In Lara Lepionka’s latest project “Attention Shoppers,” the Gloucester conceptual artist turns her attentions to the staff at a Gloucester Shaw’s supermarket.
Lepionka’s art is a form of anthropology and activism. Here she photographed supermarket staffers at work – a cashier, a deli guy slicing meat, a woman rolling what could be egg rolls, a man unpacking fruit in the produce department. She carved these scenes of anonymous workers into styrofoam trays, like those used to package meats and produce. The images float in the middle of the trays, surrounded by dazzling carved patterns. The trays were then photographed, enlarged and turned into five different posters (pictured here) that she hung above the checkout lines at the supermarket.
“The carvings themselves reflect the repetitive and often unseen work of the employees,” Lepionka writes. “The intention is to recognize the work people perform and to be reminded that all work is ultimately linked to the lives of others. In this way, the art reveals and appreciates the humanity behind products and services on which we depend.”
Lepionka has seemed on the verge of something sharp for a while, and here in particular her craftsmanship is impressive (see here) and she’s spot-on in her choice of materials and exhibition site. But I wonder if the installation would be more powerful if the carvings themselves were displayed instead of poster-sized photographic reproductions (perhaps the carvings would need to be made larger). Her manual craft intentionally echoes the labors of her subjects, but in reproduction this echo gets muffled. It isn’t clear that the poster images depict carved styrofoam trays. Because of this the artworks get lost among the usual corporate boosterism of supermarkets’ look-at-our-happy-employees posters.
Lepionka’s social awareness conceptual art has been addressing the theme of how people and communities are interconnected through people’s labors for several years now. For her “Hidden Value” project in Northampton’s Pulaski Park last year, she installed barstools, desks, trash cans and faux books marked with texts taken from her interviews with five Northampton people – a waitress, college professor, trash collector, librarian and grocery store owner – and others whose lives they touched.
For her 2005 “Talking Towel” project, she had towels embroidered with responses staff and members of the Gloucester YMCA made to her surveys asking about “their feelings and thoughts on Gloucester and the work they do here and beyond.” The towels were then made part of the supply of towels loaned to Y visitors for workouts.
One of her best pieces is "Visible Links" (pictured at left, click on image to see it larger), a poster-chart she made in 2000 featuring photos of numerous people who had a hand in making or distributing a common dinnerware set, from miners to factory laborers to truck drivers in the United States, Poland, Indonesia, Caribbean and South Africa. The web of human contributions was made apparent, dozens of individual contributions were recognized, and you marveled at Lepionka’s feat of tracking everyone down.
Lara Lepionka, “Attention Shoppers,” Shaw’s Supermarket, 127 Eastern Ave., Gloucester, Aug. 26 to Sept. 30, 2007.
Related: A report on Lepionka’s “Attention Shoppers” in the Gloucester Daily Times.