Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Late Night at the BMA

Last Saturday night was the party celebrating the opening of the BMA's new contemporary wing. Cooper and I were there and it was kind of wild. So many people, so much chatter.

The wing was extremely cool, too. One of the new artists, Sarah Oppenheimer, has created these interesting architectural nooks that allow people to look through the galleries in unusual ways (like windows that allow you to see three galleries at once). The effect is really cool - for me, it's interesting thinking about how the people curating the exhibit had to consider the way the art would work not only with the other pieces in the room, but also with the visible pieces in the other rooms.

I gave a little talk - to a very small, but engaged audience - on the intersection between food and art. I stood next to the work on the left - a 2010 photograph by the artist Elad Lassry, called "Cherries, Raspberries, Blackberries (Marbled)".

Below, I've included the text of my talk. It's mostly culled from things I've already written here...turns out, I've written a loooot about food and art!

Food and art has always been a favorite topic of mine – there are so many similarities between the food world and the art world and much overlap between the two.

I find art history fascinating. Studying art is such a good way to explore a culture. When you look at art from a particular time period, or from a certain place, you can learn so much about what’s going on there politically, economically, socially.

It’s a window to the culture.

Food is the same. Looking at what people eat, how they cook, how they get their food, how they share meals – it’s a great way to learn about a culture or about a period in history.

So I’m standing here in front of this photograph, called “Cherries, Raspberries, Blackberries (Marbled).”

It’s a 2010 work by Elad Lassry, a 35-year old Israeli-born artist who has lived in LA since he was 20.

Lassry works primarily in photographs, with some film thrown in. He photographs a diverse range of subjects – food, animals, portraits, objects.

But he does have a few consistent signatures – the painted frames and the size and shape of the images. Lassry confines himself to traditional magazine dimensions.

His images are representational, but he plays with effects to modernize them. In a 2011 Art AsiaPacific article, writer William Pym described Lassry’s works as “twinkling with formal effects.” I think that’s a good description of what you see here – the fruit does seem to twinkle.

A work similar to this one – the same fruit arrangement on a stark white background – Pym described as “a study in the palette of blood colors.” And about this work, he said Lassry “plays the same glossy bruise colors against a smeared red.”

I love the phrases “blood colors” and “bruise colors” – when I look at this photograph, I see the colors of life. The fruit is bright, vibrant, full of vitality. There’s a very easy “food is life” metaphor in the photograph. This photograph depicts life in its ripe prime.

But in the next room, an Untitled work by Zoe Leonard uses the same metaphor but in a different way. The artist ate fruit and sewed the skins together, leaving them to decompose. The message is one of decay – the end of life.

Leonard and Lassry’s works are part of a long history of featuring food as the subject of art. From still lifes to parties to meals, food as been a regular subject of artists forever. Even the earliest artists – cave painters – drew animals. Their food.

But there are also twistier ways that food becomes art.

On her Tumblr “Low Commitment Projects,” artist Brittany Powell featured sandwiches designed as tributes to her favorite artists. It’s funny and cool. My favorite is the Mondrian. Slices of cheese and meat create his famous grids. It lends itself surprisingly well to a sandwich. It's less surprising how well it lent itself to the internet.

People all over America look to famous artworks as inspiration for cakes, and cookies. I’ve seen Rothko cookies and van Gogh cakes. They’re great.

Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz created a Mona Lisa out of peanut butter and jelly.

What Muniz did isn’t new, either.

During the Renaissance, there was an organization called the Company of the Cauldron. It was sort of a sophisticated, artsy dinner club, with members like Michelangelo and da Vinci. The club had legendary parties and to get in, you had to bring a type of “edible art.” Art, created out of food, designed to be eaten.

Something like the Company of the Cauldron is uncontroversial in the art world. Everyone understands that the artist is using food to create art and no one takes it too seriously.

But when you move into the food world, where the chef is the creator, there’s more drama.

There are two camps in the food world. Those who consider food food – sustenance – and nothing more.  They may respect it, but they do not intellectualize it.

Then there are those who think food has the potential to be more. To start conversations. To be intellectualized. To be art.

Food is a functional substance – we need it to survive. And anytime function comes into play, things get messy.

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a furniture maker here in Baltimore, named Sean O’Harra.

Sean makes beautiful tables and benches and bowls from reclaimed woods and metals. He studied sculpture at MICA and furniture design at VCU.

During our conversation, I asked him if he considered himself an artist. He said yes, but sort of laughed.

He told me that during college and grad school, he got some pushback because his furniture was so functional. That not everyone considered it art, just because it served another purpose.

Chefs deal with the same attitudes.

Pastry chefs create gorgeous, architectural masterpieces, and don’t always get the credit they deserve for being creators.

And then there are chefs like Ferran Adria.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Adria is a Spanish chef who, until recently, was the mastermind behind the restaurant El Bulli. He’s considered a father of avant-garde cooking.

At El Bulli, Adria deconstructed food and reconstructed it, creating dishes designed to provoke conversation. They tasted good, but made people think and talk.

I think of Adria as something like an artist from the school of minimalism. Not because his food is minimal, but because like minimalism, some people just don’t get it – and don’t want to get it.

And though you can appreciate the taste of his food, or the look of a minimalist painting, without knowing the history of the artist or the chef,

Both are easier to appreciate if you know the backstory – how minimalism fits in art history and how Adria’s approach to food fits in food history. They’re both easier to appreciate if you understand the creator’s intentions.

In the art world, you see trends come and go – the Renaissance to Baroque to Neoclassical, or Expressionism to Minimalism.

The same happens in food.

Right now, theory-driven chefs like Adria are fading a bit.  Adria closed El Bulli’s doors in 2011.

At the same time, we’re seeing a renewed interest in classic comfort foods and regional flavors – especially southern American cooking. A return to roots.

Which brings me back to Lassry and his photography. He’s described photography as “a language that’s so exhausted and opened up, so deceased in a way.”

But he uses this “dead” language and the strict confines of traditional magazine dimensions – things that are familiar – to create something new. With his effects, he creates a fresh experience for the audience.

The same thing is happening in food.

I’m not sure how many of you have been to The Food Market in Hampden. If you haven’t been, you should go.
At The Food Market, the chef – his name is Chad Gauss – serves traditional American comfort food, like fried chicken. When you order that fried chicken, it’s completely recognizable.

But next to it on the plate, there’s a dish of jalapeno-infused cream sauce. And there’s a smear of black hot sauce.

Both a slight twist on familiar flavors – familiar but new.

Which brings me back to how food and art are – in so many ways – the same at their cores.

In both worlds, what’s old and familiar can feel brand new and fresh, with just a bit of a tweak.

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