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Feasts of Fantasy: The Cruel Pleasures of Lori Larusso’s Paintings

Food is central to our daily lives. It provides necessary nourishment and pleasure, as well as aggravation and anxiety. What and how we eat informs our identities in terms of gender, class, and ethnicity. Eating shapes our social relations with others and our environment. However, these are not abstract associations, but intimate and specific experiences that encode desire, taste, tradition, ritual, and etiquette. Much of Lori Larusso’s work explores the unwritten rules and underlying effects of the domestic activity of making and consuming food. With meticulously applied layers of bright glossy paint, she lovingly renders delicious confections and delectable meals, as well as kitchen and dining room disasters, to make us consider how food communicates affective experiences, psychological states, and moral dilemmas.

In her painting If you can Bake a Cake, you can Make a Bomb (2017), a dozen splattered eggs appear on the floor of a pristine powder-blue kitchen. As the title suggests, cakemaking has turned incendiary. Perhaps the baker, frustrated by the expectation of bourgeois domestic perfection, has turned against her craft. Or alternatively, maybe the chickens themselves have revolted against the pilfering of their eggs for use in our cakes, as intimated by dark silhouettes of barnyard fowl that appear in the cabinet-turned-chicken-coup under the kitchen counter. Either way, the broken eggs convey that something is amiss in this seemingly idyllic yet creepily sanitized American home.

“If you can Bake a Cake, you can Make a Bomb”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 42 x 64 x 2 inches, 2017

“Trickle Down”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 18 x 33 inches, 2013

In fact, a feeling of unease haunts all of Larusso’s immaculate surfaces. In Trickle Down (2013), a double chocolate chunk ice cream cone oozes sticky sweet cream onto the floor of an otherwise picture perfect interior. A cozy fire burns in the fireplace, as sophisticated busts and vases of flowers rest on an adjacent bookshelf. This mid-century modern home could be in Dwell magazine if it were not for the fallen ice cream cone that ruins the image of upper middle-class luxury. There is a tension between the cheap treat in the foreground and the impeccable home behind it, as if to suggest that we must be satiated with small affordable pleasures while an unattainable dream lies just out of reach.

The atmosphere of this picture is one of frustrated desire. In an economy where wealth and opportunity are supposed to “trickle down” from rich to poor, yet rarely do, we are torn between settling for brief moments of feeling good and aspiring for something better through real political change. Embodying this tension, Larusso’s paintings recall what literary theorist Lauren Berlant describes as the “cruel optimism” of the American Dream, or a condition in which “something you desire is actually the obstacle to your own flourishing.” Much like the sentimental fiction that Berlant describes in her writing, Larusso’s paintings capture the combination of fantasy and futility that characterize the mirage of accessible abundance propagated in the US. Although we are accustomed to wanting things that we know are probably bad for us, like that double chocolate chunk ice cream cone, the stakes are higher when we desire a better lot in life. And these paintings register this intense longing to believe in meritocracy and upward mobility, as well as the sense of resignation and exhaustion indicative of the new economy that thwarts that promise.  

“I’m Sorry (We Are Garbage)”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels and ribbon, approximately 3.5 x 12 feet, 2017

Larusso’s works appear as stages for dispirited characters who are perhaps in the process of relinquishing their fantasies. Whether visualizing the specter of economic precarity or environmental degradation, her paintings evoke conflicted responses to everyday experiences that we sense affectively even if we don’t register them cognitively. Lunch By The Dumpster (2013) brings to mind a quick break to eat a packed lunch by the dumpster before returning to one’s minimum wage-paying job, as well as the post-consumer waste that haunts even the smallest of meals. I’m Sorry (We Are Garbage) (2017), which depicts an apologetic party balloon attempting to lift a plump white trash bag out of a metal bin, recalls the profuse amounts of trash produced by the average American party. Although we’d probably rather forget all the decorations, paper plates, plastic utensils, gift wrappings, and food remains that get stuffed into bags after the event is over, this painting reminds us that this is part of who we are. Our garbage does not just float away after we toss it in the bin, even if the weekly trash pick-up makes it seem so.

Like Berlant, Larusso is concerned with ordinary moments and encounters more than major events and big revelatory gestures. For this reason, as well as her humorous, colorful, and representational style, Larusso’s paintings were received earlier in her career as lacking “seriousness.” This perception recalls the criticisms leveled at Pop artists during the 1960s. However, Pop was redeemed by its “coolness” that conveys a sense of neutrality, detachment, and impassiveness when approaching themes of consumerism and the everyday. These masculinist imperatives, as feminist art historians Cécile Whiting and Kalliopi Minioudaki have respectively shown in their writings, were also mobilized to exclude female Pop artists who were deemed too personally invested in their subjects to be properly Pop.

