Christy Rupp has long been one of the art world's principal imagists of ecological catastrophe. In her recent exhibition at TZ'Art in SoHo, she presented works from three series. Clustering in one end of the gallery was The Act, a school of fish crafted of newspaper on wire armatures. Mounted along a long wall was a large number of "bug"-like sculptures representing viruses and bacteria, done in handmade paper on wire. The third group of works are of glass, either renderings of turtles and shells, or drinking glasses and plates etched with images of invisible water pollutants. As always, the grim message of the art is belied by its elegant, and continually expanding, formal means.
This sculpture hazards comparison with science exhibits. But Rupp's steel-and-paper amoebae have no "body" or ambient environment in which to be seen. They are isolated on the all-white gallery wall, an array of small-scale artworks, disparate things begging to be admired as art even as they are understood as technical enlargements.
The fish in The Act are made of metal frames covered with paper, but the paper is burned and eaten away. The fish are positioned as if they are moving along the wall, through the space and into a round white spot on the floor, where ash from their burned paper bodies stains the clean paper.
It is a strikingly effective image of disease eating away at the bodies of wild creatures. This has always been one of Rupp's principal themes, to image the harm humans do to animals, and further, to image it as part of a process, a cycle or story: "What happens to the fish?" It is this didactic intention that links Rupp to the science museum. The line between instruction and tendentiousness is a thin one, however, and navigating it without falling into the ecological bathos of the repining naturist is a constant challenge.
Maybe in saying this I reveal only my own "compassion fatigue" with the relentless destruction of the environment. For the Earth First!er, of course, these virulent microbes, blown-up images of which Rupp displays, offer the biosphere's last best hope for halting human depredations.
These giant-sized germs -- ebola, HIV, TB, influenza, rabies -- are extravagantly attractive, winning essays in form and color. The viruses and bacteria are principally formed of paper in a luxuriant variety, including richly marbled types (Rupp recently exhibited at the Soho papermill Dieu Donne). It is part of a heightened attention to and insistence upon materials in Rupp's work. In previous works she used appropriated commercial packaging, collaged together, to make her creatures. Now her materials are entirely constitutive, her art-making more intrinsic.
These works imaging germs are made up of the interactions between paper and metal. Surfaces are flat, "leaved" and faceted. The metal of the armatures rusts through the paper coverings; rust, the mark of structural dissolution, is a color.
Rupp's HIV retrovirus is an especially elegant construction. What does it mean to see this killer as sculpture? Its rigid form compares with Judy Pfaff's clouds of metal, its subtle colors contrast with Jessica Stockholder's bald artifice. Although Rupp's work springs from her objective regard of these microbes (or of photographs), broadly speaking it bespeaks the great human impulse to fetishize those entities that harm us.
Of the newest work in glass, the "message" tableware is not as successful, I think, largely due to the compassion fatigue mentioned above. Although I could wish the board of directors of certain companies would clear their throats with drafts of Evian from these tumblers labeled "chlorine," we know they won't.
But the seashells of blown glass around exterior wire armatures are lovely. These works of clear glass blown within black metal armatures and then cut are structurally crystalline representational sculpture. This is highly elegant mimesis -- forming, welding, glass blowing -- all to imitate the slow accumulation of shell by the mollusk. They are explicit emblems of Rupp's sculptural structure, and as such these works have an air of culmination.
The continual interplay of art-as-techne and natural processes is the central formal dialectic in Rupp's work and its engine of meaning. Through her inventive modes of representing natural forms, by setting up these equivalents of natural and synthetic construction, she challenges the art lover ignorant of biology, and piques the scientist to whom art is mystery.
To sound that interval, to stroke that weave -- that is what drives Rupp's invention, that and the dissolution, the decay, the damage that overtakes cultural constructions as well as biological organisms. The burned paper of Rupp's fishes is a fiercely apt metaphor for metabolic processes gone wrong through poisoning. There is also a kind of subducted cultural commentary at work on our processes of understanding, on the knowledge we receive on paper, and the feelings we only read and write.
Christy Rupp, "Dirty Work," Feb. 20-Apr. 4, 1998, at TZ'Art, 22 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013
ALAN MOORE is a New York critic and art historian.