We’ve dined our way through the Met and the Whitney, so naturally we were hungry to head over the bridge to Brooklyn, home to one of the most famous food-related pieces of art, Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” (That we’re then in striking distance of a hot toddy at Tooker Alley doesn’t hurt, either.) We asked Kevin Stayton, chief curator of the Brooklyn Museum to play art history professor with us, decoding some of the cultural and artistic contexts for the museum’s collection. When in doubt, we learned, think: sex.
A triangular dinner table set with plates depicting the vulvas of prominent women throughout time, Chicago described her monumental piece “as a reinterpretation of The Last Supper from the point of view of women, who, throughout history, have prepared the meals and set the table.”
“The notion of sharing a repast has been a way people have socialized since they started killing beasts and roasting them over a fire. It’s the way communities come together and establish their coherence,” Stayton said. “Here you have the notion of a group of women from all different time periods coming together around the modern concept of a dinner. The commonality is that they are women who have a contribution to make but have been overlooked. That the standard notion of a fellowship — whether you’re talking about Plato to Jesus Christ is that these great dinners in history have been for men, and here is a symposium for women.”
Simple 19th century genre picture, right? Maybe not. This middle class interior shows a costly carpet, a rich abundance of food indicating a grand dining table, and a woman who — unconventionally and rather boldly — looks straight at someone.
“She’s obviously ladling out some molasses. She has no doubt tasted it, because the title of the picture is “Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses.” It means, if you kiss me, you kiss the molasses that I just ate. And if you kiss me, you kiss ‘lasses,’ as in the Scottish word for young women.”
“But then there’s also kind of that uncomfortable question of who is this exactly? And who is she looking at? Who is she talking to? Is she a servant talking to the master or the master’s son? The gaze is a male gaze on a female character who is being objectified in a way. The traditional second meaning of fruit as something that’s lush and sensual and sexual and relates to the apple in the Garden of Eden is also here. Is she just another something to enjoy among this middle class abundance?”
“There’s so much going on here. It may be because of our 21st century feminist perceptions that we find it uncomfortable, or at least I do. It may be that the originally viewers saw pleasantly flirtatious young woman, whereas I tend to read sexual subtexts that are about control and power.”
Part of the series, “Food, Clothing Shelter,” Simmons chose three images to represent the domestic roles of women, juxtaposing legs with a house, a glove, and a hot dog, commenting on the gendered function of even the most basic needs.
“An image one could read as evocative of part female and part evocative of male,” Stayton said, it’s a work with an “almost like dreamlike evocation of contemporary culture and sensuality. It’s the kind of work where initially you look at it and you see immediately the popular culture connotations, you’re also faced with a lot of questions. In that way it’s like that dream you just barely remember when you wake up. There’s just something you can’t put your finger on.”
The descendent of a long tradition of still lives, this one focuses on the humblest aspects of the table, as opposed to rare and expensive fruits.
“You have two kinds of edibles that are really at the bottom of the social scale for fruits and vegetables. You’ve got the plain old homely turnip — the cheapest thing that you could possibly put on a plate, and then you have bananas which in our world, are one of the cheapest fruits. It may or may not be a coincidence that the turnips suggest breasts, the bananas penises. But what certainly is interesting is that the banana had descended in importance dramatically in the 60 years before this. If this picture had been painted in 1870, it would have had a very different message. In the 1870s, bananas were rare, costly, imported fruit. By the time this pictures is painted in 1937, bananas are cheap and common. But they had been something quite different. The turnips have always been pretty lowly — peasant food. I think that’s what this painter is playing with. This is 1937 — it’s the middle of the depression. Things were hard; life was a little grim. This is sort of WPA kind of art, that sort of grim social realism of the Depression era.”
Remember how stoked you were to have this arty toaster in your first apartment?
“The notion of toast is another one of those food ideas that had a huge change. For hundreds and hundreds of years, people toasted bread by using a long fork on an open fire. Then in the very beginning of the 20th century, you could buy a machine with these modern electrical filaments in it to toast bread evenly and quickly anywhere instead of having to sit in front of an open fire. If you look at early toasters they’re streamlined, art deco, they’re chrome. They look like a car or an airplane. Here you have the last remnants of postmodernism in a toaster, great modern style in a kitchen appliance. People often say it doesn’t matter what it looks like, it only matters what it tastes like. But that’s not true. We’re very interested in what the food looks like, and in how it looks when it’s served, and how the thing that prepares it looks.”
Jell-O, meet mold: the ultimate marriage of high-brow form and low-brow food.
“Before the middle of the 19th century, gelatin was a status food. In order to make gelatin you needed to have all these trimmings — calves’ hooves and all these things that were cheap, but that you normally only had in a big household. You were ordering half a lamb or half a calf every week from the butcher and eating very well. Then you had all these odds and ends leftover that you made gelatin out of. Poor people didn’t have gelatin. It was only when it began to be made as a commercial product that suddenly Jell-O was everywhere. Jell-O was one of the cheapest and most ubiquitous foods there was. But it was still made in these molds. It’s not good enough to make Jell-O in a big old lump. It was made in a bright color, in a fancy mold, with fruits in it. It became this great presentation that remembered the time when gelatins were expensive. If food is expensive you want to make a big deal out of it.”
Photos courtesy of Brooklyn Museum.