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Recent Catalog Essays


From "Is the cell a happy place?"

- Chris Kraus Catalog Essay for "The Landscape Within", Castellani Museum, Niagara Falls, NY July 1999

Is the cell a happy place? Rupp's research shows the cell to be a place not unlike Aristotle's vision of the city, a fragile membrane capable of encapsulating warring molecules in provisional detente. What happens when this balance is disturbed?

In Politics, Aristotle set upon the organic model for the functioning of the city-state. Everything proceeds within concentric rings of social order: family, household, village, city, state. Organic life remains a model, and yet organic life is now hopelessly consumptive, chaotic, cancerous and skewed.

For many years, Christy Rupp has used living organisms as metaphors for human situations and behavior. Her creatures aren't cartoon-cute. They are themselves. Christy Rupp has always been a social scientist. She's not exactly a "political" artist because there's never any commentary or polemic in her work. Rather, she is literally political. Rupp has undertaken to examine certain systems to find out how things work. Beautifully constructed and deviously analytic, Rupp's sculptures crystallize complex social circumstances into metaphors as clear and frightening as fairy tales.

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Christy Rupp
NEW! at Nina Freudenheim

By Eric Jackson-Forsberg - Artvoice, Buffalo January 1, 2002

Since the 70's, Christy Rupp has been making art that engages environmental issues with pejorative sophistication and a surprisingly healthy sense of humor. "The Rat Patrol", an outdoor postering campaign during the Manhattan garbage strike of 1979, echoed the ubiquitous handbills that plaster New York to draw attention to the city's equally ubiquitous rodent population [rats are a natural presence, but augmented by the proliferation of human waste to dangerous levels]. Today, with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) "including recently 'weaponized' pathogens such as anthrax" making headlines on a regular basis, Rupp's work is perhaps more timely than ever. "NEW!", a selection of the artist's recent work now on view at the Nina Freudenheim Gallery, focuses on the strange contemporary climate of GMOs and high-tech agri-business. Rupp's work reveals the dark side of these utopian applications of biotechnology.

"NEW!" consists of three (or perhaps four) inter-related series. The first, an array of clear plastic food containers printed with slogans such as "Genetically Altered for Your Enjoyment", "Weapons Grade Seed Stock" and "Why Wait for Evolution?" pursues a wry inquiry of whether there can be truth in labeling in this GMO world. With a nod to Pop aesthetics, Rupp presents these mottos and mock product names in a variety of bright colors and fonts. Though they resemble mock-ups for new packaging ready for presentation in the boardroom, these pristine plastic shells bear messages, often in the form of questions, that confront the ominous ironies of genetically-engineered food products. Today, with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) "including recently 'weaponized' pathogens such as anthrax" making headlines on a regular basis, Rupp's work is perhaps more timely than ever.

"Switched", paper and steel. The container that blithely asks "Why Wait for Evolution?" seems to summarize this series and the implied biotechnological hubris of the GMO revolution. Rupp is also, of course, commenting on the packaging of this revolution, and the supposedly reassuring spin that advertising puts on the truth. "Weapons Grade Seed Stock", for example, sounds like a desirably strong product, but the name actually refers to bioengineered "terminator" seeds. Terminator seeds are universally considered the most morally offensive application of agricultural biotechnology (Rural Advancement Foundation International website, www.earthportals.com/terminator), as they produce sterile seed in subsequent generations, forcing farmers to purchase new stock each year. Although prominent companies like Monsanto have vowed not to commercialize terminator seeds, the threat of this technology entering the agricultural marketplace remains, retaining the possibility that a product like "Weapons Grade Seed Stock" could show up at your local Agway store soon. Here, as in many of the works in the container series, Rupp demonstrates the essence of irony; we laugh, but shudder at the reality behind the joke.

