Ruby C. Williams sells produce at a stand along Florida’s State Road 60, which runs east-west through the Sunshine State from Clearwater Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, through Tampa, and on to Vero Beach on the Atlantic Coast. She hand-paints signs to entice passing motorists to stop, and her advertisements are rendered in bright acrylic paint on board. Sometimes they’re simple—an orange circle on a matte grey background cheerily offering “sweet orange Florida’s best” or a bold red circle with a short green stem and leaves announcing “farm tomatoes.” Other signs deliver an almost aphoristic uplift, such as a green and gold flower surrounded by text that reads, “It’s getting better,” or a portrait of a woman in blue on gold board that suggests, “It’s a great thing to love someone.”
A collection of Williams’ paintings swallows an entire wall on the third floor of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Md., and the installation calibrates the brain for thinking about the museum’s current, yearlong exhibition, YUMMM! The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food. Everything here brings to mind all the ways that people think about and use food as nourishment for body, mind, and community.
What raises YUMMM a notch or two above AVAM’s typically ambitious and wide-ranging mammoth exhibitions is how effortlessly it captures the museum’s unorthodox mission and education goals: the works from the 35 included artists fuse form and function, emotions and science, and the personal and the political to describe visual art that is as poignant as it is smart. YUMMM‘s visual cornucopia simply pulls off such heady sophistication in the plainspoken vernacular of a buffet restaurant.
And like a smorgasbord, the exhibition threatens to overwhelm the brain initially. One of the first things that grabs the eyes upon entering the exhibition is “Brackman’s Botanical Bonanza,” a nearly 10-foot-diameter mandala made entirely of paper plates, straws, and paper towel tubes. As constructed by artist Wendy Brackman, who also made a mandala for AVAM’s 2012 All Things Round exhibition, paper bees, ants, and ears of corn adorn the work’s outer circle, and each subsequent inner circle of the mandala contains a garden of flowering blooms, cabbage heads, pineapples, and carrots. Press a button near the installation and a motor cranks the four circles that make up the mandala, turning it into a whirling kaleidoscope of vegetation. It’s visually dramatic, but it also slyly articulates one of YUMMM‘s understated themes: food saturates every point on the circle of life. What we consume, how we prepare it, and who we eat it with is inextricably intertwined with how we identify and sustain ourselves and our lives.
Joe Bello pushes the relationship between how food shapes the human physique with his figurines cut out from commercial food-product packaging. An array of these disarming cut-outs are found in a hallway gallery of the YUMMM‘s sprawling exhibition. Initially they feel merely endearing, looking like curio silhouettes of cowboys, boxers, men in suits, dancers, couples, gymnasts made from the cardboard packaging that houses crackers, frozen pizzas, bacon, orange juice, and others. It’s only after the brain spends a few minutes trying to figure out which name brands some of this imagery comes from—that’s a box of Ritz, that’s Triscuit, etc.—that Bello’s sly commentary emerges. A 2016 study reported that more than half of all calories consumed in the U.S. come from the processed foods associated with these corporate branded items, which are leading causes of obesity and heart disease. And in Bello’s art, these mass-produced substances are what make us.
Elsewhere, the exhibition spotlights food’s role as a social binding. In the mid 1980s Jerry Beck, an artist and educator in the greater Boston area, founded the Revolving Museum as a site for collaborative, community-based art projects. When its brick-and-mortar home closed in 2012, Beck turned the idea into a nomadic enterprise. In 2016 the Revolving Museum partnered with the Fitchburg and Leominster’s Boys and Girls Club in Western Massachusetts for the Bread Art project, a wall mural made entirely from bread. Baking sheets were lined with dough to form canvases, dough was rolled up, stretched out, shaped into lettering, and sliced into to form lines and designs, and the baked end results are mounted in a single YUMMM gallery. For other works, individual pieces of toast are treated as tiles to form mosaic-like works. All the Bread Project pieces address social issues, from hunger to economic inequality: “money is not the only dough” reads one work. Both the bread as medium and the young people’s art ideas could be too cutesy on their own; combined they become something quietly powerful, a collage of idealistic sentiments that forms a community.
The installation “Shared Dining” offers a snapshot of different communities: inmates at a women’s prison in Connecticut. The installation, inspired by Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party,” features a triangular table laid out with ten place settings created by an incarcerated woman, with each setting dedicated to somebody significant to the artist. One setting is laid out for race car driver Danica Patrick, one for Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, and one is laid out for the woman the inmate killed while driving drunk. It’s a work that possesses a bit of the quiet power of the Names Project’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, a mix of testimony and remembrance.
Works such as “Shared Dining” and Joe Bello’s cut-outs illustrate how food and eating is wrapped up in many aspects of life, but YUMMM doesn’t shy away from simple pleasures, either. A number of works unite visual joy and tastiness, perhaps none more so than Cuban artist Ramon Alejandro’s “La Origine,” “La Terre Promise,” and especially “La mécanisme de la multiplication des désirs.” These luscious oil-on-canvas paintings are surreal landscapes populated with gorgeously rendered fruit. “La mécanisme de la multiplication des désirs”—the mechanism of the multiplication of desires—features a tree, whose branches resemble the curved woodwork at the top of a cello’s head, that sits on the pinkish-beach against a blue-gray sky. Large pineapples, papayas, and bananas surround it, and Alejandro paints the scene with the crisp elegance of a Rene Magritte canvas. It’s beautiful to look, even though it doesn’t entirely make sense.
So go ahead and overstuff a plate at AVAM: this exhibition finds a different way to accomplishing what Upton Sinclair feels like he failed to do with his The Jungle novel about American slaughterhouses in 1906. Sinclair hoped his labor-minded novel might inspire Americans to rethink the working conditions of the people who touch our food; what his book ended up producing, however, as journalist and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser noted in the forward for the 2006 reprint of the The Jungle, was legislation that protected food consumers from misbehavior by corporate food producers. Sinclair later wrote: “I aimed for the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.” YUMMM shows that it’s possible for art to hit the heart on its way to hitting stomach that art can be one of the most effective ways for thinking about how food shapes who we are and the world we hope to inhabit.
YUMMM! The History, Fantasy, and Future of Food, at the American Visionary Art Museum through September 3, 2017