Blocked! McElroy thinks inside the box

Still from Lilly McElroy's video, The Square–after Roberto Lopardo
Still from Lilly McElroy's video, The Square–after Roberto Lopardo.

Two weeks ago, I wrote, “Give me artists who wrestle with ideas, who rework the expected into something startling, or who experiment with surprising media.” As if the art gods heard my prayer, this week I discovered the work of Lilly McElroy, whose video, The Square–after Roberto Lopardo, is currently on view at The Niche in the Fine Arts Library.

McElroy playfully questions clich©s and what they suggest about human interaction. In her most-publicized work, the photographic series I Throw Myself at Men, McElroy takes the sexist insult at face value and launches herself through midair at male bar patrons. Similarly, The Square brings the idea of protecting one’s personal space into the realm of the literal.

Ideally suited for UVA art professor Lydia Moyer’s Niche series showcasing women artists who incorporate performance in their videos, The Square–after Roberto Lopardo documents McElroy as she outlines a large chalk box on a busy city street and then defends it from within its perimeter, physically confronting pedestrians whose path the square obstructs.

The 30-minute piece is not about filmmaking–the camera remains static and unobtrusive (although a few passersby do acknowledge its presence); rather McElory parodies the way people guard their positions/property/what have you while simultaneously demanding acknowledgment that what they’re protecting has value. Only half the performance belongs to McElroy; the remainder comprises the myriad responses of people on the street.

Dressed in a cream-colored wool coat and dark slacks, McElroy frenetically moves from one side of the square to another, blocking potential intruders like a soccer goalie, with arms outstretched and legs spread wide. Some people stop and assess the situation, while others simply register the obstacle and adjust their trajectory. Then there are the rule-breakers–like the woman carrying a yellow Century 21 bag, who surreptitiously sticks her foot in the square when McElroy’s back is turned, and the man who wields his baby carriage (!) like a Zamboni to plow into and around the square.

Although the piece is primarily conceptual, there are moments of visual beauty, particularly when a woman from the nearby bus stop jumps into the square to help McElroy. Their relationship becomes like a dance, and for a thrilling instant, as the taller volunteer shadows McElroy from behind, their movements are perfectly synchronized.

Funny and thought provoking, McElroy’s The Square reworks the expected into something startling–just the way I like my art.

Lilly McElroy’s video, The Square–after Roberto Lopardo, is on view through April 30 at The Niche in the Fine Arts Library. Fiske Kimball Fine Arts Library, Bayly Dr. (across from the Architecture School). For more information, visit the Niche website.