A mélange of artists dive deep into food to talk about race, class, gender, and culture

Artists in "Consumption: Food as Paradox" explore relationships between food and social structures

Our relationships with food are often complicated. We can share our memories of family dinners, debate the gender dynamics of the kitchen, discuss access to healthy food and ethical farming, and so on. For many of us, for many reasons, food is fraught with conflict. That's what "Consumption: Food as Paradox," at Galerie Myrtis through April 3, aims to tease out, by way of 14 artists who approach the concepts of food and consumption from various intersecting angles of race, class, gender, and culture.

In her porcelain sculptures, Sue Johnson confronts the problem of what we're eating, and whether it's healthy for us. Five "dishes" slip-cast from molds, sit on pedestals; their contents are all glossy but pale and unappetizing, like soupy mac and cheese, teal green beans, gray and brown rice and fish in TV dinner platters. There's also an element of mass-produced kitsch to these objects—small deer and turtle figures pop up out of a bundt cake and a bowl of soup—that reference the mass-production of food and farming, which has been made cheap but at great cost to our health.

Nearby, Jeffrey Kent's mixed media painting 'No GMO' is rather loud, and perhaps a bit messy, in its titular protest. Pasted onto a peg board are flattened egg cartons, pasta boxes, and Odwalla juice labels, over which Kent paints various one-word questions (written backwards, his signature style): "safe?", "organic?", "certified?" along with the acronyms for federal agencies we're supposed to trust with our health and safety, like the FDA and USDA.

Anna U. Davis' collages take up half of the main gallery space, including one 10 by eight foot piece. In these extremely detailed works, grotesque, gray, often female characters are shown in varied states of distress and, at different turns, symbolize and act as a critique of several hot-button issues, including human trafficking, violence against women, gun control, factory farming, and the depletion of natural resources.

In the middle of the gallery, Christi Harris carefully renders, in oil paint, sprinkles and frosting, piped out haphazardly onto neutral, flat surfaces. Harris goes to great lengths to dwell on every flaw, every air bubble, every errant frosted mark. Somewhat isolated from all the other work on the east and west ends of the gallery, they read as quiet lamentations of domestic labor (perhaps also with a nod to Wayne Thiebaud).

On one half of Delita Martin's beautiful mixed media piece there's a portrait of a young black girl on top of a honeycomb pattern; on the other half, four pots are printed on top of a William Morris-esque floral pattern. Knowing how cooking is intertwined with slavery or servitude, the pots could be symbolic of that, but it contrasts with the overall brightness of the piece, and of the young girl who appears cheerful and hopeful. Though she carries the weight of historical pain, she is not defined by it. Her life and identity and future are hers.

Hung next to each other across the gallery are two paintings by Eric Telfort and Stephen Towns, who both use allegory and symbols of holiness and faith in their paintings. Telfort's large oil painting 'Crackers and the Eucharist' depicts a black man sitting on a blanket-strewn couch, nude except for a white scarf draped around his shoulders and across his lap, wearing a yellow t-shirt as a head-covering. He has a box of Ritz crackers in one hand and holds up a cracker in his other hand, as if he's blessing it. This man doesn't appear to have much, and finds absolution in these meager crackers, connecting the way that faith and its rituals and relying on something bigger than us can be a comfort in our shitty situations.

Towns' painting incidentally completes the Eucharist as the figure pours wine out over a carton of blackberries. It is impossible to ignore the racist slurs written all around him, but the man—painted in acrylic on top of paper Trader Joe's and Starbucks bags—despite the hateful and dangerous environment he's in, is unfazed and saint-like (he's also got a gold leaf halo, and he's surrounded by butterflies). And then the title, 'The Juice Ain't So Sweet,' reverses the old, pro-black affirmation "the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice" and suggests the difficulty of embracing and owning one's blackness, how a black person's self-affirmation can be seen as an affront or a threat to whiteness.

In the back room, Arvie Smith's 'Hush-a-Bye Babies' painting uses an assortment of re-appropriated racist caricatures and stereotypes—black kids eating watermelon in the foreground, somewhat demonic, bat-like characters in the background—with more subtle representations in the painting's main area: a black man holding a glass bottle, a black woman's head on a white woman's topless body. The whole piece feels chaotic, maybe sinister, painted with various fiery shades of red and black. The overt racism of a few of these characters distracts us from more subtle but still loaded imagery: the glass bottle and the white woman's body—the black man demonized, the black woman erased.

In the late comic illustrator Alvin Hollingsworth's painting 'Strange Fruit,' like the song about lynching which was popularized by Billie Holiday, a nude black woman holds a platter of fruit, painted in sumptuous, glossy colors on a textured surface, and it imagines, perhaps, a world in which the phrase "strange fruit" doesn't immediately conjure violence.

Two other paintings in this room riff on each other a bit. Matthew Adelberg's 'Shabbat Dinner' is a chiaroscuro still life, done in the very meticulous, traditional process of painting with oil glazes—a reference to Flemish still lifes around the 17th and 18th centuries, which depicted objects that heavily connoted the wealth and class of the growing merchant trade. Next to this is S. Ross Browne's 'Cézanne goes to Harlem,' a slightly impressionist still life featuring collard greens, pigs feet, watermelon, a chicken box, and a Colt 45; where Cézanne was all about the painting itself, Browne centers the objects and their connotations. Both artists recontextualize aspects of art history that didn't necessarily represent them at all.

Curatorially, everything seems intentional here, from the admittedly loose theme, to the number artists, to the extensive programming that goes along with the exhibition (three separate artists talks, the last of which is on March 20). Just as we often come together over meals, this show explores how food can represent our cultures and experiences, how it's tied up in our identities and the structures that surround us.

"Consumption: Food as Paradox" is up at Galerie Myrtis through April 3. For more info, visit galeriemyrtis.net

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