Victoria-based Lucy Pullen first made her mark in the mid-1990s while living in Halifax, where she completed her BFA at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design (1993).  In 1999 she enrolled in the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and received her MFA in 2001.  Currently, she teaches at the University of Victoria. Pullen’s work takes in a broad sweep, from conventional sculpture (Wooden Standing Construction/Ashhole, 2003) to conceptual pieces such as 2500 Superballs (1997). What binds it together is a desire to activate the spectator’s imagination by disrupting the reception of the art object ‘as such.’ Pullen likes to play with us, breaking down our familiarized response to art by evoking feelings of surprise, delight, puzzlement, amazement and so on.  Preoccupied with changing the points of reference that box art in as art, she calls attention to the artistic potential within everyday experience.  This is a familiar trope in contemporary art, but it has rarely been pursued with such tenacity.

 

Hole (2009)

Ash and scotchlite, 38" x 36" 18" hanging

edition of 10

 

 
   

 

Public interventions are a time-honoured means of fusing art and the everyday, and this is how she first gained the attention of a wider public.  Her inspiration came from artist Sandy Plotnikoff. In 1994 Plotnikoff set off a minor firestorm in Kelowna, British Columbia by intervening in an annual radio-sponsored Easter egg hunt for children. The night before, he scattered ten thousand dumpster-dived buns, each stamped “bun, bun”, in the park where the Easter egg hunt was to take place.  Coverage in the local media about the unknown “Bun Wacko” was picked up by regional newspapers and spread across North America. (1) Responding to the scandal in Halifax, Pullen gave his provocation strategy an added twist.  She baked sugar-coated cookies spelling out Words, packaged them in boxes (complete with fake bar-codes) advertising them as Sobey-brand cookies, and planted the boxes in five local supermarkets.  The first attempt by a cashier to scan a box revealed the commercial cookie hoax. The police and heath authorities were called in, the local media came along, and the cookies became a major news story. Public interventions are a time-honoured means of fusing art and the everyday, and this is how she first gained the attention of a wider public.  Her inspiration came from artist Sandy Plotnikoff. In 1994 Plotnikoff set off a minor firestorm in Kelowna, British Columbia by intervening in an annual radio-sponsored Easter egg hunt for children. The night before, he scattered ten thousand dumpster-dived buns, each stamped “bun, bun”, in the park where the Easter egg hunt was to take place.  Coverage in the local media about the unknown “Bun Wacko” was picked up by regional newspapers and spread across North America. (1)

 

Bun Bun (1994)

Media representation of intervention; silkscreen, rolls

Sandy Plotnikoff

edition of 500

 

 

   

 

Responding to the scandal in Halifax, Pullen gave his provocation strategy an added twist.  She baked sugar-coated cookies spelling out Words, packaged them in boxes (complete with fake bar-codes) advertising them as Sobey-brand cookies, and planted the boxes in five local supermarkets. The first attempt by a cashier to scan a box revealed the commercial cookie hoax. The police and heath authorities were called in, the local media came along, and the cookies became a major news story. At first glance Pullen’s action resembles Poltnikoff’s, but it had an added edge that belies any easy equation between the two.  Poltnikoff’s method was off-putting and aggressive: the idea that it could be just as exciting for children to search for dirty, uneatable buns as chocolate Easter eggs was lost on the citizens of Kelowna.  Pullen, on the other hand, called state-regulated marketing practices into question by transforming art--literally--into a friendly, down-home food item.  In this way she deftly fused art with the everyday in Halifax by calling attention to the multiple layering of life’s capitalization in the local supermarket. Why not bake your own cookies rather than buy them?  Why are homemade cookies a health-hazard as opposed to mass-marketed machine-produced cookies?  Who owns brand names anyway?  When you think about it, there was a lot going on here. In sum, she combined sharply-focused social criticism with a light-handed touch.  Words created a situation that raised serious questions, but she did so in a fun way by drawing the public into a critical dialogue with baked goods rather than pummeling them with a moralizing political harangue.