“Hungry Heart”, acrylic on shaped panel, 43 x 40 inches, 2010

“You Used to Blog About Cupcakes”, acrylic on (2) shaped panels, approximately 40 x 32 inches, 2013

Similar to her feminist Pop precursors, the convivial yet disturbing domestic scenes of Larusso’s “Shapes” series (2007 – 2014) feel engaged and impassioned more than cynical and impersonal. Pithy suggestive titles like Boil, Fried, Cracked, Wrecked, and Hungry are common in the series and reinforce the impression that all is not well in these seemingly happy homes. Although no people appear, Larusso strategically uses absent objects or out of place elements to make tangible the feelings of hunger, exhaustion, abuse, self-loathing, and unrequited love of the characters that one imagines inhabiting these spaces. In Hungry Heart (2010) and You Used to Blog About Cupcakes (2013) from the series, the oven—which is absent in the former, and defunct in the latter—serves to heighten the melodrama of the scene. Almost anthropomorphized, its open door seems to cry out, exposing the void within. Similarly, eye-catching colors like Pepto-Bismal pink, bright white, and chocolaty brown intensify the mood of anxiety, longing, and disillusionment of the once recognized food blogger who has recently abandoned her craft. In this way, Larusso orchestrates these compositions to capture a frustrated belief in the good life, speaking to what Berlant describes as the “dramas of adjustment” that characterize our age of growing income inequality.

Berlant builds on what Raymond Williams calls the “structure of feeling” or the intuited contours of a particular space in time that gives one a sense of the possibility of certain futures over others. Through her shaped paintings, Larusso brings into relief the pain, stress, and humiliation of hungry hearts that cannot be sated. However, this yearning is not only met with refusal and despair, but also compassion and optimism. Through humorous juxtapositions and exquisitely detailed subjects, Larusso conveys a sense of attachment to the world she depicts. And by accentuating its contradictions, her paintings offer a space to recalibrate and resist the patterns of life that we have come to expect. As Larusso states: “I am, in part, searching for the tipping point. When does one decide to alter their systems of belief, behavior, and take action? Is a revolution necessary, or can we incite positive change in our lives by individual acts of resistance? What does resistance look like?”

In her recent “Non-compliance” series, works like If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation (2017) and If you can Perform a Striptease for your Husband, You can Perform a Lysistratic Non-Action (2018) set the stage for such individual acts of resistance. Cast-off objects like the mop and bra imply that someone has reached their breaking point and abandoned their chores mid-action. And because there are no people in these works, animals often activate the scene. Whether they be dead cockroaches swimming in a pool of mop water or an orange pussy cat turned doormat-sized area rug, these creatures produce a tension between a repugnant foreground and alluring background.

“If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation”, acrylic on (3) shaped panels, approximately 60 x 84 x 32 inches, 2017

This pull between attraction and repulsion also animates Larusso’s “Eating Animals” series (2017 ongoing). Works like Strawberry Short Snake, Broccoli Poodle, and Radish Mice morph fruits and vegetables into cartoon animals. Inspired by blogs posts and Instagram images taken by parents who aspired to shape these foods into more appealing forms for their children, Larusso explores this strange phenomenon in which edible items are transformed into animals that are socially unacceptable to eat in order to somehow make them more appetizing. This convoluted game while initially appearing absurd, invites one to think about the bizarre nature of the highly processed and packaged foods that the average American regularly consumes like chicken fingers and pumpkin spice lattes.

“Eating Animals (Strawberry Short Snake)”, acrylic on shaped panel, 32 x 20 inches, 2017

Although staged and idealized in advertising and social media, food entails messy and entangled systems of procurement, preparation, and consumption. Drawn like the rest of us to the flawless and filtered images of mouthwatering delights that appear in glossy magazine pages and populate one’s social media feed, Larusso takes this source material and transforms it into complex pictures that register a sense of precarity lurking beneath their appetizing surfaces. In her series “It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my Cake,” different kinds of cake communicate a range of emotional states. Each one with its candles extinguished has been wished over and awaits devouring. Coconut Cake (2010) appears stout and proud despite the shaky green lettering that timidly spells out “Happy Birthday.” In On A Doily (2014), thick layers of rust colored icing cover dense chocolate cake which sits atop a delicate bed of white lace that seems to float effortlessly under the weight of the cake’s burden. Across the series, the cheerful colors of Larusso’s celebratory confections invite one to contemplate the complicated range of emotions generated by those delicious things that are in fact not yours to enjoy.

