2017-06-06 17:31:03
A ‘Fauxdega’ Where the Real Ones Have Been Priced Out

Today’s public art demands research. You don’t show in an old sugar factory without studying plantation labor. You don’t install in an abandoned prison without reading up on inmates’ lives. When the British artist Lucy Sparrow was preparing for her first New York installation, “8 ’Till Late,” a mock convenience store which just opened in a storefront beside the Standard, High Line hotel in New York, she spent days exploring how the American version of Spam came in such un-British flavors as “teriyaki” and “hickory smoke”; how corner stores in the United States sell hot dogs and pizza as well as groceries; how such groceries do not include Marmite and Digestive biscuits.

That’s because Ms. Sparrow’s artistic m.o., now all of three years old, consists of taking a small retail store and duplicating its every item in felt. In London, she’s done a felted corner store, a felted sex shop and also an outlet selling felt versions of high-powered guns. (That was her invention; such places don’t yet exist in Britain.) For New York, Ms. Sparrow said she flew in about nine tons of faux goods, including dozens of cigarette packs — Marlboros, Pall Malls and other American brands — all sewn from colored felt; shelf after shelf of Doritos, also in felt; actual soda coolers and store shelves with felt covering every surface.

“I’ve always been fascinated by things made out of materials that they’re not,” Ms. Sparrow, 30, explained last week, as she stood surrounded by precisely such things. Her artistic bodega — her fauxdega — fills a street-side space lent to her by the Standard. It faces the last stretch of working meatpackers left in New York’s trendy meatpacking district; it sits cater-corner to Hector’s Cafe & Diner, the last of the neighborhood’s old-school coffee shops.

Ms. Sparrow said that “8 ’Till Late” is about such threatened establishments — about “communities being lost as neighborhoods are transformed.” By installing a felted bodega where most real ones have been priced out, she can share “this alternate reality that is this preferred version of real life.”

She has put that alternate reality within easy reach: A felt cigarette pack costs all of $20, a box of candy is $35. (Or an art-collecting member of the one percent can buy the whole “store” for the bargain price of $500,000 — food stamps not accepted.)

In New York, Ms. Sparrow’s art brings to mind the overshadowing precedent of Claes Oldenburg’s installation “The Store,” from 1961, when the Pop artist sold papier-mâché groceries out of a storefront on the impoverished Lower East Side. But where Mr. Oldenburg’s mock shop was celebrating working-class culture in its natural habitat, Ms. Sparrow’s casts a nostalgic eye back at a disappearing institution while swimming in a world of high-end retail and its clients.

It’s not obvious that Ms. Sparrow’s cuddly comment on gentrification can have much bite when its lead sponsor is the Standard, arguably the neighborhood’s foremost gentrifier. In a telephone interview, Kevin Rockey, managing director of the hotel, said that Ms. Sparrow’s crowd-friendly art meshes perfectly with the hotel’s brand, and with its outreach to the widest public and clientele — “accessible,” “quirky” and “fun” were his words for her creation.

But maybe Mr. Rockey should take a closer look at the artist installing beside his hotel. At first, Ms. Sparrow comes across as cutesy: She’s rake-thin, with lank hair dyed purple-brown and oversize kitten glasses; she wears tiny short-shorts over black tights, below a T-shirt printed with a cancan dancer’s corset. But her short sleeves reveal pale arms covered in rows of fine scars, evidence of “cutting” to anyone who knows the signs. Ms. Sparrow’s not ashamed of the harm she used to do herself, as a teenager who was “seriously mentally ill,” as she put it, and who then spent several years undressing before strange men in clubs. (That’s also not a source of shame: Lap dancing paid much better than selling groceries, as she’d previously done.) Ms. Sparrow has since found salvation in a manic art practice that until recently had her sewing every one of her objects herself. She still insists on hand-painting the lettering on every felt loaf of Wonder Bread or box of Bisquick.

Such compulsion, and the suppressed anxiety it suggests, is palpable in the 9,000 objects Ms. Sparrow has brought to New York. In its sheer mass and multiplicity, her endless stuffed art holds a mirror up to the frantic state of buying imposed by our consumer culture — and by today’s art culture as well. Wouldn’t an anthropologist from Mars see something mad in a society that replaces stores where you can buy food and soap with the kind that sell designer sunglasses and porcelain balloon dogs? Symbolically, at least, Ms. Sparrow is restoring the balance.