Now on View: Lucien Shapiro

Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions

I, like the rest of the world, am eagerly awaiting the release of the film of the year: Greta Gerwig’s live-action Barbie. From an art (and fashion) lover’s perspective, the hand-painted sets, meticulous miniatures, and over the top campy costumes make me as giddy as a 9-year old. Ryan Gosling in neon roller-skates isn’t too bad, either.

Lucien Shapiro, American, b. 1979. The Raven. Mixed media and found objects applied to a mannequin, 2017. Museum purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund, 2019.05. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

Perhaps it may be the Barbie fever, but walking into our new exhibition, Transformed Spaces: Art Beyond the Frame, I was immediately struck by the beauty and doll-like quality of Lucien Shapiro’s The Raven. While comparing this eerie agent of darkness to the world’s most famous “girl” toy may seem like a stretch, both explore how dress can transform individuals. Barbie, whose outfit changes signal her ability to become or do anything, mirrors the artist’s role in the adjoining installation video as he dons the Raven outfit to transform into a powerful creature. Also, if you’re like me and enjoyed hand-making (or, more accurately, cobbling) outfits for your dolls, Shapiro’s piece has a down-to-earth DIY flare. The threads of hot glue, bottlecaps, and crushed bits of broken, industrial glass used as decorative jewels could rival Barbie’s plastic ones any day.

Beyond Barbie, Shapiro creates ritualistic installations that are in many ways the antithesis to this favorite doll’s pep and unapologetic commercialism. From his beginning constructing ritualistic ensembles using discarded objects to a strange and sad (yet comforting) COVID commercial with the vegan Los Angeles burger joint Burgerlords, Lucien Shapiro explores deeply human concerns. Beyond the ephemeral consumerism that surrounds fashion and everyday objects (Barbie included), Shapiro’s sculptures aim for sincerity, both emotionally and artistically. The subject of his work often draws from personal trauma and grief. By attempting to visually grapple with his struggles, Shapiro hopes to aid others in their human battles.

There’s a lot to unpack in The Raven. Looking at the sculpture from the bottom up, a figure stands on a pile of what the artist calls “street diamonds”, bits of broken glass from car vandalisms that Shapiro swept off the street [1]. Studded black boots are followed by a pair of black skinny jeans, a black t-shirt, and topped with an encrusted leather motorcycle jacket—the classic look of the provocative “punk” aesthetic, which arose in Britain as an anti-establishment middle finger in the late 1970s. Bottle caps, pop tops, coins, chains, barbed wire, and more studs and street diamonds are incorporated as embellishments. Suspended from the jacket are even more sparkling trinkets, a furthering of the punk DIY aesthetic or a reference to the Amerindian practice of displaying battle trophies (or both!). These objects include glittering black bolas, a South American Indian weapon primarily used for hunting, a spiked mace, a screwdriver, and even a bone. Dripping fingers covered in glass shards add an ominous and fantastical sense. The sculpture culminates in an impressive headpiece consisting of long black feathers and a mass of crushed glass jewels. Its scale and amorphous shape mask the wearer’s identity entirely, elevating the ensemble from secular to spiritual.

Still of The Raven costume from Thank You Darkness, Thank you Light. The shape of the raven “beak” is much more apparent. Lucien Shapiro, American, b. 1979. Projected video, 2017-2018. Museum purchase with funds provided by the June E. Enoch Collection Fund. Photo courtesy of the FWMoA.

To understand this work, it is perhaps best to see it within the context for which it was made. This costume is one of the many looks from Shapiro’s video installation Thank You Darkness, Thank You Light. In the film, the artist goes through a ritualistic ceremony in which he turns himself into two dark alter egos: Recluse and Raven. In one scene, Raven performs a quick fighting demonstration interspersed with footage of an actual flying raven. The compilation calls to mind tribal ceremonial practices, found in Native American and African cultures, where a dance would imbue the participant with the traits of the animal being honored or channel an animal as a spiritual medium [2]. In its appearance as well, there are several connections between indigenous dress and The Raven: the Pacific Northwestern Tlingit Raven mask, often featuring cedar bark “feathers”; the covered faces and radiating headdresses of the White Mountain Apache Crown dancers; African animal headdresses, which often obscure the entire human face; and the silver beaded opulence of the North African Berber people.

During this sacred dance, four dancers wear black masks to represent those that make poor decisions and one wears a white mask to represent the one sent down from heaven for guidance, for a total of five dancers. The crowns they wear symbolize deer, and are considered a medicine helping to cure the tribe. Matika Wilbur, Native American, Swinomish and Tulalip Tribes, b. 1984. White Mountain Apache Crown Dancers. Photogravure, 2017. Museum purchase, 2018.83. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

While these associations could be deemed problematic, Shapiro’s modern punk aesthetic helps take his work beyond cultural appropriation by a white, non-native maker. Rather than directly replicate indigenous garments, Shapiro combines an assortment of characteristics vaguely reminiscent of traditional objects with fantasy elements to build his own unique, immersive world. Natural materials are replaced with the plentiful objects of today— wrappers, bottlecaps, and broken glass, the abundant remnants of consumerism. In another perspective, rather than early jewels or metals, perhaps these baubles have become most precious to us (they are, in fact, still shiny). The combination of ritualistic practices like ceremonial dress and dancing within an urban environment re-contextualizes spirituality to address the problems of today.

Shapiro states that this media and sculptural installation explores the psychology of self. Shot to help the artist process his personal ideology, this piece is a vulnerable display of his experiences with change, growth, and depression. Amidst the darkness, he also grapples with the positive human experiences of forgiveness, love, and happiness, or light. The work speaks to the enduring power of performance and costume, whether found in sacred rites or a child’s plaything; while varying in gravity, all remain important facets of the human experience.

[1] The artist jokingly notes that he has been nicknamed “the raccoon” because of his never-ending hunt for sparkling bits on every street corner.

[2] I am by no means claiming to be an expert in this subject, as indigenous practices are immensely varied, but a few examples include the buffalo masks of the Bwa and Baoulé people of Western Africa, used to symbolize strength and protection, and the Eagle dance of the Pueblo and Iroquois, which is used to ask for rain. The eagle is believed to carry messages to the Gods.

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