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Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania | 118 South 36th Street
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press release

Michelle Lopez: Ballast & Barricades
September 13, 2019–May 10, 2020

The Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania, is pleased to present Ballast & Barricades, the first major institutional exhibition of Philadelphia-based artist Michelle Lopez. The exhibition will be on view at ICA September 13, 2019 through May 10, 2020.

In Ballast & Barricades Michelle Lopez employs a formal, fragmented architectural language to critique symbols of nationalism, power, and consumption. In this site-specific installation Lopez brings together a selection of recent sculptures alongside a monumental intervention in the ICA gallery that creates a suspended cityscape reduced to rubble. Blockades, borders, flags, and natural elements bleed together while remnants of construction sites and scaffolding create a delicate system of counterweights and counterbalances — all meticulously crafted by hand. For Lopez, this sculptural terrain suggests an ongoing history of bodies and violence in the absence of figuration. It is an urban landscape fabricated out of the material remains of crisis, teetering on the brink of collapse.

Lopez is recognized for her deep, investigative command of materials and for sculptural works that recast the masculinist bravado of everyday objects and pop-culture symbols through a feminist lens. Drawing on familiar works from minimalist sculpture to reorient gendered narratives of artistic practice, Lopez’s deconstruction of form also extends to the signifiers embedded within our built environment and societal structures. A tension between the handmade and industrial fabrication, and between presence and absence, runs throughout much of Lopez’s work, and it is often difficult to discern what has been created by the artist’s body and what has been produced by machine. For Lopez, this physical engagement with her materials and their alchemical properties is paramount, but equally important is the experience of the viewer who navigates her installations and interprets the many layers of cultural codes embedded within them. Her symbol system is in part connected to a process of drawing, and the artist sees all of her lines in space as having a relationship to the inky strokes she marks on paper.

In Ballast & Barricades Lopez blows up these forms and structural concepts to architectural scale, creating an impossible scaffolding system that feels at once playful and dangerous. There is trepidation when encountering her suspended and precarious frameworks, as if they could topple at any moment. Lopez bends a language of construction to her will, reveling in the malleability of her materials: wooden police barricades are softened, warped, and distorted; rope legs prop up large metal lattices; chain-link fencing is twisted by hand; and fragments of staircases and ladders ultimately lead nowhere. And while a kind of sculptural acrobatics is on display, it should also be understood as a reflection of the crumbling infrastructure in the United States, from the devastating effects of gentrification legible throughout Philadelphia’s streets, to the blockades set up to deter protestors and the fencing used to imprison human beings at our borders. For Lopez these material conditions mirror a kind of sociopolitical unraveling. And yet, within this ruinous space, the artist sees room for action. Even as these structures and structural systems are dependent on each other for their literal support, Lopez asks the viewer to suspend disbelief and to “identify spatially with the collapse, but also imagine a redemptive, strange logic out of the impossible moment.” 

Michelle Lopez (born 1970; lives Philadelphia) has been in solo and group exhibitions at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, CT; LAXART, Los Angeles; MoMA PS1, Long Island City, NY; the Public Art Fund, Metrotech Center, NY; and the Orange County Museum of Art, Santa Ana, CA. Formerly a faculty member at Yale School of Art, she now heads the Sculpture Division of the Fine Arts Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design. In 2019 she was a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Michelle Lopez: Ballast & Barricades is organized by Alex Klein, Dorothy & Stephen R. Weber (CHE’60) Curator. The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated publication, designed by Mark Owens, that will be released in 2020.

Programming support for Michelle Lopez: Ballast & Barricades has been provided by the Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, and support for the catalogue publication has been provided by the Daniel W. Dietrich II Foundation. Additional support has been provided by Linda & Jeffrey Chodorow, Carol & John Finley, Kirk Kirkpatrick, Marjorie & Michael Levine, Amanda & Andrew Megibow, B.Z. & Michael Schwartz, Meredith & Bryan Verona, and by Caroline & Daniel Werther.