“It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not My (Strawberry Short) Cake”, acrylic and enamel on panel, 12 x 16 x 1 inches, 2010

This complicated space of longing is eloquently captured in the poems written by Carrie Green to accompany Larusso’s painting in their co-authored chapbook. Dedicated to “women artists everywhere, whether their medium is words, paint, or buttercream frosting,” the book is an ode to the overlooked domestic labor of cake baking and decorating. In its last poem, “Not Your Cake” Green’s ekphrastic text brings to life the space of desire embodied in Larusso’s painting It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my (Strawberry Short) Cake (2010). It reads:

The cake winks from behind
the neighbor’s starched white curtains

strawberries and cream and yellow cake
striping a green Formica background

You spent your last birthday
eating boxed macaroni from the pan.

Now you imagine the layered sweetness:
moist cake, rich fullness of cream,

tart bite of farm-stand fruit
carried home in the green paper cartons.

The kitchen is empty, washed pale
with early June light. Did you miss

the singing, the bright bouquet
of balloons marking the mailbox?

Flame has blackened the candlewicks,
and someone has served a generous slice

or two. The missing wedge
opens to you, an invitation.

It’s not your birthday. But why
couldn’t this cake be yours?

Although quieter in their sentiments, the paintings reproduced in It’s Not My Birthday, That’s Not my Cake highlight Larusso’s long-standing interest in how the seeds of change are sown into ordinary experiences. Seeking to re-contextualize revolution on a micro-scale that speaks to the complex entanglements of the domestic sphere, her paintings ask questions about how our intimate experiences with food educate and enculturate us, serving as a vehicle to alter the world in which we live.

New series “I Like Your Pictures and I Like YOU”, 2019, in progress in Larusso’s Studio in Lexington, KY.

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UnderMain would like to thank The Great Meadows Foundation for support of our 2019 programming, which will include twelve in-depth studio visits of Kentucky artists. See our other publications related to this project: 

Emily Elizabeth Goodman visits Melissa Vandenberg
Hunter Kissel visits Harry Sanchez, Jr. 
Jim Fields visits Skylar Smith
Keith Banner visits Michael Goodlett

The Great Meadows Foundation is a grant giving foundation whose mission is to critically strengthen and support visual art in Kentucky by empowering our community’s artists and other visual arts professionals to research, connect, and participate more actively in the broader contemporary art world.

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Emily Ludwig Shaffer at Institute 193

Approaching Institute 193 on North Limestone in Lexington, I peer through the storefront window to make my first encounter with Emily Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings. A New York resident with deep roots in Lexington, Kentucky, Ludwig Shaffer treats us to meticulously rendered scenes which engage with visual elements traditionally relegated to second-class citizenship, or else, to the merely “decorative.” A braid adorns a side of a building. A topiary wall pushes forth, and seemingly through, a canvas surface. Plants, in various arrangements, populate the works. As I step into the space, the architecture of the work presents itself. The painted surfaces, at once, acknowledge their illusionistic nature by offering flat color passages and push us into masterfully modeled surreal spaces, wherein the difference between interior and exterior constructions oscillate and meld.

There are no clear protagonists within these subtle dreamscapes, no clue to privilege in any one of their quiet actors. When we are finally presented with the human form, it is that of two monochromatic grey, female sculptures, with arms outstretched in a gesture of refusal—the “No-No dance.” This term, coined by the artist, contributes to the titles of the painting and the show “From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance” joined with reference to a French garden design feature.

From The Ha-Ha Wall Comes The No-No Dance, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 65 inches

Ha-ha is a wall structure that acts as a physical separator without breaking the visual flow of the landscape. Aside from grounding the references to gardens and greenery, which abound in Ludwig Shaffer’s work, this term allows us to speak about “control” as one of the themes explored on the painted surface. Much like the Ha-Ha wall’s ability to assert a boundary while preserving a certain viewing and traversing of the landscape, many of the painted elements govern the viewer’s eye without announcing their presence. This runs the gamut from more literal renderings of walls and hedges within the painted naturescape, to utilizing the physical dimensions of the canvas to interrupt the flow of the composition. Here, meticulously-rendered realism strains against the two-dimensional surface. These compositions effuse a careful balance, presenting elements which both challenge and control one another. This facilitates a productive tension, drawing this viewer back into the painted surfaces in an attempt to discern the visual flows suggested within them.

