Below is a revised exhibition review I wrote for a seminar in U.S. food and culture history.
YUMMM! The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food. American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, October 8, 2016-September 3, 2017.
Motorized whirls, barking video, and assemblage sculptures made of Peeps are components of the multi-artist exhibition: YUMMM! The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food. The floor space of the galleries are open, the sculptures and works on paper hug the walls. Curators Rebecca Alban Hoffberger and John Lewis organized the space to deftly blend the three themes of the exhibition while championing the message that food connects all people to social justice and the environment. Visitors experience a saturated showcase that, for the most, successfully visualizes and discusses the politics of food.
PostSecret at AVAM. Image by the author.
Before visitors enter the space, reproductions of food themed postcards from the PostSecret art project, one that invites individuals to anonymously mail their secrets to its creator, Frank Warren, encourage visitors to consider food’s role in daily life. One card proclaims the secret: “I showed up to your wedding…for the food,” and another says, “My husband stole strawberries for me on Valentine’s Day.” Both secrets prepare visitors for the creative works in the exhibition while reminding visitors that food may appear as an innocuous presence in their lives, but it can also symbolize relationships and power.
Some of the most traditional art, large scale oil paintings, welcome visitors at the entrance of the exhibition space. Ramon Alejandro’s two paintings, La Origine and La Terre Promise, surrealist depictions of fruits and landscapes, present ideas about food that make one ponder if it is the processed food that we eat that is surreal or if raw fruits are the ones that are alien to our industrial society. Abstracted depictions of fruit and vegetation that appear just familiar enough to be recognizable and just different enough to be foreign confront viewers in subdued palettes that pop with highlights of sapphire and scarlet. On the adjoining wall, Craig Norton and Manuel Pinon Alamillo’s works are hung under the wall text, “Corn: Gift of the New World.” The text provides a satirical and political framework that invites viewers to question their understanding of native people, food, and the environment. Norton’s work, We Gave You Corn, You Gave Us Smallpox, is a critique of American colonialism, the figures in the painting Native Americans, with collaged faces and clothing, offer an ironically large platter of yellow corn to viewers.
Notably, many of the works in the exhibition discuss gender in terms of ideal body types and food. Artists Bob Adams and Margaret Munz-Losch discuss body image in their works Eye Candy and Pink-Prêt a Porter, which compel viewers to observe muscular torsos of men and a young girl, dressed in doughnuts, in the context of sexuality and sweetness. The repetitious use of bodies and food directs viewers to the connection between the guilty pleasure of longing for, and indulging in, pastries and the uncomfortable realization that the bodies of men and girls are sometimes subject to similar desirous gazes.
Adjacent to Adams’ work is a representation of body fat, lumpy and yellow, enclosed in a plastic case on the wall. Its text label is one of many in the gallery space that supports the thesis of the exhibition without being pretentious or didactic. It engages visitors with humor, noting that some fat is the “schmaltz just under our skin,” disarming them and informing them of the dangers of excess fat and its associated diseases.
Christian Twamley, Sweepish Chef, 2016. Image by the author.
The fantasy elements of the exhibition are manifest in using food as a medium, though ironies abound in its use. Jerry Beck and the Revolving Museum’s 2016 Bread Wall Art Project utilizes stale, preserved bread to create depictions of wheat and references to farmer’s markets. Adjacent to the bread project is a larger-than-life assembled sculpture of the Swedish Chef and one of his chickens, made from carefully cut and arranged Peeps. Adding to the fantasy element of the space is a full-sized gummy figure depicting Wayne Coyne from the rock band The Flaming Lips. What is missing from the pieces, however, is a deliberate discussion of wasted food in the United States. The use of bread, Peeps, and gummy candy in art subtly speaks to the disposable nature of non-nutritional, mass produced food, though visitors who interact briefly with the pieces are likely to miss such an understated position and focus on the playful use of food instead.
Some of the strongest pieces in the exhibition are related to the environment and possess an interactive component. A display of Maryland bees includes a magnifying glass for a closer inspection of wings and antennae, while a large mandala with bees and flora made of painted paper plates begins to rotate with the press of a button. In the context of an art museum, however, the works’ strong visual impact softens their political messages, and the educational component of the accompanying wall texts. The emphasis is less likely to offend visitors, but it misses an opportunity to thoroughly discuss contemporary issues related to food and the environment.
John Laurie, Thanksgiving Has Been Canceled, Best Wishes, The Native Americans, 2008. Image by the author.
The success of YUMMM! speaks volumes about the ability of art museums to engage with contemporary cultural and societal issues. However, the strongest political works, Women of York’s Shared Dining, an homage to Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, and John Laurie’s Thanksgiving Has Been Canceled, Best Wishes, The Native Americans, are in spaces that connect the main gallery to others in the exhibition. Visitors must flatten themselves close to the walls or move from the galleries completely to accommodate foot traffic. Members of the collective the Women of York, an incarcerated group of women, recorded audio and explained how the project changed their perception of women and domesticity. When visitors move quickly from the spaces, they are unable to deeply absorb the meaningful works. It is an unfortunate occurrence that ironically reflects how incarcerated and native people are often treated in the United States: they are ignored or merely given token acknowledgement.
It is commendable that the museum has chose to highlight works related to gender, society, the environment, and food politics, but what is the effect when visitors do not feel compelled to stop, look, and think? The politics of food in the exhibition are carefully distributed behind sprawling, noisy, and visually saturated works. YUMMM! is not perfect, but it is an exhibition that will, hopefully, encourage more curators to incorporate food as a culturally relevant topic in art museums.