Photo Essays

Absence as Food Art

Paul Ramirez-Jonas and Kevin Lasko's “Plus One” at Park Avenue Spring (all photo by author)

Last Wednesday April 6, Hyperallergic LABS Tumblr editor Janelle Grace and I attended a press preview for a collaboration between artist Paul Ramirez-Jonas and Park Avenue Spring chef Kevin Lasko called Plus One, hosted at the restaurant and presented by Creative Time Consulting.

Here are both of our takes on the event, plus a photo essay. Bon appetit!

Kyle Chayka:

Food art is hard to do right. The sheer fact that something is edible seems to denigrate it as an art object in the eyes of many viewers, myself included. But what’s interesting about this collaboration between Ramirez-Jonas and Lasko is that there are two, almost disparate, elements to the piece. It’s one part conceptual sculpture designed by the artist, one part taste composition by the chef; each part equally artistic and equally symbolic. The two come together in one very neat object, deemed Plus One. The exhibition, curated by  Creative Time’s Meredith Johnson, is hosted at fine restaurant Park Avenue Spring and is the second in a series of food-based artist collaborations, following Marina Abramovic’s Volcano Flambe.

The artist also behind Creative Time’s Key to the City project, Paul Ramirez-Jonas’s work verges on ideas of relational aesthetics but shies away from the immateriality of Tino Sehgal. For this piece, a wine glass punctured by a hole in its bulb balances in a saucer filled with broken egg shells. A beet juice cocktail fills the glass and slowly drains out through a cork spout that blocks the hole, trickling into the saucer and soaking the egg shells. The slow dripping, the draining of the wine glass, is meant to represent the presence of an absent companion. The piece’s purpose is to “bring other people to the table,” the artist said, “the extra glass drinks itself,” just as a dining companion would drain their drink. It’s dining-as-conceptual-experience, rather than a dining experience.

Chef Kevin Lasko came up with the food materiality of the piece, composing the beet juice cocktail and choosing egg shells as a base. The beet choice came about as much for its taste as for its seasonality and coloring, reminiscent of blood or blooming flower petals. What interests me in this collaboration is the delineation between visual art and the art of cooking: Lasko’s artistic choices are just as, if not more, visual and sensual than Ramirez-Jonas’s, and yet the collaboration is “art” only because of Ramirez-Jonas’s presence. Though the line between food and art “is blurring,” as curator Meredith Johnson noted, there’s still a whiff of visual art exceptionalism to the project and a slight undercutting of the chef.

The other wrinkle that caught me in this project was that this is a collaboration between Creative Time Consulting (a branch of the original Creative Time) and Park Avenue Spring. Though it presents an interesting art piece that is fairly publicly accessible (the work costs $5 per person to order), this event also is also a pay-for-play cross-branding opportunity. Park Avenue Spring gets some of the credibility that comes with Creative Time’s considerable art world reputation, and Creative Time gets funding to curate and organize the event, plus the status and visibility that comes with the audience of a well-regarded contemporary restaurant. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it’s something to watch out for. Creative Time Consulting seems to be a sort of marketing arm of Creative Time, producing paid-for events using its stable of artists. It’s worth noting that the definition of the consulting branch is still developing.

Commercial conflict or not, the work tastes good, and it provokes some thought about the line between food and art, our own biases and the differences in creative process between disciplines.

Janelle Grace:

Paul Ramirez Jonas’ artistic collaboration with Park Avenue Spring chef Kevin Lasko “Plus One” has the nice glimmer of the spectacle of the conceptual – a flavored fountain dedicated to pouring one out for your homie, so to speak (see Urban Dictionary). As a piece on its own, it’s a nice complement to a meal: the social aspect of dining given a lovely visual representation, a thoughtful conversation starter.

The beet tonic – a mixture of beet juice, yuzu, ginger, sparkling water, and rose syrup – has an earthy yet tangy taste that fits right into the spring theme of Park Avenue Spring, and the use of natural color, eggs and their shells bring to mind Easter, a time of rebirth and cleansing. The pickled, fancified deviled egg sliver amuse-bouche is also tasty – punchy and earthy as well – but feels secondary to the sculptural wine glass slowly draining splatter patterns onto the eggshells. I appreciate the links between the passage of time and the seasonality of the piece; the luscious deep purple of the beet tonic is set off nicely by the pink cherry blossoms decorating the restaurant.

