Thursday, December 21, 2006
A Meal at The Museum
By PAUL ADAMS
Of all the food depicted
in two current food-related art exhibits, almost none gets eaten. Nor is it
thrown, smeared, or otherwise enjoyed in any of the ways that art sometimes
uses and misuses food. It's odd, because what makes food food, by definition,
is how we interact with it. But beyond a few scenes of preparation, the food
on view at the Chelsea Art Museum and the Jewish Museum is treated more as a
subject than an object. As restaurant critic for The New York Sun, I'm used
to objectifying my food. When it has this much to say, my first instinct is
to send it back to the kitchen. But a lot of this art is satisfying in a different
a 2005 painting of the beloved New Orleans sandwich — olive salad, cured
meats, and cheeses — by New Orleans artist Ted Mineo, is an expression
of the city's suffering, somewhat undercut by silliness. The frowning, anthropomorphic
sandwich, on display in "The Food Show: The Hungry Eye" at the Chelsea
Art Museum, wears a crown of thorns, and its olive eyes stare bleakly as chunks
of filling fall from its bready lips.
For Vik Muniz, food is frequently
a medium: He has worked in such materials as peanut butter and sugar; here he
paints virtuosically in chocolate syrup. Nina Katchadourian's "Genealogy
of the Supermarket" cleverly places the logos of everyday food products
in a family tree; we learn, for instance, that the Argo Corn Starch cornwoman
is the offspring of the Green Giant and the Land O'Lakes butter maiden. The
relations are beautifully intuitive, making sense of the unquestioned ubiquity
of these people on our shelves.
In the few works that do
show human interaction with food, the consumption is conflicted or obstructed.
Robert Pettena's "Victorian Play" depicts an elegant scene of an outdoor
luncheon in which the heedless eaters' enormous veterinary plastic "Elizabethan
collars." block their forks from reaching their mouths. In Anthony Goicolea's
"Feastlings," nine beastly boarding-school boys toy destructively
with a colorful meal. The flirtatious couple on a date in Adam Stennett's video
"Everything Tastes Better When You Are Blind" actually eat and enjoy
a several-course meal at a restaurant, happily oblivious to the dozen white
mice (and a couple of butterflies) crawling all over their plates and bodies.
Only a couple of the works at "The Food Show" show food in a positively appetizing light. Janet Fish's 1970 still life depicts three backlit jars of "Mustard Pickles" in homey, richcolored detail. Will Cotton's painting "Abandoned (Churro Cabin)" casts aside realism for a fantasy landscape: an inviting log cabin made of fried pastry, snowed in with glossy white icing.
Puzzlingly, the wall text
for the show says the exhibited works address "the complexity of the globalization
of what constitutes a meal, through the continuing controversy about additives,
processed food and hormone treated livestock and fertilizers in produce."
That sounds like a forced attempt to give contemporary resonance to a very varied
exhibition. The mere presence of food in all the art hardly gives the show a
unified message, and pretending that it does is a disservice to the individual,
Meanwhile, across the island,
the Jewish Museum is showing a 32-minute loop of four videos in "Food for
Thought," a hard-to-find exhibit on the third floor. This show feels considerably
more unified. All four videos are set in home kitchens, take a look at food
in society, and feel like clips rejected from the Food Network for being too
disturbing. In "Ameh Jhan," Jessica Shokrian's camera looks on unobtrusively
as her melancholic Iranian-Jewish aunt shops for produce, then returns to her
Los Angeles kitchen. With her back to the camera, the black-clad woman cooks
what looks like kofte meatballs with rice and chicken, then pours two glasses
of tea and sits down alone with a sudden tear in her eye. Was it the onions
or the absent guest? Pointedly, no one eats.
Most compellingly, perhaps,
Boaz Arad turns a film of his mother making delicious-looking gefilte fish,
as she learned from her mother and her mother-in-law, into an accusation, tauntingly
proclaiming (even as he publishes it) that the gefilte fish recipe will not
be passed to a new generation.
In Martha Rosler's 1975
film "Semiotics of the Kitchen,"she stands behind a kitchen counter
angrily demonstrating the use of various tools of women's oppression as she
snaps their names: "Apron. Dish. Grater." After that, it's a relief
to see a grinning Abbie Hoffman in a tiny kitchen making his gefilte fish, in
a brief clip from 1973. The show's catalog includes both his recipe and Mr.
Arad's mother's: I look forward to trying both.
Despite the overarching
rubric, these works are rarely about food per se. The 55 artists in the two
shows use food as a conveniently versatile medium, to provoke thought and occasional
emotion. But these are not the sort of food shows that pique the appetite. It
might be a while yet before I can casually look another muffuletta in the eye.
"The Food Show"
until February 24 (556 W. 22nd St. at Eleventh Avenue, 212-255-0719);
"Food for Thought" until February 27 (1109 Fifth Ave. at 92nd Street, 212-423-3200).
Source: Adams, Paul, A Meal at The Museum, The New York Sun, Arts & Letters, Museums, December 21, 2006.