“Edibles” Exhibition
Sept. 8 through Oct. 3
Work : Ann Arbor

(Max Collins/Daily)

Parents around Ann Arbor may think twice about telling their kids to stop playing with their food after seeing the “Edibles” exhibit at State Street’s Work Gallery.

But the exhibit is much more than mashed potato castles with gravy moats or smiley-face toast. The curators confessed to making quite a few dinner-art masterpieces when they were young, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if a ’tato volcano made it into the show had an artist had submitted one.

“Edibles” is a commentary on the way we see, use and consume food in our society and perhaps a bit about how we see, use and consume art as well.

In the gallery, two rows of “Fla-Vor-Ice” freeze pop panels hang loosely on the wall. The highly saturated, artificial colors jump off the white background, demanding the attention of a casual wanderer. The piece “Don’t Like the Rest,” by Eryn Campbell, displays all the vibrant “Fla-Vor-Ice” pops, save for the pink ones. Where the pink flavor would appear in the sequence, the wall shows through. After the initial smile that comes from admiration of the artist’s cleverness, the viewer is pushed into thinking about what we consider food and what we consider art.

It’s the whole “when you put it in a gallery, it becomes art” debate that Marcel Duchamp fathered with his readymades almost a century ago. The freezer pops take on a different meaning within the walls of Work: They hold space for contemplation. They take something that is seen every day in supermarket aisles out of their standard context and into an artistic display, thus exploring the ideas surrounding consumption.

This idea of the everyday is exactly what the curators, a group of School of Art and Design students, had in mind when they put “Edibles” into action.

“Food is an everyday part of our lives, why not make a show out of it?” Co-curator Jenna Lyn Utte said. “Food is a concept that everyone can stand behind; everyone loves food.”

If the public’s response could in any way measure the truth in these words, the opening night for the exhibit proved people in Ann Arbor are absolutely enamored with food.

“Food in the framework of an art gallery challenges the idea of food and gives us the opportunity to closely examine and define something that is so widespread,” co-curator Erica Fink said.

Last Friday, gallery-goers spilled out onto the State Street sidewalk because the small display room was unable to hold everyone.

Art openings often attract a very specific hipster, chain-smoking crowd, but “Edibles” reversed this stereotype. The show flips the notion that art has to be understood only by a few people to be considered credible. By using a topic that everyone understands, and presumably everyone shapes experiences around, “Edibles” is able to make art and food a catalyst for thinking critically about and understanding our own culture and consumption.

“We wanted to make people that normally don’t come to art exhibitions, those people outside of Art and Design, those people in different clubs, in sororities and fraternities, and in high school and even elementary school, we wanted them to come and share in the experience,” said Fink, who arranged for the opening to have a potluck, musicians and an interactive station where guests could — and still can — make a short stop-motion video using Swedish fish, baby pineapples, cow salt shakers and other assorted candies, fruits and kitchen items.

“This is not just a cheery and whimsical exhibition, but it’s by no means a downer show. I mean, there are jelly beans in the window,” Utter said.

The exhibit is undoubtedly fun, but it also has a serious edge. A row of plates done by artist Cam DeCaussin stands in as a relic from his past performances on world hunger. The plates were originally used in a performance where DeCaussin invited a group to eat a meal with him off the plates. When the guests were finished and full, their plates empty of food, a painting of a starved child was revealed to them on their plate. His contribution to Work pays tribute to how cultures outside our own view food.

Another chilling commentary on consumption comes from Art and Design graduate student Brad Wicklund. His work, “United States of America,” presents a series of American states silk-screened on freezer paper to represent T-bone steaks. The red slabs of Michigan, Florida and Oklahoma have borders of bone, rivers of veins and lakes of fat deposits. What results is a self-reflection on the overabundant, wasteful and environmentally unsound meat production practices in this country.

“In America especially, there is no connection with food,” Utter said. “We have become detached from our food in so many ways. We wanted to reconnect people with their food. Just knowing where your food comes from, that chicken doesn’t come from a Tyson plant, is a concept we wanted to tackle.”

Consumerism is also a reccurring theme throughout “Edibles.” Tony Hope, a student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, displayed a series of mixed media paintings that resembled a version of sinister pop art. Taking the logos of highly recognizable products like Pop-Tarts, Farmer Jack and Fun Dip, Hope layers newspaper, drawing and stencils under paint that drips and runs off his canvas. This technique gives his paintings — and the products displayed in them — a very uneasy tone. It’s a tone distinctly different from the bright and confident advertisements that usually showcase the goods.

The exhibit’s call for work asked submitting artists what food says about a culture’s core values. In their work, we find the answers: consumerism, over-production, mass consumption and artificial nutrients. Luckily, as with most widely criticized social behaviors, there is a counter-movement. In this case, it is the local food movement that has manifested itself in the artists’ work as the moral opponent.

Using food coloring, vanilla extract, icing, rice crispies, butter and Styrofoam, Heather Anne Leavitt crafted sculptures that are meant to represent the building of a community through local foods. Eggs, hens and barns are all stacked on one another in a balancing act, demonstrating the dependence between each individual element.

In some ways the folksy concept is building community itself. By inviting people from around town and outside of the School of Art and Design to contribute, the student curators are enhancing and challenging our ideas about art, culture and most importantly, food.

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