[Assistant Professor of Fine Arts] Michelle Lopez pushes the boundaries of materials in a new room-sized exhibition, Ballast & Barricades, at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA).
The site-specific installation, on display until May 10, features construction-derived materials hanging from, and reaching up to, the 30-foot-high gallery ceiling. Steel pipes, chain-link fencing, wooden barricades, and bright orange ropes fill the room from top to bottom, all connected, balanced by a 1,000-pound piece of a building salvaged from a teardown in Northeast Philadelphia.
“The idea is that a fragment of a building is acting as a counterweight to support a collapsing scaffolding system,” says Lopez, an assistant professor of sculpture in Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. “Things that are rising up and things that are also collapsing.”
Ken Lum, chair of Weitzman’s fine arts program, says Lopez is “invigorating the sculpture sector” of the department “in ways that align with the most vital issues of the day, from spatial politics to object theory extending into the metalanguage of objects. Her ICA exhibition attests to her ability to process these concerns into the most exciting aesthetic experience.”
Lopez says she tries to “push the materials to do things that they’re not supposed to do,” in her sculptures. “All the material is investigated in terms of its physical limitations and cultural components: How can we do something that’s impossible so that your thinking changes about what you expect from encountering these familiar things of rope and barricade,” she says. “It’s changing the logic of the materials.”
The team working with Lopez watched as her vision came together because the work was created for the first time in its entirety during the installation. For months prior she had been building the components.
“I think we were all surprised when at the very end we held up some of her ink drawings and saw that they look very similar to what she created in the space,” says Alex Klein, the ICA’s Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber (CHE ’60) Curator. “It was really satisfying for everyone who worked on the show to see Michelle’s sketches brought to life. That was an exciting moment when it all kind of clicked into place.”
Lopez made each piece with her hands or manipulated them in some way. She embedded rope with steel rods, enabling it to support larger elements. She soaked rusted scaffolding in vinegar baths and painted one side to create “contrasting tension.” She warped wood planks to make barricades.
“I’m always thinking about how materials can embody the gesture of the body and also embody a certain kind of violence,” she says.