Leaning Into It: Nicolas Lobo’s Purple Sculpture

7 min readJan 29, 2024

I got that purple drank that texas tea up in my cup
grab a sprite pop the seal pour a deuce and then mix it up
I sip it slow when I jam that screw I hold it down for the low star state
gettin full of that purple oil I throw it off and I’m feelin great…
gettin full of that purple drank that codeine, promethazine
T ferrace just bought me a pint lets pop the seal I’m ready to lean.

Mike Jones, “I Got Dat Drank”

Submitted for your approval: a real-life urban subculture organized around drinking cough syrup. Sizzirup, syrup, lean, barre, purple tonic, purple jelly, sip-sip, Texas tea, drank. These are the slang terms invented for a deep-ghetto concoction that has been popularized in song and thug legend as “purple drank.” A sometimes lethal mix of prescription-strength cough syrup and liter bottles of supermarket soda like Sprite and Mountain Dew, this highly narcotic spritzer first swept the gritty exurbs of the southwest, then conquered the rural south. Few cultural phenomena could appear more what-is-the-world-fucking-coming-to bizarre.

As Raymond Chandler once remarked: “It’s difficult to tell a well-controlled doper apart from a vegetarian bookkeeper.” In this case, the vegetarian bookkeeper is wearing gang-banger pants. The product of sheer adolescent boredom — the wellspring of all subcultures great and small — the drank evolved its own etiquette seemingly overnight. Served in Slurpee-size Styrofoam cups with mounds of crushed ice and bobbing pieces of Jolly Ranchers candies — like little olives floating in a dry Martini — this buzzy beverage apes all druggie escapism since the Greek Claudius Galenus took his blade to an opium poppy. Today it occupies a uniquely weird, but characteristically conventional place in the popular imagination. To paraphrase William Burroughs: Purple drank is not a kick; it’s a way of life.

Purple Drank, Source Unknown

A cheap high born of poor and immensely resourceful idleness, the purple drank vibe sprouted full-blown from Houston’s deep fried, underground rap scene in the mid 1990s. Popularized by the late Robert Earl Davis Jr., a.k.a. producer DJ Screw — whose round the clock ingestion of drank culminated in his death from cardiac arrest at the tender age of 29 — the sickly sweet concoction is widely credited as the inspiration for the “chopped and screwed” style of hip hop that became Houston’s musical trademark. Featuring the active ingredients codeine and promethazine, drank’s gauzy opiate and antihistamine high found a perfect partner in Texas screw music’s drawly, slowed down, narcoleptic beats. Nodding off, with or without one’s dick in one’s hand, never sounded so good.

DJ Screw’s ascension to the pantheon of hip-hop martyrs did not slow down or halt the spread of purple drank. Predictably, it turned the underground trickle into a purple flood. Fed by articles in the mainstream media, fawning hack journalism (hello Vibe magazine, you gaggle of fakes!), do it yourself websites, YouTube videos and, of course, Texas-screw music itself, the avalanche of attention conspired to popularize the scene around drank, transforming it beyond recognition. It wasn’t long before drank’s following reached what some have termed “viral” proportions. One recent sports publication, for example, referred to an “epidemic” of drank in the NFL (You don’t say?). Evidently the league’s own findings concerning brain damage in professional football — NFL players are 20 times more likely to develop Alzheimers-like symptoms than men who play or watch soccer — was not enough to keep those geniuses away from drugs that affect memory and cognition.

Nicolas Lobo: LIMESTONED, 2010, Charest-Weinberg Gallery, Miami

Here’s the story from the police blotter. In September 2006, the San Diego Chargers’ Terrence Kiel was arrested for trying to Fed Ex a case of “syrup” across state lines. On July 8, 2008, the too aptly named Johnny Jolly — a Green Bay Packers defensive end — was arrested for possessing Styrofoam cups and a Dr. Pepper bottle that reeked of codeine. On July 5, 2010, former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russel was arrested at his home in Mobile for possession of codeine syrup without a prescription. Officials say — as officials near a microphone always will — that this is only the tip of the iceberg. If, like me, you’re concerned about the behavior of these “role models” on “the children,” I give you Dr. Ronald Peters, Associate Professor at the University of Texas Health Service Center in Houston: ”You go to schools and, literally, kids are falling asleep. I spoke to teachers and they would ask — Why are kids falling asleep in the classroom? Why are eight people drinking from one Sprite bottle?” Maybe it’s time they considered asking Florida artist and drug culture ethnologist Nicolas Lobo.