As an apparent extension of the container series, the show also includes works on paper that present similar messages such as "Tell us What we are Eating" and "Grown in Toxic Sludge, but OK to Eat". These pieces are an interesting variation on the containers, as they present their wry slogans and leading questions in a more formal, iconic format. As one moves through the exhibition, these pieces serve to reiterate and emphasize messages such as "Why Wait for Evolution?", taking the loaded text from the incidental, disposable plastic package to a finely crafted and framed context. With this variation on the GMO "ad campaign", Rupp also incorporates media or found objects that reflect the message of the work. Previous work employed recycled materials for aesthetic effect as well as considerations of content. Plastic Tide bottles formed the scutes of a turtle ("Red Tide"), and old newspapers were reborn in the shape of a tree stump ("Life in a Landfill"). In "Tell us What we are Eating" and "Genetically Altered for Your Enjoyment", paper-thin slices of produce "genetically suspicious, given the context" are applied to the paper. "Grown in Toxic Sludge, but OK to Eat" features a lumpy brown background substance which we can only assume is the toxic goo indicated by the title, somehow sanitized and hermetically sealed to make the work gallery-ready. With these beautifully crafted works on paper, Rupp has made these mysterious "Frankenfoods" and toxic waste "OK to View."

Also populating this exhibition, and crawling among the plastic containers and on the other walls of the gallery, are various "Genetically Engineered Insects" (GEIs perhaps?). These steel and paper sculptures add another layer to the discussion of GMOs and their effect on our environment. They contribute another question to those posed by the containers: what happens when GMOs have six legs and wings? What happens when they can creep out of our sphere of control? Like the containers, some of these GEIs address specific environmental issues. One piece is a rotation construction in which a cotton boll weevil is linked to a clump of raw cotton by a model of the glyphosate molecule, the active ingredient in Roundup (a popular pesticide). The relationship implied here goes deeper than the natural link between cotton and weevil: thanks to genetic engineering, Glyphosate is now actually built into the DNA of certain crops, making them poisonous to insects that feed on them "genetic wolves in sheep's clothing". As Rupp comments, "the circular structure is a reference to a wheel of chance, but was [also] meant to allude to how the environment is an interconnected cycle which is being run down through the indiscriminate use of pesticides". It is not a mechanical object that can be refitted with new parts.

Others in the series of GEIs are more fantastic and allegorical than their container counterparts. One bug has test tubes incorporated into its abdomen- a classic metaphor for an experiment (as in "test tube baby"). Another is in the shape of a Bingo ball cage, with its small door open as if the tokens of chance have already been played out. One of the most salient metaphors for biotechnological tampering is offered by the "Switched" bug: its thorax features a light switch, invoking the convenient on/off switching of genes and chemical compounds claimed by GMO proponents. This begs the question of whether the complexities of nature can indeed be understood and controlled through such a simple mechanical metaphor.

The final section of the exhibition features a sculptural group depicting an interaction between aphids and parasitic wasps. Though not technically GMOs, these wasps are often employed as "natural" pesticides to control crop-destroying insects such as aphids. Rupp commented that this work is a metaphor for economically driven food manufacturers and those who profit from scarcity- a sort of parasitic relationship. She "thought it was interesting that the wasps could live inside the aphids (which also remained living for a while), then pop out in geometrically defined shapes." Here, humans have taken advantage of the common observation that nature is "red in tooth and claw" and the predatory relationship between pest and living pesticide serves as a metaphor for the ruthlessness of agri-business in general. As with the Genetically Engineered Insects "and much of Rupp's other sculptures" the media and technique used in this work is worth noting; the combination of steel and paper invokes a fascinating tension between strength and fragility. There is a guardedly optimistic suggestion here: that the gene pool has a resilient framework onto which a fragile skin of human manipulation has been applied. This skin is easily changeable and corruptible, producing strange "and potentially dangerous" variations on a genetic theme. Rupp's work questions how extensively we may play with natural designs and evolution before the underlying framework itself is corrupted beyond recognition.

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