There’s a much-loved tale in the art world that centres on a vegetable; Charles Ephrussi, the man who bought Manet’s “A Bunch of Asparagus”, sent the painter more money than they agreed. When Manet received the hefty sum, so the story goes, he painted and sent back an oil work of one more lone stem: ‘There was one missing from your bunch’, read the note attached.
What the story demonstrates, other than the fact that Manet was no stranger to schmoozing, is a plot point in a longer tale: art, food, money – all three are well acquainted. Of course, when Manet first put brush to canvas, he was climbing onto a crowded bandwagon. Already aboard were (cue more asparagus) the Dutch masters, those of long shadows, wealthy patrons and the groaning kitchen tables of a merchant capital. Asparagus essentially entered cultural immortality because it cost a lot.
These days, this golden, candied triangle lives on, but our relationship within it has made an about turn. It’s less that art tries to look like food, with still life good-enough-to-eat, but food that tries to look like art, aspiring with each sprig of dill towards the stark white walls of a gallery. And the money? Well that’s still there of course.
It’s this oddity of modern life that painter George Little and sculptor Lucy Tomlins quietly tap into. Tomlins’ work has already played with the idea of food’s commodification, and their collaboration, just opened at Bosse & Baum in Peckham’s Copeland Estate, first points to it with a jarring wall of easy-wipe gingham tablecloth. Laid unevenly, it strikes you as you enter, a clever touch: both universal shorthand for cheap eats and picnic baskets but also the self-satisfied irony of so many new restaurants, with their jam jars and knowing kitsch.
As the eye adjusts, it then rests on a marble sausage. Somewhat unexpected: a classical sculpture for the junk food generation. Its shiny skin is pink but thinly veined with blues, as if fresh out the packet before it hits the frying pan. “Top Dog” (2014), it’s titled, like a spunky new fast food joint.
Sculpture and painting interact with each other and coincide throughout the space of the installation. The artists, who had never worked together before, were, as curator Alexandra Warder tells me, closely allied both practically and theoretically from the outset. Though working in separate studios, their vision was shared, and the final outcome is a buffet cooked up from the pair’s imagination.
If the red gingham provides the backdrop for the works to sit against, then the smudge, or the smear, provides a motif. You first notice it in one of Little’s paintings, “Bistrotheque” (2015); gingham cloth again, but this time soiled, with a kind of nauseous brown veneer. It appears again, in a new guise, on Tomlins’ eye-catching central work, “Kaizen” (2015), a rotating conveyor belt of entirely inedible sushi, at home on the high street if it weren’t for the unnerving creak of its motor. Cement bricks, or ‘plinths’ as Warder refers to them, trundle round, and a glistening gloop of grey on one seems to sum up Noughties nouvelle cuisine in a single, oily swoop.
Looking up at the walls and Little’s paintings, and you notice what resemble artfully displayed plates of amuse-bouches, or paint, or both, placed seemingly at random. They primly answer back the mismatched gingham, and I’m reminded, when I look at them, of standing in a harshly lit, stripped back gallery, somewhat bewildered. I’m reminded too of being served a kiwi sorbet before a piece of fish, a palate cleanser, I’m told. Expensive sensory experiences, Tomlins and Little remind you, like to leave you on the back foot.
As the conveyor belt whirrs, each carefully presented piece gleams with its individual craftmanship as it sails by, yet becomes interchangeable, even absent, too. The art of sushi once took years to master and each morsel really was a work of art, it growls; now it gyrates around your Wednesday lunch break with a time stamp ticking a box for the FSA.
If food and art were always pally, then what’s the problem with this orgy of consumption? Sure, our food now tries to look like our paintings, rather than other way round: eat in a high-end restaurant now, and your plate comes free with a side serving of entry-level abstract art. Through ‘concept dining’ and ‘experimental cuisine’, so much food now talks in the language of the avant-garde artist that it’s become a tired, palatable cliché.
Little and Tomlins’ installation comes at an interesting juncture in this backlash, and it sits in fruitful dialogue with parallel exhibits at the Delfina Foundation and Rowing Projects both also based in a Michelin-star-spangled London. By enshrining food in the visual language of fine art for our consumption, the exhibition seems to say, we do little, in the end, to nourish either the body or the soul.
Text by Imogen Greenhalgh
George Little & Lucy Tomlins: Under the Cloche or You Always Catch Me Napkin is on at Bosse & Baum from 11 April until 10 May 2015
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