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Food Preserved With a Twist 'In the Polka Dot Kitchen'

Art Review: L.A. artists view mass-produced food with a sense of fun--and revulsion.

October 20, 1998|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

"In the Polka Dot Kitchen" is a two-venue, multi-edged exhibition of 19 L.A. artists on view in the galleries of the Pasadena Armory and Otis College of Art and Design. On its face, the show is ephemeral fun. At bottom, the subject of food opens a can of worms more elemental than sex.

Frequently pieces imitate junk food fashioned from unlikely stuff. Pae White's "Clear Birthday" is a cake concocted of Vicks VapoRub, Vaseline and resin. Unmistakably fake, I took it for an amusing appropriation of a plastic window display. By contrast, Andrea Bowers' "Recipe Series" cakes come on like everyday unfrosted baked goods until you read the ingredients. They include repellent matters such as "Bottled Minnows and other Critters." Carl Bronson's "Roswell Series" looks like brains in aspic.

Many works entice the eye with such repulsive inedibles. Even the title cuts two ways. A polka-dot kitchen seems harmlessly cheerful until a catalog read reveals why it was selected by curators Sally Elesby and Anne Ayers.

Turns out the "Polka Dot Kitchen" was the promotional testing ground for Betty Crocker, in past decades the fictional spokeswoman for General Mills processed food. Back then, products like Bisquick biscuit mix and instant Jell-O were accepted as wholesome, time-saving food. Since, all manner of ruckuses about preservatives have arisen, only to be followed by scary incidents involving food that is dangerously under-preserved, under-inspected or otherwise contaminated. We have a subtextual reminder that, at bottom, life is equally risky and seductive.

Janine Antoni's "Chocolate Gnaw" emphasizes recurrent use of goopy materials. They remind us that the alimentary tract transforms food from delicious to offal. Then nature takes over and makes excrement edible again. That idea's unpalatable only to the extent we resist recognizing the nature of our existence.

Initially, the only distraction from amusement is a vague sense of desperate deja vu. The exhibition appears as a revival of celebratory neo-Dadaist Pop turned inside out. Some participants took the occasion to make art jokes. Luciano Perna presents "Spaghetti Giacometti." But because the exhibition concentrates on mass-produced pleasure food rather than the rib-sticking variety, it can be read as a critique of mass culture. Since we've been there so often, that gets a little tiresome. Fortunately actual works refuse to stick to the program.

Like life, the exhibition is a potluck of varying tastes and appetites. James Feldman makes a paean to popcorn. Dan Frydman and Shirely Tse show a comfy couch covered with sweet white melted candy. Mitchell Kane includes such unlikely ingredients as celluloid in his recipes, Ginny Bishton just tacks them up. I couldn't quite figure out what davidkremers was up to.

Jeanne Dunning's "Icing" video tracks an attractive young person's head being cake-frosted with a spatula wielded by a pair of hands. It's easy to divine that the intentions of the froster are situated somewhere between the cannibalistic and the carnal. Either way it's OK with the frostee. What counts is the sheer engaging absurdity of the idea.

Arwen Sheppard-Starros' "Good Sport Victory Cake" is a one-liner revealing that all its little athletic trophy figures are out to seriously maim one another. Carlos Mollura affectionately evokes baseball memorabilia fans in a set of cookies painted with major league logos. Doug Hammet's shiny-frosted Cookie Monsters appear entirely lovable as does Jill Poyourow's painting, "Das Konditorbuch."

Pastry and architecture are each sometimes called "wedding cakes." Jessica Rath takes the idea insincerely seriously in a series of unlikely architectural models. Made on wood supports covered with frosting, the material lends a spectral wooziness to towering piles, like imagined memories of Asia. Carol Kim's "The Peeler" evokes her childhood memories of a trip to Korea.

The most successfully chilling work in the lot is an untitled installation by Rebecca Bollinger. Myriad shapes, numbers and sizes of plastic-wrapped cookies bear photographs of children's faces. The innocent interpretation here is that kids love cookies so they belong together. Other evidence paints a darker picture. The photo's documentary quality brings to mind those "Have You Seen Me?" pictures of lost kids that come with the junk mail. Using a computer, they've been printed directly on the cookies, imparting an ominous sense that these children will be somehow devoured.

*

* Otis College of Art and Design, 9045 Lincoln Blvd., to Nov. 21, closed Monday and Sunday, (310) 665-6905; Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, to Dec. 31, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (626) 792-5101.

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