Last Wednesday, I watched a man rub his face and body into a pile of dirt. More context might help: this was part of a performance at Safe Gallery in Brooklyn by the artist Shaun Krupa, whose exhibition of painting and sculpture “Lost Body” was recently on view at the East Williamsburg space.
Though Krupa did a bit of performance work in school, his first post-collegiate stab at the discipline, around 2007, came as the result of a bit of a bluff. “When I moved to New York, a friend was like, ‘Hey do you do performance art?’ And I totally did not do performance art, but I was like, ‘Yeah, OK,’ ” Krupa told me before the performance. Though Krupa admitted that he initially “sort of lied” about his practice, the ingredients of the outing that ensued—a water bucket, makeup, and a broom, among other things—were also in evidence at Safe. “In a way they all kind of carry through, building on that first performance,” Krupa told me, of his subsequent live works.
For his performance at Safe—his second at the gallery, his first was somewhat similar and included a dirt sifter—Krupa started by taking off his pants, revealing a pair of tight, tan running shorts. He then slowly and methodically moved through a series of almost mundane actions. He placed himself into a garbage bag filled with clanking metal objects, including quite possibly more than one rattle, and jimmied around for a bit. He then moved to the corner of the room and knelt before a large bucket filled to the brim with water. He gazed at his reflection for a bit before lapping up the liquid and sinking his arms in. After some time, he picked up a nearby bowl and began to apply paint to his face. This was all done with an unrushed delicacy that resembled the movements of a child or early homo sapiens. The crowd remained silent throughout.
Then, the coup de dirt. As a halfway-naked artist in colorful makeup patted his face and body into a pile of the stuff in front of a rapt audience, I felt, for a second, disconnected from the entire experience and had the uncanny sense that I was watching some sort of a film–maybe a documentary, maybe not–about performance art, or New York City. Anyway, that is nobody’s problem but my own, and as I reengaged with the performance on its own terms, Krupa brought out a hose attached to the aforementioned bucket and began to use it to bathe and finally fill up his body’s outline in the dirt pile. To conclude his set, he grabbed a broom and swept a pathway through the center of the crowd, leaving a trail of footprints. After a bit of sweeping, he ended with a simple, understated proclamation: “That’s it.”
“I feel like there were people here who came to the performance last time, and they were very similar performances, but they were just as—and me included—just as captivated,” Pali Kashi, Safe’s founder, told me after the performance, as she cleaned up. “We do a lot of events here, and there’s never dead silence like that, there’s always talking in the background or walking away.”
Speaking after the performance, Krupa admitted to having bad stage fright. When he was younger and played guitar in bands, he would often perform with his back to the audience. “I think I found that taking my pants off in front of everybody is a good way to start, like it kind of gets everyone’s attention without me having to say anything,” he said. The tension between the artist’s timidity and the mildly extreme nature of the performance places the piece in an interesting tonal space. “None of it is meant to be confrontational or shocking or anything, but its defiantly meant to be—this is a word I associate with pasta sauce, but—robust,” Krupa said. “I want there to be a lot of dirt and I my whole body to be in it.”
Portions of the work in “Lost Body” are directly interrelated to Krupa’s performance style—for example, a series of soil-cement body molds—and there is a definite feedback loop between the his live actions and studio practice. In some ways, the entire process is an exercise in mindfulness. “There’s little things that I remember as I’m doing it, so when I’m drinking from the bucket, I’ll remember, Oh, I can see my breath on the water ripple and the reflections,” he said. “So I just slow down and, think like, Oh that’s cool, I’m just going to enjoy that for a second and then do the next thing.”