To peer into one’s refrigerator is to peer into one’s soul — at least, that’s the premise of You Are What You Eat, a photography series by San Antonio–based photographer Mark Menjivar, on view at Boerum Hill’s delightful micro gallery 0.00156 acres. The seven photographs featured in the exhibition depict the interiors of refrigerators in various US households, images Menjivar took over three years spent traveling across the nation, curious about America’s eating habits.
At first glance, the viewer is tempted to cast a scathing eye over the shelves of the refrigerators and their often deplorable contents: rancid takeout containers, stacks of frozen steaks lumped next to a bottle of Jose Cuervo, munched foodstuffs long past their sell-by dates, and the occasional fruit or vegetable. In some photos, I found my eye drawn to the general grubbiness of the fridge, the grease festering in its neglected corners and the hardened pools of spilled soda. Though the sloppy fridges irked me, the longer I looked at them, the more I found something strangely appealing — pretty, even — in their grossness.
Yet there’s more to be learned from these pictures than bad eating (and cleaning) habits. Each photo is a kind of sociological experiment, printed with a simple caption about the refrigerator’s keeper, usually a detail about their occupation or hobby. The captions work well, giving just enough information about the subjects to explain the order and contents of their fridges. For example, the schedule of a Texas bartender, who we’re told gets to sleep at 8 am and wakes up around four in the afternoon, seems to justify the take-out boxes jammed into his fridge and the fact that the only healthy product in sight is a carton of orange juice. And a botanist’s fridge is as one might expect it to be: overgrown, resembling a mini garden, with things practically sprouting in it.
Indeed, Menjivar’s photographs are highly suggestive of the lives of his subjects, sometimes even conjuring visions. Peering inside a carpenter/photographer’s freezer, crammed with the aforementioned red meat and Jose Cuervo, I pictured a grizzly-bearded, plaid shirt–wearing artist type taking a swig of tequila as he fires up the grill to cook a hearty steak dinner. And from the fridge adorned with health foods and a baby pink mixing bowl, belonging to the Brooklyn food artist operating a vegan bakery from her apartment, I imagined a young woman scrutinizing the labels of food items before tossing them into her cart at Whole Foods.
However, the captions don’t tell us enough to form a complete picture of the subjects; I could be entirely wrong about the carpenter and the baker. Maybe the carpenter’s a woman, and the baker hates Whole Foods. Menjivar retains enough mystery about his subjects for his pictures to be compelling. The most engaging one is that of the refrigerator of an amusement-park owner and war veteran from Alpine, Texas. The over-cluttered fridge, lined with neatly saran-wrapped containers of fruit and frankfurters, reused yogurt containers, and Tupperware, gives away a frugal food-keeper meticulous about saving leftovers. There’s a quaint candidness to the photo, and I relished scanning the methodically chaotic shelves and their tightly packed tubs and jars. It wasn’t that there was so much to see; rather, I felt that the longer I looked, the closer I came to the person from the picture.
Perhaps it’s this level of exposure that led one of Menjivar’s subjects to compare having her refrigerator photographed with posing nude. In a sense, they are naked pictures. Showing the food his subjects consume, Menjivar goes beyond their skin, as though reaching inside their very bodies. The photographs, which made it into last fall’s issue of the foodie journal Gastronomica — a copy of which is displayed in the exhibition, on a table alongside the photos — might even be regarded as subversive food porn; neither posh nor pretentious, the food pictured is rank looking and grotesque. Yet Menjivar’s photos aren’t shallow enough to be pornographic, and the refrigerators haven’t been rearranged or stylized in any way. Rather, the appearance of things as they appear inside the refrigerator speaks of the life going on outside of it.
If opening someone else’s fridge means making oneself at home, then Menjivar’s pictures posit the viewer as both stranger and houseguest. By granting us intimate but limited access to his subjects, Menjivar simultaneously invites us in and blocks our way. You Are What You Eat is a unique kind of domestic art. The series doesn’t simply make art out of the ordinary, but encourages us to consider the particularities of the lives of total strangers. Menjivar’s pieces aren’t just photos of fridges; they’re portraits of people we might cross on the sidewalk or stand next to on the subway — a nighthawk bartender, a middle-school science teacher, a yoga instructor: people the world puts us close to but whom we know very little about. Menjivar’s art offers a point of entry.
Mark Menjivar: You Are What You Eat continues at 0.00156 acres (114 Smith Street, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn) through February 3.