Supermarket Self-Care in the Age of Anxiety, By Bridget A. Purcell

Supermarket Self-Care in the Age of Anxiety, By Bridget A. Purcell
An Essay on New Works by Chelsea Tinklenberg

Cabbages on wheels and suspended from cables, vegetables unearthed from a white pedestal, or dripping from a faucet, frozen in time and space in all manner of impossible relationships. These are just a few of the unusual juxtapositions created in four new works by artist Chelsea Tinklenberg. Vegetables are recurring characters in these works, appearing as both found and cast objects in visual assemblages, intermixed with functional household items. Tinklenberg’s visual vocabulary is a familiar one, pulling objects from the shelves of grocery stores, hardware stores, and junkyards. She combines raw materials and metal hardware with delicate ceramic work and careful craftsmanship, setting up her objects in situations that are tense but also absurd, inviting her viewer to try to make sense of it all, or just to laugh.

Tinklenberg’s cabbages are attractive formal objects that serve as a motif throughout her works. They are a reference to something living, but also genderless, wordless actors interacting on a nonsensical performative stage. The colors in Tinklenberg’s works are found colors, inspired by the vegetables themselves or in the metal and hardware used elsewhere. At times Tinklenberg uses actual vegetables in her works, but often they are cast in ceramic or metal, with shiny surfaces that reflect the light and capture the detail of the vegetable as a form. Tinklenberg’s objects may be familiar, but she also reveals surprising observations. One example is the realization that cabbages are actually kind of beautiful, though it’s rare to spend much time appreciating their elegance while shopping at the grocery store, or chopping them up for dinner. There is a suggestion of self-care inherent in vegetables, and this sensibility seems to be present in Tinklenberg’s work as well: references to food rich in nutrients and at times feeling almost therapeutic, kindness in a home cooked meal, a dish one could share with a friend.



While the vegetable elements in the pieces in this show are clearly meant to be appreciated visually, they are also definitely trying to elicit a humorous response. In her piece Vegetable Peeler, or Bilateral Efforts, or Breaking Banality, Tinklenberg attaches cabbages on furniture dollies to a metal cable, slicing open a poor unsuspecting pedestal to reveal bright purple cords arranged vertically inside, like pretty guts. Rather than a violent cut, breaking open the pedestal feels much more like a thoughtful analysis: a question of how one could build a pedestal, paired with a fantastical display of the innards that could be inside. This typically unseen pedestal interior is revealed, becoming yet another site for visual and conceptual contrast. The gesture is humorous, because there’s no way cabbages on skates could split open wood, but still thoughtful because the pedestal itself presents a clear art historical reference. Every piece in this show offers a modified gallery fixture, pedestals with cuts and holes, forms splitting open and bursting at the seams. These fixtures are in flux – they are the actual artworks, and not just the quiet white rectangular forms in the gallery that the viewer is supposed to ignore. Tinklenberg’s metals comment on art historical value also, asking questions about what it means if she casts an object in bronze, and if anything about that object changes if it is later placed next to metal objects that the artist found in a junkyard.



In Cultivation,Tinklenberg sets up a tractor auger that drills into a white plinth, with ceramic Brussels sprouts arranged in a pile around it, referencing the piles of dirt that an auger churns up. Tractor augers can dig impressive holes, but Tinklenberg uses hers to suggest the cracking open of a gallery fixture, in another whimsical expression with her vegetable forms. The choice to utilize farm equipment in this piece opens up a new dialogue about regionalism and place, referencing landscape and big open fields, and the labor and money required to manage them. The artist’s conversation with labor is inherent in the time and craft she invests in the making of her objects – in the choice, for example, to mold some vegetables in clay, rather than simply using the vegetables themselves. But her pieces also reference an exchange, a connection between a person and a tool, the production of a thing and the story of what happens to it next. In using found and functional objects Tinklenberg’s work calls attention to these relationships, the passing of objects between conveyor belts and hands, an object that is touched or owned however many times before it ends up in a field, in a home, or possibly in a sculpture. Once again, the artist makes a point of revealing something that is frequently ignored in a globalized society where the production and distribution of things is often taken for granted or made invisible.


Flavonoid Hydrant

Additional functional objects appear in Tinklenberg’s piece entitled Flavonoid Hydrant, in which a metal cabbage hangs from a faucet, over a drain embedded in a white pedestal, as a glowing purple light emanates from the drain. Tinklenberg’s objects have functions and histories attached to them, and there is an obvious, reoccurring connection with consumer culture and class. Looking at this piece brings forth all kinds of questions about money and access: who can access clean water, who can afford to buy vegetables for dinner, who can pay for a plumber, who can buy a house. Tinklenberg doesn’t let her viewer sit with the heavy content for long, as the absurdity of a cabbage coming out of a faucet quickly sinks in. Still, it is hard to ignore that the objects in Tinklenberg’s work are in constant dialogue with consumerism and class; her pieces are embedded in those systems, which remains clear even as the works accomplish other things, like making the viewer laugh.

The visual relationships established in Tinklenberg’s installations also utilize tension, with objects teetering on the edge of a ledge or dangling from the end of a cable, with metal hardware attaching the objects to ropes, pendulums, and pulleys. The artist embraces tension between objects to create systems, at times even incorporating motors and moving parts. These choices are very much a part of Tinklenberg’s visual language and aesthetic, but looking at her creative output as a whole reveals that visual precariousness has a constant presence in her works. Her viewer can see that her objects are vulnerable to outside forces: her cabbages may rot, her ceramic works could break or shatter, her motors could break down, her knotted ropes could unravel. Rather than hide these quirks or conceal the systems that hold her installations together, the artist chooses instead to highlight them, which invokes its own sort of cultural commentary on precariousness, vulnerability and instability in contemporary life. These are, after all, anxiety-inducing times; and Tinklenberg’s cabbages can function as stand-ins for a human presence, caught up in their own complicated systems, struggling to break free or stay up, living a little bit too close to the edge.

In the end, relationships and connection seem to be the driving force behind Tinklenberg’s new works: relationships between maker and viewer, producer and consumer, object and context. In utilizing vegetables as subjects rather than directly referencing people, the artist is able to sidestep conversations about gender binaries and other cultural stereotypes, opening up the conversation and setting the stage for other types of definitions and relationships to occur. Tinklenberg’s cabbage characters are living things and active participants in relationships, both among themselves and with their surroundings – but because they have no gender identity, and none of the cultural baggage that typically comes along with that, they function as androgynous subjects that can take on meaning openly and expansively. By connecting household and functional objects that normally don’t exist together, in ways they don’t normally interact, Tinklenberg is able to free her objects from some of their more obvious cultural expectations. She embraces uniqueness and individuality, but has collaboration and community in mind; she unearths new visual definitions, but decides to leave in faults and quirks rather than conceal them. Along the way, Tinklenberg’s viewer is implicated, included, and considered – the artist is looking for her viewer to have a response and, ultimately, an experience.

As an antidote to the anxiousness and precariousness of the current cultural moment, Tinklenberg’s pieces offer humorous reflection, a relaxation of rigid and more normalized boundaries, and the possibility of something new.


About the Author:Bridget A. Purcell is a visual artist who lives and works in Philadelphia. She obtained degrees in creative studies from Tyler School of Art and Washington University in St. Louis, and her artwork has been shown in Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Rome, Italy. She has previously published works of art writing with the Artblog, the St. Claire, and Title Magazine.


To download a PDF version of this essay please click HERE

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NAPOLEON is a collectively-run project space that strives to provide a platform for new work and new ideas.

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