The larger public project as a whole, however, strikes me as somewhat self-indulgent. As much as I do enjoy and appreciate edible art, the rarefied high-society world Park Avenue Spring inhabits means that project’s audience will be somewhat limited by class, and not as egalitarian as “public artwork,” Creative Time’s mandate, would suggest. Of course, the nature of the project is quite collaborative, and not every restaurant would be able to offer the availability of its chefs in the same way.

I want to believe, however, that it’s a matter of resources that allows Park Avenue to participate, and not the culinary pedigree of its chefs. It’s a beautiful thing to highlight the parallels between artistic and culinary creation, but I think that these considerations and collaborations could be made at any price point and at any level of access. I hope that future explorations of food’s artistic materiality will trickle down to more student-friendly prices, but in the meantime you can always purchase only the $5 installation and pick up the check from there.

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Creative Time artist Paul Ramirez-Jonas stands in front of a table of his sculpture pieces, collaborations with Park Avenue Spring chef Kevin Lasko. The tasting was held in an event room off of the main Park Avenue Spring dining room.

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A row of Ramirez-Jonas’s table sculptures were aligned on a table at the front of the room, surrounded by pink blossoming branches. The wine glasses are filled with a beet juice and tonic mixture, echoing the Spring colors of the blossoms.

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A close-up of one sculpture. The hand-blown wine glass has a hole in the side, which is blocked by a cork. The cork has a hole drilled through the middle, which ends in a metallic spout. The beet juice slowly drips out into the bottom saucer.

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The bottom saucer of the table sculpture is filled with egg shells, which pool and absorb the beet juice, resulting in a nice mixture of colors and textures. The passage of the beet juice from the glass into the saucer is a measure of passing time and passing conversation.

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Guests to the tasting were served glasses of beet juice and tonic, which will also be served with the actual work in the restaurant. It’s a little earthy tasting and a little sweet. The tonic water thins it out. Yum!

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Park Avenue Spring served up a few hors d’oeuvres to go with the art tasting, including this mini hamburger topped with a tiny pickle slice.

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Another hors d’oeuvres, this time a tiny lobster roll on a miniature slice of toast split down to the middle.

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Hyperallergic LABS Tumblr editor Janelle Grace chows down on a tiny sandwich, possibly a peanut butter and jelly. Pretty good, though I guess it wasn’t quite a piece of art. Save that for the beet juice.

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From left, Creative Time curator Anne Pasternak, Park Avenue Spring chef Kevin Lasko and artist Paul Ramirez-Jonas. According to Anne, Creative Time’s mission was to “create new and wonderful things at the restaurant.”

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Park Avenue Spring consultant and Fourth Wall Restaurants founder Michael Stillman was proud to be at the unveiling and spoke on how the restaurant embraces seasonal produce in creative ways.

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The other component to the collaborative food sculpture were small glass dishes with tastes of beet juice-pickled egg, caviar, horseradish and radish chips. It was an interesting combo, but not quite as fun or tasty as the beet tonic. Here you can see waiters laying out the small dishes.

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Jonas and Lasko’s collaboration as it is listed on the Park Avenue Spring menu. The sculpture costs $5 per person and guests are free to only order that item or eat it at the bar, noted Creative Time curator Meredith Johnson. The low cost is a nice touch given the high entrance barrier to the lux restaurant. Grab a drink and the appetizer and you’ll only spend… $20! Oh well.

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The sculpture as it was set out on our small table. At left, the glass dish with the pickled egg, at right, our personal wine glass full of beet juice, slowly dripping out in the saucer. Purple candles complete the scene.

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This is Janelle’s art — she suggested to the tasting’s bartender that he mix up a cocktail of beet tonic and gin. I thought it was delicious. The trend quickly caught on and I noticed a few other beet cocktails around the room later on.

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Creative Time’s Brittany Reilly with a beet juice and pickled egg, plus an unidentified white wine.

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Plus One runs at Park Avenue Spring (100 East 63rd Street) through Spring 2011, and is available for $5 per person.

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