sculpture the idea and the materials really need to line up.”
These materials are often brazenly unreal, as in the Fake Ivory Series of 2012, which are elephant, walrus and narwhal tusks and whale teeth, each engraved with unusual scrimshaw, that on the walrus tusk, for instance, depicting chemical structures of North Sea crude oil. “They are encaustic wax. Like the turtle shells,” Rupp says. “They are all fake nature.” But when you check into what Rupp calls the filter-feeding plankton that she began looking into in 2013, you wish that they were fake nature too.
How did she learn about them? “I follow the stories,” she said. "I am an artist. My job is to ask the questions.” That particular story was the explosion of Deepwater Horizon, the oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, which created the largest oil spill ever.
“You can try to clean up the oil,” Rupp says. “You can disperse it. But the chemical that makes the oil disperse is a huge part of the problem. And swimming around in all this are these microscopic animals and plants that don’t have a navigation system of their own. These plankton can be anything, it’s more an age group than a group of beings, tiny plants and animals, caught up in tides and currents. But everything when its plankton goes with the tide and these are the things which end up with us. I’ve always liked plankton because they are the seed of life that everything else eats. plants and animals, we all consume it, and from now until eternity that residue will remain in the bodies of humans, whales, everything!”
Time to cue in the whales. Rupp had already learned that you can determine under a microscope the source of an oil spill the whale has been swimming through because crude oil has identifiable chemical structures. So she decided to make a sculpture of a whale’s stomach. “I started researching whale anatomy online,” she said. “And all I could find for stomachs was how much plastic does a stomach contain. Like the volume of a whale’s stomach is defined by how much plastic does it take to kill it. Or make it so weak that it dies. Or starves to death.
“That’s why I wanted to make the plastic plankton. Do you know how a whale feeds? They are the largest filter feeders. They swim with their mouths open. They take in a huge amount of water which filters out through their baleens, which function like gills. And everything else goes down the hatch into their stomach. And when they swallow stuff like fishnets or twisted debris, they don’t spit it out, because it’s coated with organisms that smell like the food. It’s coated with the plankton they were looking for, the krill, the itty-bitty shrimps. I wanted to make a sculpture of the stomach of a whale but it was defined by plastic. So that’s why I set about making those plastic plankton”.
Did she ever make that sculpture of a whale’s tum?
“No,” she said. “I couldn’t research it properly. There was very little available to help a lay person define the dimensions. I’m sure if I was a scientist I could get into a research site but if you Google whale stomachs all you see is plastic.”
Perhaps this to-and-fro will spur somebody to open up an archive, I said.
“Or a stomach”, Chrissie Rupp said, darkly. WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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