Essay by Eleanor Heartney
Catastrophozoic: Sculpture by Christy Rupp was exhibited at Cross Contemporary Art in Saugerties, New York, in 2017.
The catalog Catastrophozoic is available for purchase on Blurb.
Painters and poets have long used birds as symbols of freedom, beauty, peace, and aspiration. Consider, for instance, Emily Dickenson’s “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” or Claude Monet’s remark “I want to paint the way a bird sings.” As the true descendents of the dinosaurs, birds were here long before us. They have accompanied mankind on every step of its evolution, from ancient Egypt’s falcon-headed God Horus and the Greek Goddess Athena’s owl to the insignia on the Apollo 15 space capsule. But now birds are increasingly endangered by human activity. Heartbreaking photographs of albatross skeletons on the beach, their inner organs mingled with plastic ocean debris, dramatize the problem. By 2050, scientists expect the world’s oceans to contain more plastic than fish, by weight.
Christy Rupp joins an extensive roster of artists who have been inspired by birds. But she approaches the subject with a difference. Throughout history, artists have explored the bird as motif and metaphor, presenting our feathered friends as avatars, symbols of the natural world, emblems of power, and icons of liberation. Rupp, by contrast, focuses on their vulnerability, fashioning them out of the very materials—commercial plastic netting of the sort found in every supermarket—that are killing them. The title of this exhibition is Catastrophozoic, a coinage that captures the sense that we have entered a new era in which humans are redirecting natural history in ways that will be calamitous for all life on earth. Birds, with their global range, are particularly susceptible to what is being called “the long emergency.”
Rupp’s birds pay homage to her artistic forebears. Her representations take many forms, ranging from the careful realism of artists like, Rosa Bonheur, John James Audubon, Jan Asselijn, and Rembrandt’s teacher Fabritius, to the soaring abstraction of Brancusi’s famous Bird in Space, the almost pictographic creatures of Jean Miro, Frida Kahlo’s tender folk inspired parrot pair, Louise Bourgeois’ schematic riff on spreading wings, and Lee Bontecou’s industrially inspired stalking bird. All of these sculpted forms exploit the flexibility and neon colors of the discarded plastic we unthinkingly cast off into the environment. By combining art historical references with the most banal and environmentally hazardous of everyday materials, Rupp creates a poignant reminder of the place of birds in our lives. She reminds us how entwined birds are with our imaginative life and sense of beauty and how much may be lost if we don’t learn to curb our profligate tendencies.
Essay by Eleanor Heartney, 2017