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Eat Your Words (1994)

Media representation of intervention; sugar, butter, flour, salt, trays, cellpphane & barcode

Lucy Pullen

edition of 50

 

 
     
   
   

 

A similar strategy undergirded her most sensational sculpture of the mid-90s, One of the People in this Room will be a Sucker (1995), exhibited in a solo show at Halifax’s Eye Level Gallery. Again, the literal and metaphorical consumption of art invited a range of critical reflections from the public at large.  Sucker was a life-cast of the artist in candy-apple rock candy.  Rock candy is made to be licked (or sucked), but licking would “damage” the art work. The gallery-goers were offered a choice: they could passively refuse to ‘consume’ the art work or they could participate in it’s destruction by breaking with gallery decorum and licking it. Either way complicity in it’s demise was already ensured, because Sucker could not survive the climate of the gallery in which it stood.  By the end of two weeks it was buckling and collapsing into a pool of sticky red syrup. Casting herself as a sculpture, Pullen transgressed the restrictions at play in traditional art-making for the conventional gallery setting.  When you encounter sculpture in an art gallery you are expected to view it, not alter it.  The public who accept these conditions are ensnared in a relationship to art that is not of their making; and they are powerless to transcend their role as spectators. The auto-destruction of Sucker, however, undermined this suspension of agency by ‘performing’ it’s own escape from the restrictive nexus.  If, indeed, there were “suckers” lurking in the exhibition hall, then every time one of them licked the art work he or she was also displacing the culturally-mediated experience of ‘art appreciation’ in favour of a pleasurable one of their own making.  And in so doing they contributed to the intentions of the artist by hastening, literally, Sucker’s evolution from a Hard Rock Candy sculpture to a sticky pool of goo. Of late Pullen has retreated from the social issues raised by her earlier productions, but she remains committed to exploring relationships between the spectator and the art work.  Her projects are now perceptual-based and, for the most part, firmly rooted in the gallery environment.  Pullen has taken to wrapping objects in highly reflective cloth and exhibiting them under conditions in which the brightness of the reflected light overwhelms the art work’s physical presence. The play of light induces a ‘flux’ between materialization and dematerialization, depending on where the viewer stands in relation to art.  Moving around The Thing (2003), a thick mass of rope covered in reflected cloth, you are dazzled by light miraculously ‘emanating’ from a source that cannot be pinpointed.  But the light is neither steady nor constant.  Spectators quickly discover that they are in control: depending on where one stands, the construction either glows eerily or fades back into an ordinary tangle of rope.  The Thing is fun to experience and that seems to be the main point.

 

Swing (2014)

scotchlite over rope, 18" x 3/4" inches

second edition

 
   

 

Thus far Pullen has wrapped buttons, a dress, books, a rope swing, arm rests, and ladders in this luminescent material. And she has also exhibited photographs of these objects dissolving into a glowing auratic light–a pun, Pullen informs us, on Marxist theorist Walter Benjamin’s famous thesis concerning the loss of art’s “aura”–it’s authenticity–when it is mechanically replicated.2 More to the point, the magical transformation of everyday objects recorded in the photographs recalls the wonder of childhood discoveries, when the mundane was new and exciting.  Pullen is the anti-thesis of the cynical, know-it-all artist.  She wants to lighten our spirits and sends us off on explorations of our own.

 

Wooden Standing Construction (2005)

Ash and pencil, 38" x 36" 18" standing

edition of 10

 
   

 

And then, there is sheer artistry.  Pullen has created beautiful line drawings in permanent ink on sheets of foil (Double-Meandering Line Drawing, 2002) and delicately poised sculptures (Wooden Standing Sculpture, 2003)  composed of Ash slats steam-warped into the shape of an infinite möbius.  Exhibited together, the trace of lines on foil suggests a rhythm which the sculptures appear to echo as they expand the play of line in space, continuing the graphic gestures on and on. And what of Pullen?  Each Wooden Standing Sculpture balances on a pencil.  Her ‘presence,’ it seems, has come down to this, the most humble tool in an artist’s arsenal.  

 

Allan Antliff

Canadian Art, Vol. 21 No.4, 2004

 

Jenifer Papraro,  Supercollaborators: The Collaborative Work of Sandy Plotnikoff and Lucy Pullen,” Mix 26.3 (2000-2001): 40-43.

(2) Julia Dault, “All that Remains is Light, National Post May 20, 2004 <www.iamthevariable.com/writing/allthatremainsislight>

 

 

 

 

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