The practice of sculptor Michelle Lopez explores the contested yet generative place where Minimalism and Feminism converge, diverge, and ultimately reunite. The languages she employs—material, form, and space—seek to “corrupt minimalism,” by making “macho sculpture feminine.” 1 Her interest lies in exploring the fragility of pop culture icons, notably “boys’ toys” like skateboards, cars, and action figures, to “express states of the body, such as suspension, lightness, rest, and crashing,” by bending, folding and manipulating materials to make them “wilt,” “melt,”“crease,” and “crush.” 2 Lopez often submits the objects of these fetishized cultures, with their smooth lines, soft curves, and polished finishes, to violent acts and “allegorical inversions” 3 in order to unravel latent meaning and “...create ambiguity... by exploring androgyny.” 4 In doing so, Lopez looks to (re)cover, (de)code, and (re)produce the methodologies of (un)making sculpture in order to find a language that looks beyond Minimalism and Feminism by collapsing, expanding, and ultimately releasing it from itself.
At The Aldrich, Lopez presents new and recent sculptures that span three bodies of work. Three approximately nine-foot-tall sculptures from the Blue Angels series (2011–ongoing) lean precariously—as if about to collapse—against the walls in the Screening Room. Made from folded reflective stainless steel and aluminum with interiors painted in distinctive bands of automotive paint, their primary colors are evocative of commercial airlines (Korean Air sea blue, Delta red, United royal blue). Blue Angel (Korean) and Blue Angel (United), both 2014, were made specifically for the exhibition. Here, their larger-than-life size and mirrored surfaces mimic Minimalism, but being remarkably light weight and devoid of bravado, reject its industrial fabrication and imposing authority. These crinkled forms, referencing crashed airplane fuselages, the twin towers, and John Chamberlain’s compressed car assemblages, recall the trauma of 9/11 and also our looming fear of new technology (as a deadly weapon). These “hand-formed” 5 gestures carry the weight of mourning figures and, as we orbit them, we are confronted by our distorted likeness. The title of the series refers to the US Navy’s aircraft used in aerobatic displays to commemorate old aerospace technology. To make the Blue Angels, Lopez physically wrestles with the material on the ground in her studio, negotiating these massive steel sheets through an intensive system of folding exercises.
Working through or wrangling with material is nothing new to Lopez. For another series titled Your Board (2011),Lopez maneuvered maple plywood through a systematic process of steaming, ironing, and pressing, making it pliable, “skin-like.” Lopez’s exploitation of material recalls Robert Morris’s ideas on process: “...there are ‘forms’ to be found within the activity of making as much as within the end products.” 6 In turn, Lopez reflects: “Process is allowing the work to become something of its own, through an unpredictability, an undoing.” 7 Wreckage is a recurring theme, as Lopez contends with her own personal narrative vis-à-vis imagery caught between alternating states of stress and post-collapse. For Woadsonner (edit)(2009), Lopez re-births a car she originally covered in leather in 2000 for a Public Art Fund project by dismembering it to appear disemboweled, slumping against the wall like a specimen to be examined. Lopez admittedly self-identifies with this work, quantifying her real-life propensity by showing us how failure can be transformative in art. Or, as curator Jeffrey Uslip expounds on Lopez’s resuscitation: “Edit as renewal: a second chance, redefined, more specific, changed.” 8
The Flags Series (2014) features three flags, each comprised of a steel rod armature wrapped by Lopez using malleable pure-lead sheets. As a unit, they form a line on the long wall of The Aldrich’s Ramp Gallery. Lopez reshapes symbols most often associated with victory and patriotism into diminished, delicate, frail objects that appear almost crude. Evocative of a surrender signal or a child’s bike security pennant—universal images of truce and safety—the cragginess of their finish reads like a gnarled hand, heightening a sense of something that has been worn down or defeated. The muted matte black of the hand-pressed lead gives the sculptures a somber quality, while also amplifying their appearance as drawings in space. Their interactive engagement with the architectural niche of the slanting wall of the gallery recalls the magical illusionism of Fred Sandback’s colorful yarn sculptures. Sandback speaks about the performative aspect of making sculpture in space: “More and more, working seems to be like performance; not in the sense of presenting a process, but in the conditions required to complete a piece.” 9 Lopez’s sculptures are activated by their placement—their relationship to the wall from which they hang, and the floor to which they are anchored—plus their dialogue with the exterior world, cast back through the windows that look beyond. Moreover, they act as a catalyst, triggering a relational experience, connecting us to ourselves through the marriage of sculpture and site. Although they may be perceived as anti-heroic, deflated, and perhaps even ragged, the visibility of their maker’s hand enlivens them, so as to transcend their forlornness, and although they droop, they still stand, survivors. Survival is a vein that cuts deep across Lopez’s work, evident in a practice spanning more than fifteen years, from the bent but not broken Blue Angels, to the spectral branch of a cantilevered sycamore tree in Southern Trees/Black September (2009), to the flaccid leather skin draping a 1999 Honda 600 in Boy (1999).
Bangs, a site-specific sculptural installation for the Small Space, is a shadowy interior made from commercial grade elevator blankets. Merging the felt sculptures of Robert Morris with the hyperbolic female characters of Japanese anime, Lopez reflects back on her 2009 sculpture, Akira Revisited. Her starting point was the celebrated Takashi Murakami sculpture, Hiropon (1997), a life-size fiberglass sculpture of a hyper-sexualized female figure with milk spewing from engorged breasts to forma loop around her back. Lopez brings to life a black anime wig, casting it in soot and then placing it on the floor. For Bangs (2013), she transforms a diminutive room in the Museum into an intimate encounter, focusing on what she describes as an “interiority.” 10 The room has been designed to mimic the scale of an elevator; heavy matte-black canvas cloth, cut, sewn, edged, and grommeted by Lopez, drapes down across three interior walls and hangs like fringed hair. The deep cuts expose the grey felt innards, altered to follow the lines of the stylized hair. Lopez describes the experience as “entering into the body of ‘Phantom Bangs,’ machined and mirrored, that evoke other systems both architectural and technological.” 11 The folds of the fabric, assertive in scale, but suggestive of a colossal cartoon wig, intuit a being, albeit a bodiless one, as if a female ghost is emerging from the blankets’ curves. Here, Lopez uses the “...familiar ...and abstract[s] it to find the uncanny.” 12 We get lost in the immersive softness of the dark material, in the giant pleats of the reenacted blankets; engulfed by silence, claustrophobia ensues. Then, another body enters and releases us with the realization that we are not alone.