Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Meal at The Museum



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 way.

"Muffuletta," 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, disparate works.

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.