Austin

Lisa Lapinski, Little My Chair #3, 2017, wood, glue, found chair. Installation view.

Lisa Lapinski, Little My Chair #3, 2017, wood, glue, found chair. Installation view.

Lisa Lapinski

Visual Arts Center, University of Texas at Austin

Lisa Lapinski’s nursery rhymes don’t even rhyme. Nevertheless, they capture many of the hallmarks of the genre—entropy, slapstick violence, sexual innuendo—carried along a stream of assonance and alliteration. Take the story of Miss Swiss. She’s a steamboat, and she’s piloted by Steve. Miss Swiss gets spooked and Steve gets splashed when another vessel comes too close. She runs aground, and a crew of men tie her down and repair the BIG HOLES IN HER SIDES. The men then come aboard and enjoy a feast of clams, and MISS SWISS IS GLAD. Typed out in a generic serif font and set in a tidy white frame, Miss Swiss, 1997–98, and Lapinski’s other nursery rhymes were the earliest pieces in “Drunk Hawking,” and they anticipated the deadpan whimsy, and the mingling of the sinister and banal, that threaded through this survey of the artist’s work. 

The multiverse of children’s literature, entertainment, and merchandizing has supplied Lapinski with a steady source of material, if sometimes only nominally deployed. Captain Hook and Snow White showed up in the titles of works that don’t depict them, but Little My, the mischievous girl from Tove Jansson’s Moomin series, 1945–93, appeared twice in the exhibition, in each case as a found child-size chair carved and painted in an effigy of the character, and both times subjected to a bit of erasure. In Little My Chair #2, 2011, Lapinski hollowed out the backrest, formed in the shape of the girl’s torso and head, and replaced it with caning, so all that remained of poor Little My, apart from her contours, were a bun at the top of the head and a pair of upturned shoes where the legs met the floor. Little My Chair #3, 2017, was similar, though here a large oval peg fit snugly in place of the girl’s face as she dangled, motionless, from a Shaker-style peg rail running along three walls in an otherwise nearly empty room.

Lest we respond with too much pathos to these cartoonish acts of abuse, or artisanal body modifications, the fate of Little My, like that of Miss Swiss before her, instead came off as casually, if obscurely, satirical. Much of the work in the show operated in this vein, as half-heard one-liners—more intriguing for being a bit garbled, the targets perhaps unclear. Even the feminist dimension that obviously informs Lapinski’s practice was expressed with cryptic wit, as in the four-foot-tall wooden hair bow Holly Hobby Lobby Bow #1, 2017. The front face of the sculpture is painted black, and its lines, apparently derived from a quilting pattern, are angular, almost pixelated. Though the bow seemed to stand on tiptoe, its posture could be taken as menacing, in a hammy kind of way. The title runs together Hobby Lobby—byword for reactionary evangelical politics, state-sanctioned misogyny, and the farce of corporate personhood—with a smudged spelling of Holly Hobbie, another character spread thin through books, a show, dolls, and the rest, who wandered out of some American idyll in a big blue bonnet. Glimpsed from behind, the pristine lineaments and pale wood spoke to a design sensibility more at home in a third-wave coffee roastery than in the budget arts-and-crafts chain store. Like much of Lapinski’s best work, the enlarged accessory dabbles in cliché and resists its own narrative, skulking away from its very referents.

Such non sequiturs of style create equivalences—between, for example, Shaker furniture and beloved intellectual property such as Little My, both of which depend on careful uniformity and endless replication, and both of which, of course, are assigned meaning by their respective demographics. Taste is a great human folly, to be sure, but there is also a simple pleasure in just watching things go awry.