Who is famous enough to be memorialized on a piece of toast? That’s the simple starting point of 100 Wonderbreads of the World, an ongoing work by artist, educator, and activist Kyle Lane-McKinley, which is on display as part of In Conversation, a show of UC Santa Cruz Art Faculty work curated by Shelby Graham at the R. Blitzer Gallery. Anyone casually familiar with Lane-McKinley will know him to be a deep thinker with a keen awareness of intersections between art, society, media culture, technology, and politics. 100 Wonderbreads, which features an ever-growing collection of iconic portraits laser-etched onto pieces of dried Wonder Bread, is perhaps less connected than some of Lane-McKinley’s other work to issues of social justice — such as the Objects Projects, created in collaboration with artist-activist Cheyanne Epps, which charts incidents of police shooting citizens after mistaking commonplace objects for weapons. But scratch the inarguably playful surface of 100 Wonderbreads of the World and you’ll nonetheless find plenty of consideration paid to this carbohydrate canon of personalities.
“When my friends and I first got access to a laser cutter in 2010 or so, the idea of etching the image of Jesus into toast was one of the first things we joked around about,” said Lane-McKinley, via email. The project obviously references the tabloidesque revelation of visions of holy figures discovered in toast, water stains, or other everyday materials.
The joke centers on the ease with which, using this crazy machine, one can create this object which previously appeared as downright miraculous. We weren’t initially particularly concerned with whose likeness was etched on the toast, just that the image was iconic enough to be easily recognized — and, of course, in order for the joke to work, the person has to be dead. Now I’m much more interested in who is included, but not in the sense of who the person was in their lifetime, so much as how their image circulates as a commodity in their death.
Lane-McKinley cites Che Guevara as an ideal example of this: a figure who represented ultimate rebellion and dissent within his lifetime, now relegated to a kind of image commodity that helps to sell t-shirts and baseball caps. In using laser technology, Lane-McKinley shows an interest in and apprehension about the role technology and digital culture plays in the transformation of individuals and social relations into commodities, “especially given the propensity of capitalism to render the most vulnerable amongst us as commodities (whether through race-slavery, through sexist objectification, or both).”
At R. Blitzer Gallery, Lane-McKinley has mounted the toasts inside clear, disposable plastic containers, of the type that might hold side salads in another context, and for the purposes of this show, they dominate an entire wall in an aesthetically satisfying grid formation. The packaging and unmistakable shape of sliced bread helps them to read as processed food, even from across the room, and, miracles or not, the discovery of each laser-etched personality is funny and satisfying.
The artist has created 54 toast icons to date, and has set up a page on his website to solicit suggestions for the remaining 46, which would fill out his somewhat arbitrary goal of 100. To qualify for toast status, the icon must be dead, and must be iconic enough that a one-word name (first or last, of no more than 13 characters) returns an image of the person in a Google image query — a rather tall order, when you consider how totally one must own a piece of culture to be among the primary search result for any one name.
Those already inducted into the canon are largely artistic or political figures: Ghandi, Cobain, Frida, Mao, Diana, Billie, Lennon. The project may now, sadly, include Prince. Gazing over the wall, it is astonishing to realize how recognizable these images are — even in the relatively low-fidelity context of toast art — and how inundated we have become with famous faces as signifiers, when they once were simply people’s faces. There is a sense that celebrities and political figures have become a symbol set that has perhaps displaced more fundamental or archaic houses of worship.
“A few friends have rightly pointed out that currently the icons selected have a euro-centric and male bent,” said Lane-McKinley.
That’s a tricky thing to deal with, in the sense that the folks who have risen to iconicity historically are disproportionately white dudes, and I don’t want to paper over the violence which that fact represents by artificially stacking the collection with women or people of color. At the same time, I think it is possible to include particular individuals whose very presence points to precisely these issues of intersectional oppression. It is those sort of icons that I’m particularly trying to identify for inclusion at this moment.
As for bread as a medium, Lane-McKinley does not foresee making it a mainstay of his material practice: “I’ve made some pretty impressive sandwiches in my day, which I wish I had documented, but this is the only art project that I’ve done with bread, and the smell that the Wonder Bread makes when being laser-etched is so foul that it has turned me off to the prospects of future toast art, to say nothing of my aversion to actually eating white bread.” Although, he concedes that Wonder Bread turns out to be a surprisingly (“frighteningly”) archival medium, as long as you dry it out first.
“I have a couple of pieces kicking around in my living room that I etched in 2011 and they haven’t aged or decayed perceptibly,” said Lane-McKinley. “No mold, no fading, nothing. Of course, the bread is fairly fragile and will crack or crumble if it is bounced around a lot, but I have a four year old daughter and a lot of pets, and so far etched toast has held up better than most other things I own. I suppose that’s disconcerting from a dietary perspective.”
While Lane-McKinley is the first to concede that this project is not his most intellectually challenging work, there is something to be said for Wonder Bread as an ideal medium for the examination of corporate culture — which has so effectively commodified instant gratification and cheap pleasure, as well as our relationship to celebrities — with an emphasis on image and artificial preservation.
In Conversation continues at R. Blitzer Gallery (2801 Mission St Ext, Santa Cruz) through May 7.