Another aspect of the works on view that echos control and tension in an intriguing way is Ludwig Shaffer’s treatment of the female body. It is denied specific personhood and, as mentioned earlier, does not function as a protagonist of any narrative suggested in the paintings. It is an object, just like any other within the space of the composition, and in a visual culture that often both centers and objectifies its female subjects, this visual strategy provides an understated yet quite empowering alternative.

R & R & R, 2019
Acrylic on paper
22.5 x 30 inches

When preparing to write about the work, I quickly scanned through a number of historical French garden images. The most famous of these, the Gardens of Versailles, somewhat ironically bill themselves within the two-dimensional space of the webpage as, “The art of perspective.” I find this to be a really interesting point of entry into Ludwig Shaffer’s paintings due to the visual complexity of the interior and exterior spaces that she renders within her work. Although the architectural edges are carefully taped off and delivered to the viewer in a pristine semblance, the actual geometry is compromised: the viewer experiences an amalgam of possible perspective points within a single composition. This signals a very careful and intentional game played by the artist, one full of intriguing visual nuance.

Up Out In, 2019
Oil on canvas
72 x 96 inches

During the exhibition opening, I spoke briefly with Ludwig Shaffer, about possible links to Giotto paintings or perhaps Uccello: visual spaces where the technique of perspective was explored but not equally controlled over the whole of the composition by painters steeped in iconographic traditions. The artist brought up another early source of inspiration, Roman and Greek sarcophagi friezes, where the viewers encounter implied interior spaces which travel between the physicality of carved stone and the illusion of perspective. Upon further communication, Ludwig Shaffer brought up another exciting line of visual influence, Persian miniatures; illustrative works on paper that emerged in the region after the Mongol conquest in the 13th century and subsequent introduction of Chinese scroll painting tradition. Presented within album or book format, the miniatures allow for a completely different way to organize the composition that eschews standard perspective practices of Western painting. These constitute truly intriguing points of departure for the exploration of the painted surfaces, particularly in the art world that is often more concerned with referencing its own mercurial trends, than maintaining deeply-rooted dialogs with the past.

Giotto, Feast of Herod
Fresco, 1320
110 x 177 inches
[source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/giotto/feast-of-herod-1320 ]

The Spy Zambur Brings Mahiya to the City of Tawariq, Folio from a Hamzanama (Book of Hamza),ca. 1570
Attributed to Kesav Das
Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on cloth; mounted on paper
29 1/8 x 22 1/2 inches
[source: Met collection https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/447743]

 

It is important to mention, at this point, another aspect of the show, the collaboration with the Michler Family Florists and Lexington-based architect & designer Jason Scroggin, who teaches at the University of Kentucky School of Architecture. Scroggin’s studio designed and built a custom bench seat with planters, which in addition to function, complemented the show by extending the motif of architectural space. This was a feature that many a gallery visitor appreciated during the opening and one that, perhaps, suggested the potential domestic settings the paintings could go on to inhabit in their future lives.

Overall, this is a show that presents us with smart, carefully-balanced, painted constructions. They are not loud. They do not demand our attention. But if attention is given, they are like good books; reminding us how easy it is to lose oneself within tightly crafted layers full of visual games, historical allusions, tactile enjoyment, and nuance.

Emily Ludwig Shaffer: From the Ha-Ha Wall Comes the No-No Dance, runs thru June 8, 2019, at Institute 193 in Lexington.

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From Cuba to Keeneland: New Additions to the Lexington Music Scene

Green Room Exchange: Soul of Cuba

Listen to this segment from WEKU’s Eastern Standard as Lee Carroll, co-founder of the non-profit international concert series Green Room Exchange, talks with Xiomarra Laugert about her next Lexington recording session and performance. Click on image to listen.

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Railbird Festival: The Back Story

UnderMain’s Art Shechet sits down with David Helmers, local co-producer of the new Railbird Festival coming to Keeneland this summer and putting Lexington on the national festival map. Click on poster to listen.

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Why would a woman choose to walk out on her apparently perfect life? Why would she walk back in again? It’s the central question of A Doll’s House by Norway’s Henrik Ibsen. The three-act play premiered at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 21 December 1879. And it is the latest work to receive the ingenious “out-of-the-black box” treatment of the Lexington theatre company, On The Verge.

To get the details, WEKU’s Wendy Barnett sat down with director Ave Lawyer. Listen to their conversation.