Bowie’s performance as the contact-juggling villain of Labyrinth was Lugo’s only point of reference. So, when Facebook blew up with tributes to the former Ziggy Stardust, the acclaimed ceramicist was struck by the cultural divide. He doubted that his old friends from Kensington, the working-class Philadelphia neighborhood in which he spent his formative years, were beside themselves with grief either. To look at the collective mourning that spread throughout social media, you’d think Tupac had died again.
This was the seed of thought that produced “Tupac and Bowie Teapot,” one of the many unexpected, provocative pairings on display at Wexler Gallery. Whoopi Goldberg and Bernie Sanders also share a teapot. Joe Frazier and Betsy Ross too. Lugo spontaneously arrives at these juxtapositions—he often doesn’t know whose face is going to end up on his pottery until he starts painting them. The disparity between his medium and his subjects, however, ensures that a thread of incongruity runs through his work.
Lugo’s series of century vases emphasizes the contrast. The century vase dates back to the Centennial International Exposition of 1876. They are historically paneled with examples of American progress and invention: sewing machines, steamships, etc. In “All About the Benjamins,” Lugo repurposes the century vase, filling it with the Notorious B.I.G.’s face, graffiti-style lettering, and famous Hip-Hop lyrics. Benjamin Franklin is here too, but his jaw is covered with a bandana, and the Wu-Tang “W” adorns his chin.
His goal is not to fetishize urban culture for elite tastes but to bridge the gap between the hood and the burbs. “As an artist, I try to include my culture in the scheme of things,” Lugo says. “White, black, brown culture, they’re more similar than most people think. And when I look around, I see that sameness, way more than the otherness.”
Lugo currently lives in Vermont, where he teaches Ceramics at Marlboro College. Even though he couldn’t be much further from the ghetto, he pays homage to the values of his birthplace in his art. He grew up believing in the enduring power of rawness. If a work of art was too refined, it lacked honesty—it wasn’t real. The defects in a piece of pottery, say a seam crack, appealed to Lugo’s sensibilities. Likewise the scribbled patterns of clouds and crosses that decorate his work reflect this principle of rawness.
It comes as no surprise that the rapper who appears most frequently in Lugo’s art is Wu-Tang member Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Not only was ODB famous for uttering the line “Ooh baby I like it raw” (albeit in a different context), but he lived a life as unfettered and wild as his lyrics. Between taking a limo to the welfare office to collect his food stamps (while being filmed by MTV’s Cribs, no less) and rushing the stage at the 1998 Grammy Awards to proclaim “Wu-Tang is for the children,” his antics possessed an improvisational quality that rubbed some people the wrong way and struck many others as a refreshing tonic of honesty in the vanilla music scene.
Although ODB died in 2004, his anarchic spirit lives on in Lugo’s pottery.
You can find recent ceramic work by Roberto Lugo at Wexler Gallery until June 11, 2016. His assorted plates, vases, and teapots are displayed alongside paintings by fellow InLiquid member Mat Tomezsko. The artists have collaborated in the past, and their work coheres beautifully, painting a vivid picture of the urban experience.