Nicolas Lobo: LIMESTONED, 2010, Charest-Weinberg Gallery, Miami

An artist who pegs subcultures like nerdier twenty-somethings treat World of Warcraft — that is, obsessively, if somewhat randomly — the Miami-based Lobo has elected to explore the youthful role-playing that channels the rapidly expanding dream of purple drank. A bona fide black cultural phenomenon coming to a white suburban high school near you, the combination of fizzy grape syrup and droning turntable music is currently poised on the social knife-edge — on the verge, that is, of becoming what Casey Kasem calls a cross-over hit. Primarily a sculptor and installation artist, Lobo has focused on the frontier shattering, sociologically transgressive qualities of drinking drank: namely, how the phenomenon migrates across geography and economic classes to affect groups sociologically alien to its roughneck origins. If the oft-abused word “liminal” means anything at all — and repeated Parkett and Artforum abuses have nearly leached it of significance — then Lobo’s exploration of the coming breakthrough of this subculture situate his sculptures (especially Screwed Up Alvin and the Chipmunks) at the anticipatory threshold between one thing and another. Another step and they’ll tell our fortune.

Nicolas Lobo, Screwed Up Alvin and the Chipmunks, 2010, formica, granite, limestone, grape cough syrup, 8 x 4 x 2 feet.

Let us consider, then, the notion of liminality more carefully. According to anthropologists, during threshold events like rituals or rites of passage “normally accepted differences between [people], such as social class, are often de-emphasized or ignored during the liminal stage… a social structure of communitas forms: one based on common humanity and equality rather than recognized hierarchies.” (In the case of drank culture, communitas knows zero political correctness and establishes ritual commonality via thrumming music and grip n’ sip, bitches.) But liminality also extends to mental as well as physical and social geography. Here’s narcosage Burrough’s again on the marginal nature of his own specialty pursuit: “Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts: East Fourteenth near Third in New York; Poydras and St. Charles in New Orleans; San Juan Letran in Mexico City. Stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfumes, pomades, novelties, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches Skid Row.”

Nicolas Lobo, Defaced Musician Caricature 2010, ink on mylar, 10 x 24 inches

In a society that finds a working metaphor in the movie “Six Degrees of Separation,” drank culture exists in that hopeful, transitional place where Will Smith’s character Paul nearly cons the Upper East Side Kittredges — where their aspirations to care meet his aspiration to pass. The encounter between them is as familiar as it is intractable; it is marked by a striving inauthenticity. White America and drank culture present mirror images of each other that enact their own parody: the drank scene is, on its face, as joinerish and ridiculous as any other iteration of the American Dream. Dental grills, baggy pants, X-large sports jerseys, and what is certainly the stupidest, nastiest drug ever invented — reportedly sugary sizirrup rots teeth and livers while promoting exploding weight gain — make up the newest outsiderish fantasy to emulate the myth of effortless, sexed up, moneyed, overnight success.

Nicolas Lobo, Straightened Record, 2010, Aluminum, vinyl, stainless steel, felt, 6 x 4 x 3 feet

Nicolas Lobo presents Limestoned in admiration of this double-barreled cultural inauthenticity. A raft of works made in the spirit of caricature that explore, in the artists own words, “the sociological contours” of a decadent cultural phenomenon, this group of sculptures are conceived to be experimental while being synasthetic in the extreme. Working with unconventional materials like grape syrup, oolitic limestone rocks, Formica, terrazzo and ready-made cultural constructs like drank culture, screw music and overlooked exhibition design — see the artist’s appropriation and alteration of George Nelson’s ubiquitous bench — Lobo whips up a heady, drank-inflected cocktail in 3-D that not only visually approximates the stuff, but stinks of it. Screw music and drank take “the form of a sound, a flavor, a color, a motion and a speed,” Lobo has said. With Limestoned he proposes to take us there. What awaits is described by rapper Mike Jones: “pretty soon y’all gon know about this purple drank/once that codeine hits your system gon make you lean/another fiend compliments of promethazine.”

Christian Viveros-Fauné, 2010