The latest from UK-based artist Lucy Sparrow, who variously charmed and irritated New York City in 2017 with her entirely felt-rendered bodega called 8 ‘Till Late, has opened in Rockefeller Center. Sparrow will be staging an extended-play version of her felt bodega, courtesy of the Art Production Fund, in the form of a fully-stocked felt deli, Delicatessen on 6th, brimming with felt produce, baked goods, seafood, and butcher fare. Among its fare are some 30,000 hand-crafted pieces, all wearing happy little faces and for sale at per-piece rates as low as $5. The surface appeal of Sparrow’s work is obvious, and her indefatigable production efforts capable of producing an army of cuteness too powerful to resist — but her work also contains embedded challenges about personal agency in the face of consumerism. It likewise manages to successfully rescue both handcraft and cuteness from the dustbin of marginalization to which many aesthetics and practices of (young) women are often relegated.
In his book, The Power of Cute (2019, Princeton University Press), author Simon May identifies cuteness as a profound and powerful aesthetic for our postmodern times, but one that has roots in the fundament of human culture. In the chapter “Cute as an Uncertainty Principle,” May begins with Ovid’s telling of the story of Hermaphroditus, identifying within it a depiction of Cute that speaks of “a tortured, helpless, and indeterminate state of being — of timeless human fascination with the transgressive-uncanny.” Later in the chapter, May continues: “Cute is, among other things, a new expression of an ancient sensibility, namely the monstrous; a contemporary way of giving voice to the ancient trope of the monstrous hybrid.”
In the case of our current late-capitalist state, the monster in the room is inarguably (over)consumption, and Sparrow’s coalition of cheery little food faces triggers a visceral desire to consume in all but the most stoic (read: joyless) of viewers. Some art touches our mind, some stirs our emotions, but Sparrow’s work falls within the category that evokes a tactile response — a desire to pick up, to hold, perhaps even to grab with both hands and stuff into our mouth, inedibility notwithstanding. May cites the excellent Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (2015, Harvard University Press), by author and University of Chicago professor Sianne Ngai, which associates cuteness with “the ideological consolidation of the middle class home as a feminized space supposedly organized primarily around commodities and consumption,” defining cuteness as “an adoration of the commodity.” This is a sensibility that pertains powerfully to Sparrow’s work, particularly cited within New York City’s Rockefeller Center — a landmark of both historic industrial wealth and contemporary media capital. That her chosen subject is often the replication of comestibles and objects that are otherwise literally consumed greatly amplifies the desire for a kind of intimacy with the artwork. She also seems to find a point of creative resonance between luxury food and her desire to replicate it as art.
“Luxury food isn’t something I know much about because I’m not a foodie or anything like that,” Sparrow told artnet News at the exhibition press preview. “But New York is one of those cities where you’ve got these very high-end delis where food has become as much of an art as art.”
In chapter 1 of Our Aesthetic Categories, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Ngai has much to say about what Jacques Ranciére calls the “sleep-filled life of consumption” and the major role that such “minor” aesthetics as cuteness play in its promotion. The tension of cuteness, as Ngai has it, is that it presents an impression of powerlessness, while acutely manipulating the viewer. In biology, cuteness is the purview of babies, puppies, and any other dependent creature, which leverages its endearing helplessness to receive attention. This concept is a common trope of 20th-century advertising, as catalogued, for example, in the Flickr group “Happy Ham” — which chronicles ads that feature a creature joyfully promoting its own consumption (for example, a cartoon pig as the mascot to a sausage company). Putting a happy face on the food — as Sparrow has literally done in thousands of cases — dismantles some of the horror we might otherwise feel from our habits of consumption. We want to possess the thing (in regards to Sparrow’s plushes, quite literally, someone please buy me those things), but once we do, we are complicit in it.
Delicatessen on 6th by Lucy Sparrow opened October 1, and runs through Oct. 20, from 11 am – 8 pm, seven days a week, at Rockefeller Center (6th Avenue between 49th & 50th Streets). The installation was organized by Art Production Fund.