Food could hardly be more central to our existence, and yet the past pandemic year has revealed it to be even more prominent — and the systems that bring it to us more fragile — than most of us realized. When stay-at-home orders shuttered restaurants overnight and separated us from so many of the friends and family we used to eat with, the daily business of buying, preparing and eating meals demanded our attention as never before.

“Rogue Intensities,” a new solo show by Lori Larusso at Quappi Projects, includes nearly 20 paintings that examine our relationships with food and animals in all their political, economic, cultural and emotional complexities. With bright colors and a flat, graphic style, Larusso’s works employ a pop-art vocabulary that belies their darker assessment of American food culture. Their playfully satirical power often derives from the juxtaposition of objects — an alligator grinning as it floats aboard an alligator-shaped pool raft, for example — or in wry titles like I’m Sorry if You Think I Have Ownership Over Your Leftovers.

Natalie Weis

Lori Larusso, I’m Sorry If You Think I Have Ownership Over Your Leftovers, 2020, acrylic on three panels

“I think the humor in her work is one of its strengths,” observed Quappi Projects gallerist and curator John Brooks. “It draws you in with a kind of cuteness. But then when you start looking at it and realizing what she’s doing and what she’s saying and the issues she’s addressing, there’s nothing cute about it. It’s really smart, really clever, and it’s witty. There’s biting social commentary.”

Early in her career, Larusso said, she avoided food imagery in her work because she was afraid she wouldn’t be taken seriously. Then, shortly after completing her MFA at Maryland Institute College of Art, the artist started painting a series of birthday cakes and thinking about the fragility of memory and the rituals of growing up. “From there, it slowly seeped into my work,” she said, “and for the past few years I’ve just been going with it. There is some humor to it. But if someone can’t see more than just a slice of pizza — well, it’s up to the viewer to really take the time with the work if they want to.”

Indeed, the more time one spends with Larusso’s work, the more nuance and ambiguity it seems to evoke. In Mutton, a red velvet cake is sculpted into the shape of a lamb and decorated with shredded coconut “fur” and jelly bean “eyes.” Seated on a white ceramic platter, our beloved barnyard companion seems blissfully oblivious to the large slice that has been removed from its hindquarters and is now resting on an adjacent dessert plate, awaiting its celebratory consumption. 

Natalie Weis

Lori Larusso, Mutton, 2021, acrylic on two panels

Questions begin to form: Why does this bloody act feel more grotesque when presented in cake form, and why does the “cuteness” ascribed to certain animals make the eating of their meat more repulsive to some? How can others turn away in disgust at certain cultures’ ritual slaughter of animals while largely ignoring the cruelties of the industrial animal production and slaughter?

“There’s a lot going on,” Brooks remarked. “There are ideas about class and gender and, I think, agency. When she starts bringing in the animals particularly, you start thinking about those things. For example, the eagle is a symbol of freedom and majesty in this country, but we assign that to it. We claim it, and it’s almost like a disregard for the animals’ agency, its individuality, its own life.”

Natalie Weis

Lori Larusso, Take Out_Stay In 2020-21, acrylic on four panels

Still, Larusso’s work seems to prefer posing questions rather than assigning definitive answers, reveling in the realm of uncertainty and inconsistency. Take Out/Stay In depicts plastic takeout bags printed with optimistic yellow smiles and red “THANK YOU”s of gratitude alongside disposable utensils and condiment packets — mainstays of American fast food visual culture that became even more ubiquitous during the pandemic. The bags are alternately bursting with delicious sustenance and billowing in the breeze as post-prandial detritus; they are toxic trash and wasteful packaging at the same time they are symbols of households rushing to support beloved restaurants and aid service industry workers in a time of crisis. In Larusso’s world, nothing is as simple as it first appears.

Part of that, the artist said, is the idea of cognitive dissonance — “this idea that we can hold two opposing views at the same time as an individual person. That makes perfect sense to me. We’re complicated humans. Something can be wonderful and terrible at the same time; it can be funny and sad at the same time. I think that’s part of being human.”

But it’s only in the process of making the work, Larusso said, that she is able to develop her ideas about a particular subject. “I don’t always know exactly what the work is about until I’ve finished it and moved on to the next body of work. I think that making the work is part of the way I process my thoughts about the world. I do a lot of sketching, and I have sketchbooks I carry around with me and draw from my surroundings — my dogs, my refrigerator, things like that in my home.”

The humble refrigerator takes a star turn in 1175 Castlevale Drive apt 2: its off-white doors the canvas for souvenir magnets, take-out menus and postcards; its top-freezer the pedestal for a small microwave, a plastic tub of dog biscuits, a houseplant and a roll of paper towels — artifacts of our quotidian kitchen routines. And its contents, we can imagine, are neither the luxurious indulgences of the restaurant gourmand nor the organic superfoods promoted by a trillion-dollar wellness industry, but rather something in between — restaurant leftovers and frozen lasagnas next to containers of almond milk and miso, perhaps, or Kraft cheese singles stacked atop meat-free Beyond Burgers. In other words, the mixed-up melange of things that feed our strange, delicious, messy and wildly contradictory existence — all the stuff that, for better or worse, sustains us.

Lori Larusso, “Rogue Intensities” is on view at Quappi Projects until June 12, 2021. quappiprojects.com

Support for this story was provided in part by the Great Meadows Foundation.