The idea of comfort food encourages notions of gluttonous narcissism, and the idea of a gallery show organized around comfort food promises a lot of navel-gazing, belly rubbing, me-centered art. The sinister flip side of grandma’s cooking – or even the late night pizza binge – is that the belief in their sanctity often coincides with all manners of xenophobic and nationalistic identity politics. And it certainly doesn’t bode well for the “Comfort Food” show at Soo Visual Arts Center that the catalogue introduction is written by a Twin Cities food critic notorious for her solipsism. Fortunately, however, the artists represented in the exhibition manage to avoid the self-indulgence one would generally associate with the theme – so much so that there is very little in the way of food on display, and even less in the way of comfort.
Perhaps the first sign that the “Comfort Food” show isn’t about nostalgia glows at the visitor from the front window. Two video screens display ghostly black and white images of faceless diners eating meals whose contents are described in detailed captions. On entering the gallery, one discovers that these meals, exactingly catalogued, are the final gastronomic requests of the now 299 death-row inmates executed in the state of Texas since 1982.
The art collective Lucky Pierre took the last meal requests, prepared each of them, and consumed them for their video-installation, www.tdcj.state.tx.us/stat/finalmeals.htm, whose title is taken from Texas Department of Justice Web site that provides information on the state’s executions.
Ranging from the extreme (Stanley Baker, Jr. asked for “Two 16 oz. ribeyes, one lb. turkey breast – sliced thin, twelve strips of bacon, two large hamburgers with mayo, onion, and lettuce, two large baked potatoes with butter, sour cream, cheese, and chives, four slices of cheese or one-half pound of grated cheddar cheese, chef salad with blue cheese dressing, two ears of corn on the cob, one pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and four vanilla Cokes or Mr. Pibb,”) to the sadly austere (James Russell asked for an apple), the choices are also depressingly mundane, and reveal how, even in the face of death, it’s hard to escape the – often astonishing – eating habits of an American life.
Of the other pieces in the exhibit, only Suzy Greenberg’'s “State of Grace” and John Knuth and Christopher Salveter’'s “Tent” make food their central thematic focus. Greenberg’s room-sized installation features walls lined with slices of bread and a floor into which has been cemented a number of old scales. In the back wall of this grotto sits a small shrine to the Virgin Mary carved from an ear of corn. In this holy of holies, food is both spiritually palliative and potentially demonic. Each step through the room leads one either to redemption or down the path towards over-indulgence and temptation. Should one choose the latter, Knuth and Salveter’s piece, made of – among other things – Pepto Bismol and milk of magnesia, suggests a place where one could hide and take their ease after the worst gustatory infamies.
The rest of the pieces in “Comfort Food” focus more on the notion of comfort, and they are a mixed lot. Andrea Petrini’s series of small pictures made from thread and found linen are delicate and ambiguous, evoking a certain hipster, thrift-shop aesthetic while hearkening back to a much earlier period when people would spend their leisure sitting and stitching.
On the other hand, Michael Hoyt’s series of oil on fiberglass paintings, featuring pictures and recordings of people singing karaoke, is simply cute, and Jean Humke’s “lovo,” a birch tree set into a huge upholstered divan, is far too self-conscious about its environmental/political themes and far too concerned that viewers remove their shoes and any sharp objects from their pockets. As a result, Humke’s installation suffers from a seriousness that makes it hard for anyone to take anything from it but the most awkward of comforts.
On the whole, though, while the individual pieces may fail to measure up to the force of Lucky Pierre’s video, it is these less literal-minded pieces that help make “Comfort Food” work as an exhibit. Suggesting that what we take solace from often exists beyond what we can consume, and instead that comfort comes from memory and the pleasures of the intellect, “Comfort Food” tries gamely to push viewers beyond nostalgic yearning into a more communally oriented focus on history. The comforts offered in that realm might be less personal but ultimately they may be more lasting.