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What is the disruptive power of cooking for those that we love? How can we slow down a busy life and make a meal? And can this be "explained" in a painting? These questions were the starting point of "Provisions", an exhibition of paintings from the married duo, Liz Hernández and Ryan Whelan, showing at Part 2 Gallery in Oakland, California until 7 December.
Hernández and Whelan's project is a meditation on the transformative experience of food, considering the unexamined journey of ingredients, with landmarks like roadside signs and market stalls, fields and baskets, on their way to the kitchen. The humble food object is the land, the sun, the farmer, the field, the market, the knife, and the plate; it contains the potential to love, to grow, and to transform.
Fine Dining Lovers got in touch with the duo in order to understand their idea of art and explore their interesting point of view on the world of food and gastronomy.
Ryan and Liz, tell us briefly about your “Provisions” project and how it came about.
Liz: Ryan and I are partners in art and life, and at the beginning of the year we moved in together to a new place. I’d say we have always been good cooks and we enjoy the ritual of preparing food and eating it with others. We have always shown love to each other through food. When we first started dating Ryan made me breaded avocado tacos, probably one of the best dishes I’ve had! I still remember them to this day, it is very interesting to me how food can transport you back to a specific time and place. I can taste the flavors as I type this. After we settled in, we purchased some cooking books that friends recommended us and we started cooking with ingredients that were unfamiliar to us. I think the few months were we were trying to cook new dishes almost every day opened our eyes to the idea of ingredients and cooking as a part of our art practice.
Ryan: Provisions focuses on describing the transformative experience of food through the places food comes from. I decided to focus on the farms I see here in California and Liz focused on the markets in Mexico City that she grew up with. We found that cooking for each other was the one time we were able to disconnect from work and stress and reconnect with each other and ourselves. We wanted to create an exhibition that mimicked those feelings by overwhelming the viewers with a sense of place. For me, it was nature. I even went so far as to put real grass in the center of the room so one could have their toes in the grass and smell the dirt in the air.
What story does “Provisions” tell?
Ryan: I kind of see "Provisions" as the preface to a story. We don’t necessarily want to lead anyone down a specific narrative or to an exact conclusion. We really just want to provide a space for people to think about their own relation to food and what that story might be. In that sense, the ending of my story would be family and friends around a dinner table with empty plates, full stomachs, and warm hearts.
Liz: Provisions is not so much about us telling a story, but more about placing the viewer in a specific place and inviting them to look at the work and make up their own story. I wanted to introduce people to the food markets I would visit, and the goal for me was to capture the vibrant, overwhelming environment I experienced and have people ask themselves “What’s going on? Where am I at?”. When you enter the gallery and see Ryan’s work in the first room, you get a feeling of calmness, openness, the smell of grass is present as you stare at his landscapes and images of produce in the basket, freshly picked and on their way to the kitchen. Then you walk towards the second room and it is a bit overwhelming, vibrant color and text surrounds you, it is a big shift that Ryan and I consider an important aspect of our exhibition. Ideally the viewer leaves the gallery thinking about their own relationship to food, whatever that means to them.
Liz, why did you decide to represent food and food markets in your work? And why Mexico city specifically?
I was born and raised in Mexico City, and going to the markets was something I did frequently. I have memories of my grandparents and I on our way to the market to buy food for the week. Going there almost felt like a pilgrimage. These markets are outdoors and some are many city blocks long, it almost feels like there is no end to them. A lot of the stands have tarps or tents that are one specific color, and almost all the ones I visited were red or hot pink (which we call it Mexican Pink). When the sun hits the top of the tents, everything under them has a rosy glow. Vendors often display their food in very innovative ways, they stack, cut and display their goods in ways that are sculptural. They also make their own price signs, often incorporating messages that are funny or relevant to what is happening in the country, they are not only vendors but also authors and artists. The visual experience is fascinating, and that was the main reason why I wanted to represent food in this environment. After making your purchases,you end up overwhelmed by all the colors, smells and sounds, but suddenly as you exit the pink maze you are spitted out back to the reality of a bustling city.
Ryan, what makes the agricultural landscape so interesting for you as artists?
I’ve always seen these landscapes as a backdrop to driving down the freeway; when I’m on vacation on my way to see family and friends. So I think I’m drawn to it because of nostalgia and sort of where and when it always appeared in my life. In that context, I am interested in how it always appeared so soothing and exciting yet so simple and still. In the context of Provisions, I see the land and the sun as the providers for everything and everyone - it all starts there. I first focused on food as being the main character in Provisions, but eventually I realized I could describe the food through the place it all really comes from which are those agricultural landscapes.
What did this project teach both of you about food and gastronomy as it is today?
Ryan: That food and cooking have an enormous power to disrupt our day to day lives and reconnect us with our friends, ourselves, and our loved ones. I learned so much from Liz about how her culture views food, ingredients, and flavor as a way of honoring a place. I think it continue to make me realize that things are always more than what they seem.
Liz: Since I did a lot of research on produce from Mexico, and focused on ingredients that are very specific to certain regions, it taught me about the immense diversity of ingredients that we have. Mexican gastronomy is a combination of indigenous and european ingredients and techniques, the mixture of two produce a very complex, wild cuisine. I read about Mexican chefs trying to innovate traditional dishes and ingredients, my favorite being Enrique Olvera. I also learned a lot about varieties of seeds, herbs, vegetables and some rare tropical fruits and the cultural significance of some of these ingredients.
Is this the first time that you have featured food in your work? Have you ever done other food inspired projects in the past?
Ryan: We have had 2 exhibitions together previous to Provisions, each which alluded to food but never so directly about what food could do. In our first show together, titled “a pot is a pot is a pot”, I made a diptych that was an abstracted stack of dishes after a family meal - one which was neatly stacked and one that was stacked a bit more precariously. The title for the neatly stacked one is “Supported me in the best of times” and the precious stack is titled “Supported me in the worst of times”. These titles were speaking directly about my family and the post dinner stack of dishes as a metaphor for the “times”. No matter how rocky and messy they got, we all supported each other. I was thinking here more about the power of family rather than the power of food, so I think it was only natural for me to eventually investigate the flip side. I think we have always been approaching this idea and we are still going to be pushing it further.
Liz: As Ryan mentioned, we have alluded to food before but portrayed objects related to food-making. This is our very first time featuring food as the main focus. I often painted the vessels where the food would be cooked or served. For our second show Sunbath my favorite piece is a table layout as seen from above, where the plates are painted with red clay and have intricate flower decorations (a staple of Mexican pottery), even though the plates, pots and cups are empty, the way they are arranged implies that a group of people are about to sit down and enjoy a big meal. I also portrayed fruits and veggies before, but in abstract ways that make them look like blobs of color with some detailed patterns on top.
Will you work again with food?
Ryan: I think it I’ll definitely continue to be something we make art about. I see it becoming increasingly important as I grow older and something I’d like to be reminded of through art.
Liz: I think so! As Ryan says, we understand food differently than when we were younger, and in the last few years it has become something special to us and a source of inspiration. Cooking is creative, nurturing, a way to connect with others, and that is a message we want to spread through art.
(All images in the text are courtesy of Pt.2 Gallery)