Lucy Puls hasn’t had a solo show in Sacramento in nearly 30 years. That makes her current exhibition of 40 works from 1987 to 2015 at Verge Center for the Arts something of an occasion. Puls, who has been an influential teacher at the University of California, Davis, since 1985, has shown widely in the Bay Area and across the United States as well as in Canada and Italy.
As Verge’s founding director. Liv Moe, who studied with Puls as an undergraduate at UCD, writes, “For the past three decades, Lucy Puls has been turning unwanted objects and photos of abandoned domestic environs into insignias of the consumer world.”
In her exhibition catalog essay, curator Dena Beard elaborates, describing Puls’ initial fascination with thrift-shop castoffs and subsequent exploration of foreclosed houses during the recent recession. The bursting of the housing bubble left empty houses with abandoned furniture on the streets, prompting Puls to push her work further both in terms of subject matter and form.
The earliest pieces in the show seem charmingly accessible and not very demanding. A stack of someone’s castoff diet and exercise books is worth a laugh, as is a stack of 45 records with Olivia Newton John’s “Physical” on top. Both pieces and a resin-coated crocheted blanket, denoting the abandonment of comfort, perhaps, are from 1999.
Darker and more premonitory of the later work is “Notae (Funk and Wagnalls Standard)” from 2003, a dictionary opened to the pronunciation key with handwritten notes saying “paraplegic,” “psychiatric” and “Vietnam” suggesting a grim narrative.
Predictive of more recent works is 1987’s “Equate,” a formal, minimalist free-standing sculpture made of angled steel that’s attached to a tall ladder-like structure of fiberglass and wood. It is placed near several wall pieces that combine photos of grungy interiors of abandoned homes and geometric metallic elements. The combination of depressing imagery with often lush color and strict geometry adds up to compelling formal works with narrative subtexts.
A large proportion of the show consists of floor sculptures that combine found objects – a hanging lamp, a television casing, a stainless steel sink and a phone charger, for example – with fool-the-eye elements made of photographs, paper and metal.
These are problematic works – ugly, poverty-suggestive items left lying on the floor. “Recinere (Cell Phone)” is a pile of old clothes strewn carelessly on the floor with a cellphone charger. Yet they can be elegant too as is “Recinere (Hanging Lamp)” and complex as is “Recinere (Speakers).”
Oddly beautiful is “Ad Hunc Locum (Plastic Dinnerware),” a tower of stacked cardboard boxes, sheathed by a diaphanous cloth and set with Melmac plates and cups in 1950s colors. It’s both witty and moving.
Similar yet blatantly humorous and pathetic at the same time is “Ad Hunc Locum (Puppies),” in which puppy figurines have been dissected. It’s a comment, says Moe, on the Jeff Koons puppy piece that caused him to be sued for plagiarism.
“Ad Hunc Locum (Plums)” is a moving piece that involves what might be a medicine chest, though its shelves bear labels saying “oil” and “vinegar.” Inside the cabinets, which again are draped with sheer fabric imprinted with an image of a mattress and a small backyard, are dried plums – dark, desiccated, once-juicy fruits.
I was put off at first by Puls’ use of Latin titles, which struck me as a bit pompous. But the dictionary piece reminds us that Puls is interested in language and its connotative possibilities. In “Geometria Concretus (12-09),” for example, she gives us a grungy carpet from an abandoned home broken by a cool, geometric shape, an example of impoverished concreteness and mathematical perfection.