An artist in the urban jungle
When I first came to New York I was surprised to find it bland. I missed the wry humour of Londoners and the outsider-ish perspective which everyone seems to have there, even those you might think of as insiders. But gradually that changed, and I realised that I just needed a way in. New York is not an easy city, but the longer I lived here, the more aware I became of its vibrancy, size and its sheer mad unruliness. Manhattan is different from what it looked like in the drug-addled seventies and eighties (which is both good and bad) — artists can’t afford to live there any more and it’s much much safer than it was. The real fascination of New York now lies in the other boroughs. In Brooklyn, you find Crown Heights, where I used to live, an African-American neighborhood peppered with artists. I moved to the immigrant borough of Queens: bits are industrially bleak, and then you happen upon communities that seem to be straight out of Pakistan, Greece or an Irish village (Queens is 28% white, 28% Latino, 23% Asian/Pacific and 18% African American, according to the noticeboard at the Communitea Cafe).
The city’s anarchic self-determination is something that fascinates many of its inhabitants, writers and artists in particular. One of the latter group is Nicola Lopez, a former neighbour of mine in Brooklyn. Her work conceptualizes the mess of urban life, and the tension between a desire for orderliness, and New York’s clambering, ever-encroaching internal chaos. To articulate these ideas, she uses cheap metals and orange latex, materials that you would normally see lying dirtily on streets or attached to building sites. In her studio a metamorphosis occurs, so that the stuff dangles from the walls and ceilings, unwieldy, irregular, but somehow thrilling and beautiful.
Lopez grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and came to New York in the nineties to study anthropology at Columbia University. After her undergrad degree she was awarded a travelling artist’s fellowship, which brought her to Mexico and then Peru. She now teaches at Bard College, and has had exhibitions in numerous galleries, including MoMA in New York. I was intrigued by the ideas that underpinned her work, and so before I moved out of my loft-share in Crown Heights, I took the opportunity to step across the pathway connecting our roof to hers to chat to her.
As we spoke, her hands were moving carefully and laboriously, snipping a scissors endlessly at a sheet of latex (“danger-fencing”). “You’ve seen it at construction sites,” she said. “I love it! It’s kind of gross, it feels like skin or something. It’s very human — it’s kind of membraney, it’s a little big fragile, like tissue of some sort.”
It is the material’s soft, skin-like texture that connects it with the people who walk past it daily. “It functions on a lot of different levels,” Lopez goes on. “It’s ubiquitous. It’s tremendously practical but also junky. You see it crumpled on the sidewalk all of the time. It gets torn, it hangs off of construction sites, or wedged into garbage. It feels like an urban tumbleweed of some sort.”
This almost magical, multifunctional orange matter is a subnarrative of the story that preoccupies Lopez: how the city functions and how administrators’ well-intentioned dreams of city planning are displaced and overrun by reality. “Part of the city grows up and evolves in a much more organic way that’s not part of the urban plan. We build our own little holes in it and it ends up being a system that has its own life cycle, kind of like a living organism.”
Lopez has also spent a lot of time in Mexico City, whose self-image contains an awareness of what some might euphemistically call impromptu developments — slums and squats, which she describes as “inventive responses to finding space.” Her work on New York celebrates the inherent turmoil of a city, whose notions of itself are, she thinks, a little cleaner than they ought to be.
She’s not arguing in defence of garbage, of course. “I’m not lobbying for leaving the trash all over the place. I quite like it when the street is clean. It’s more — hey, this is is what it is. It’s kind of cool! Kind of messed up, kind of fucked up. Kind of scary. And kind of beautiful.”
Her undergraduate studies inform her work, but only in a non-explicit sort of way. “I generally don’t think of my work as directly anthropological, but I have been thinking about it lately,” she explains, “because I feel as though recently there is an archaeological aspect to it. I feel as though I’m looking around and salvaging, kind of preserving little moments of something that only an anthropologist or archaeologist would be very interested in — details of a larger system or landscape that tell a lot about the rest of the society around us.”
Like monstrous insects, Lopez’s constructions loom from the ceiling with personalities of their own, as if determined not to make sense to any viewer. They can look sinister and threatening, and Lopez says that they do have a dark edge. “I have deep concerns for the way that we’re constructing our world these days. I don’t think that it’s sustainable on almost any level, and I think that there are a lot of really hard times that we’re probably headed for. But it’s an observation as much as it is a prescription for what should be done. Again, it’s horrible and horrific, and kind of amazing and wondrous.”