By Marc H. Miller
Francine Keery (photographer), Christy Rupp with her plaster rats at the Times Square Show, 1980.
Rupp’s rat poster placed near a pile of garbage during the NYC sanitation workers strike, 1979
Christy Rupp achieved early fame with her art when a street poster she created became the focus of widespread media attention in 1979 during a contentious, three-week strike by NYC sanitation workers. Animal behavior being the principal subject of Rupp’s art, her eye-grabbing poster featured a rat on the prowl. As the garbage began to pile up in the streets, Rupp began placing her poster in the places where rats were claiming new territory. One such spot, just down the street from her loft in the financial district, became a magnet for the press when witnesses reported that a woman had been attacked there by a pack of rats. Rupp’s posters placed before the incident, provided news photographers with a provocative visual, and when reporters discovered the articulate and photogenic artist who kept a small collection of domestic mice and rats as part of her study of animal behavior, Rupp herself became the focus of their stories.
For a short period following the garbage strike, rats were the main subject of Rupp’s art. In addition to posters, she made small plaster sculptures of rats, which she placed in the street amidst piles of garbage. The imagery fit in well with the profusion of street art found in downtown New York in the years around 1980, a period when the city was near collapse, and an anarchical spirit prevailed among the young artists living in the ruins. Rupp placed her posters not only in locations connected with the habitat of rats, but also in places of commercial and political power like the walls of banks and the steps of City Hall. In this context the rats alluded not only to an ecosystem out of balance but also served as a metaphor for a predatory social system and a world in decay.
Much of Rupp’s art was connected with Collaborative Projects Inc. (COLAB), a loosely organized group that experimented with new ways of linking art with real-life issues and everyday people. Her street posters and rat sculptures corresponded with the group’s philosophy, as did her work as an artist-in-residence in the Animal Behavior Department at the American Museum of Natural History. Art as a means of education lay at the heart of Animals Living in Cities, a group exhibition she organized for two art spaces connected to COLAB — Fashion Moda in the South Bronx (1979), and ABC No Rio in the Lower East Side (1980). In summer of 1980, Rupp was a conspicuous presence in the Times Square Show, a highly publicized exhibition organized by COLAB in a former Times Square massage parlor. Her rat posters lined the stairway, and the gift shop featured her multiples of plaster rats and silkscreened T-shirts with rats.
In the late 1970s Christy Rupp established herself as one of the first artists concerned with urban ecology. She has continued making art inspired by economics and habitat. Rupp has received critical praise for a series of sculptures of “extinct birds” made out of fast food chicken bones, and recently she has been creating fake ivory, tortoise shell, and wampum as a way to make sense of value and scarcity in the current Anthropocene age.