ArtWeekend

When the Exhibition Becomes a Work of Art

Who would have thought that still lifes would create such a strong reaction?

“Food” at Yoshii Gallery, New York: installation view; photo: Chiu Ng (all images courtesy Yoshii Gallery)

Many contemporary still lifes depict food. The 22 works on display at Yoshii Gallery under the inclusive title, Food, provide a good selection.

They include sculpted fruit — Tadao Ando’s “Green Apple” (2018), Ugo Rondinone’s “Still Life (one pear)” (2012) and Gen Saratani’s “Strawberry (2019) — along with “Chocolate Bar” (2012) by Adam McEven and a cooked breakfast, Claes Oldenburg’s sculpture “Pancakes and Sausages” (1962).

These works represent actual food, while others depict cooked or packaged foodstuffs: “Big Mac Box” (2007) by Tom Sachs and, on the wall, his “Krusty O’s” (2019), a painting of a boxed cereal; Paul McCarthy’s large photograph “Propo (Ketchup)” (2002); and “Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box” (1962) by Andy Warhol.

Some artworks tell jokes — Gavin Turk’s “Core” (2005) is an apple core sculpture made of oil paint on bronze — and others make historical allusions. Elaine Sturtevent’s “Oldenburg Store Object, Bacon and Egg” (1967), a chickenwire, cloth, plaster, and enamel reconstruction of an early example of the Pop master’s work, is set alongside two genuine Oldenburg sculptures.

Tom Sachs, “Big Mac Box” (2007), polymer color and krylon paint on bronze, 5 5/8 x 3 5/8 x 4 3/4 inches (photo by Chiu Ng)

Some years ago, when Darren Jones and I were gathering examples for our study, The Contemporary Art Gallery: Display, Power and Privilege  (2016), we were interested in how much that institution had changed since the heyday of the white cube, as memorialized in Brian O’Doherty‘s famous book Inside the White Cube (1986, adapted from articles that appeared in Artforum 10 years earlier).

Nowadays galleries might have natural overhead lighting or even windows on the outside world; some complement the art with brightly colored walls. Many prefer austere installations, with lots of space between the individual works. But occasionally there are dense, Salon-style hangings.

And gallery entrances, too, have now become very varied; sometimes, for example, the front desk is not in the front, and at least one Manhattan gallery was in a basement. We were particularly interested in contrasting these commercial spaces to those in public art museums. By the time we finished, however, we thought that we had exhaustively catalogued all of the present options.

Ugo Rondinone, “Still Life (one pear)” (2012), cast bronze, lead, paint, 4 1/4 x 2 3/4 x 2 5/8 inches (photo by Chiu Ng)

Now, however, I realize that this belief was mistaken. Food offers something new. What makes this an extraordinary exhibition, a truly virtuosic curatorial performance, is the presentation. The Yoshii Gallery is on the third floor of a Madison Avenue building, just downstairs from Larry Gagosian’s massive two-floor space. To get to this small gallery, you must walk through a narrow corridor, and then turn to enter the main room. And there you find that almost all of the art in “Food” is gathered together in one relatively small space.

Some works are wall-mounted: Tom Wesselmann’s collage “Little Still Life #7” (1963) is one, and Warhol’s “Large Campbell’s Soup Can” (1964), a silkscreen, is another. But you are mostly surrounded by sculptures on high and low pedestals — Warhol’s silkscreened sculpture, “Campbell’s Tomato Juice Box,” and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s “We Said (frackfort no frackfort)” (2012), to name two — so you need to be very careful when you move.

You will find Tom Friedman’s 3/8-inch “Untitled (Pea)” (2013), the smallest contemporary artwork I have ever seen, high on the right wall. And in a corner on the floor sits Rondinone’s trompe-l’oeil, “Still Life (one pear),” a cast bronze with yellow paint. Look straight ahead, turn to either side, and then look behind you to find still more artworks. The gallery isn’t cluttered for there aren’t a great many objects, and many of them are small, but because they are positioned throughout this art-filled room, as I said, you have to be careful. I found it best to look by twisting and turning while standing in the center, keeping my feet motionless.

Tom Friedman, “Untitled (Pea)” (2013), styrofoam and paint, diameter: 3/8 inch (photo by Chiu Ng)

Normally, except at openings, most art galleries are not crowded. Just as some dogs walk in circles before sitting down, gallery visitors often slow down upon entering, to get the feel of the space before settling down to look.

And of course some installations make this task more complicated. Fred Sandback’s dangling rope sculptures are hard to see, which makes it easy to get entangled in them. But once you have located your position with some care, so that you don’t bump into a sculpture when moving back to view a painting, you are safe.

At Food, however, you needed to remain mentally alert. Normally almost anything in a gallery could also be shown in a museum. But no public museum could handle this exhibition.

What, then, does the form of this presentation reveal about its content, food? I puzzled over that question for a long time. You couldn’t do a convincing show like this of landscape paintings, portraits, or abstract artworks. What then, I wondered, made this display of contemporary still life so obviously successful?

“Food” at Yoshii Gallery, New York: installation view (photo by Chiu Ng)

Here a historical perspective is essential. When critics praised Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin’s fruit, Edouard Manet’s asparagus, or Paul Cézanne’s apples, they contrasted the banality of these subjects with the artists’ skill at presenting them. In his great essay “Chardin,” for example, Marcel Proust writes:

You will be a Chardin, less great, to be sure, but great to the extent to which you will love him, to which you will re-constitute yourself to be, like him, one for whom metal and pottery will come to life and fruits have language.

Most of the food-art in Food really comes from a different world. There’s hardly anything that would draw your eye unless you were really hungry. Now, however, what can still attract your attention is a magnetic display, a collective work of art created by a curator. Who would have thought that still lifes would create such a strong reaction? Compelling you to look closely at things you would ordinarily scarcely notice is a real achievement.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this novel experience of space long after I left the gallery. Few exhibitions inspire such a lasting response. What might have happened as the crowds entered at the opening? I wish I could have been a fly on the wall, or, better still, on the ceiling.

Note: The Proust quote is found on page 326 of Marcel Proust on Art and Literature (Carroll & Graf, 1984).

Food continues at Yoshii Gallery (980 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through January 25.

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