Gut Feelings, at the Zuckerman Museum of Art through May 7, is curator Sarah Higgins’ first solo curatorial contribution to the Zuckerman’s ambitious program of exhibitions tackling multilayered artistic and intellectual issues. I should probably say now that in this review, I intend to give these issues at least some of the depth they deserve. People looking for a quick capsule summary should stop here, with the brief advice: “Go see this show if you can, and do your best to attend the Wednesday, April 19 symposium.”
Multiple perspectives on food, cooking and kitchenware are embodied in the painting, sculpture and video in Gut Feelings. The perspectives and the artworks touch on issues of nature and culture that have bedeviled civilization from, perhaps, the beginning. Not for nothing does a major religious tradition’s origin story involve “the tree from which you must not eat.”
Folk tales, too, extrapolate on the cultural uses of edible materials, and the tale of Snow White and the poisoned apple is memorably reproduced in one of the works in the show, Jeremy Jacob’s Desiring Image, a cartoony drawing from 2015.
Eating is indisputably a fundamental biological function with inexorable biological consequences. Consume poisonous toadstools (or apples), and unhappy outcomes follow. Other dietary choices are presumed to clog arteries. Not eating at all, whether by choice or circumstance, eventually leads to a similarly fatal conclusion. But all of those biological facts arrive with culture already clinging to them; only in the most extreme circumstances does uninflected instinct kick in. All of this body of fact plays a part in Gut Feelings.
The politics of food as an instrument of warfare — think of Syria most recently — doesn’t find its way into this show, but many other kinds of racial and gender politics do. Martha Rosler’s classic 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen wittily explicates feminine rage at the consignment of women to the subordinate role of food preparer (a.k.a. cook) by introducing the possible alternate use of each kitchen implement as a weapon. Gender issues show up throughout the show, but a strikingly different exploration of them is found in Caitlin Keogh’s 2015 Intestine and Tassels; in this painting, an anatomical-diagram version of the digestive tract is superimposed on a schematic female torso festooned with a tassel, thus emphasizing the torso’s status as an object of culturally chosen decoration, in which nature can appear only in a severely cleaned-up version.
The dialectic between decorous cleanliness and culturally transgressive mess recurs throughout the exhibition, nowhere more strikingly than in Tejal Shah’s Feed/Kill, a 2010 video in which one sari-clad woman shoves various foods associated with India into the mouth of a similarly clad woman seated immediately beside her. It is impossible to tell whether this is enforced torture of a helpless victim, mutual fetishism or some indefinable intermediate state, because we, or more accurately I, can’t quite interpret the relationship of the two women without knowing more about them than the title and the visual clues give to a middle-class male American reviewer. Perhaps erroneously, I assume the scene is meant to be at least somewhat disgusting to respectably restrained viewers brought up in the cultures of the Indian subcontinent. (My minimal contrary evidence based on an experience of South Asian culture would be equally insupportable.)
The emotion of disgust is very much culturally inflected, and it looms large in this exhibition — literally so in the case of Marilyn Minter’s 2009 floor-to-ceiling video projection Green Pink Caviar. This involves an immense close-up of what appear to be female lips and tongue interacting with the expensive, culturally overwrought and fundamentally messy material of caviar. How To Basic’s parodies of how-to videos, in which potentially delicious edible material is reduced to one species or another of complete glop, deploy disgust to a more humorous purpose.
Just as the sexual pleasures of looking are usually sublimated into aesthetics, as in the painting of the torso with tassel, the visceral pleasures of food are usually converted into culturally toned-down or refined versions (“refined” in several senses of the word). The class-based qualities of types of food are stunningly illustrated by Chuck Ramirez’s remarkable Candy Tray Series: Godiva 2, a 2002 photograph of an object that looks like some gilded artifact that turns out, as per the title, to be the empty inner sleeve of a box of Godiva chocolates. Each individually shaped socket is a testimony to the absence of the presumably eaten candy itself — but also a testimony to how the preciousness of the chocolate is reinforced by its presentation. If they were melted together in a mesh bag, these little status symbols would be considerably less enticing.
Still Life, Jessica Stoller’s sprawling trompe-l’oeil ceramic sculpture from 2013, also deals with the repressed but available pleasures of tastefully presented desserts, by violating them through inedible reproduction and anomalous proximity. Cakes that look like triumphs of the decorator’s art are stacked awkwardly and are ludicrously juxtaposed with demented floral arrangements and an antlered skull that looks like the type of memento mori that would be contained in a vanitas painting, if Salvador Dalí had been a vanitas painter in the Dutch Golden Age.
Gut Feelings pursues the semiotics of food itself, not just of the kitchen, through any number of other iterations — too many to enumerate in a relatively brief review. The several pieces here from Chuck Ramirez’s “Ingredients” series, each one dryly listing the diversity of artificial materials that compose, for example, a popular toaster pastry, is another situation that intermingles questions of class (does our own visceral response to this list reveal who we are?) and social history (less technology-based cultures couldn’t make this stuff up) and biology (the stuff tastes good to a good many people, or it wouldn’t sell well). However, that last component is in turn determined by how the biological substrate of taste buds combines with culturally inflected experiences that influence what people think tastes good. What, for example, we liked at age six is only loosely related to how we respond to the new trend promoted by ardent foodies. Culture and nature constantly collide and meld.
Culture and nature collide most spectacularly in the Western Hemisphere encounter between European colonizers and the several peoples they enslaved. Slaves imported from Africa brought with them such foods as okra, along with distinct ways of growing and preparing them. The different foods cooked by the slaves for themselves and for the tables of the masters evolved into regionally distinct ways of eating, of which the origins have largely been forgotten. Michi Meko’s installation, Studying the Silences: we used to eat this back home (2017), explores this through a whole series of stunning visual metaphors for the complex process by which an African-American heritage has to be rediscovered through lines of descent and preserved by honoring the ancestral lineage through which it came — in this case, by dedicating the black-painted table and chair to the legacy of a specific aunt. Each element of this stunning work of art, from the black-painted furniture and wall to what the checklist describes as “stolen Alabama cotton,” could be explicated extensively, and given more time for dialogue, I would take delight in trying to do so.
Michi Meko himself may address such questions in the previously mentioned panel, “Listen to Your Gut,” scheduled at the Zuckerman at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 19.