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Food for Thought

Artists, photographers and designers were asked to consider the tomato as the subject of an art exhibit.


For some, the tomato may be just another fruit. Unassuming, utilitarian, perfect for wedging between slices of bread and meat. It's a quaint finale to the ubiquitous BLT, functional in both it's solid and more liquid forms, as a blanketing for pasta or spread atop hot dog or burger bun. For others, the tomato is art. Or at least the inspiration for art.

"The Art of The Tomato," which opens Saturday at BGH Gallery, attempts to explore an everyday food in a completely unconventional manner. Part marketing ploy and part support of the arts by pasta sauce purveyors Bertolli, the exhibit features artists from around the country interpreting the humble Lycopersicon esculentum in their own distinct ways.

"We've always seen the production of tomato sauce as an art form in itself, so we came up with the idea of asking up-and-coming artists across the nation to use the tomato as their inspiration," says Bertolli spokeswomen Sheila McCrace.

Artists were asked to work within six categories (photography, graphic design, painting, film, sculpture and mixed media ) and the contest was judged by experts in these fields, among them Bettie Sue Hertz, curator of the San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art, Sandra Brown, curator of photography for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Terrence Brown, the Director of the Society of Illustrators.

"I applied a professional standard to this," says Brown, who oversaw the mixed-media category. "I looked for work with a certain vitality to it, where the media didn't overwhelm the composition and vice versa. I thought the contest was interesting. I think it's important that a corporation sees the value to art, particularly as it is applied to commerce."

The bridging of art and big business is old news, Pop Art having embraced the allegiance long ago with Warhol at the front of the pack, incorporating everything from Brillo Pad boxes to Coca-Cola bottles and even tomatoes (in his Campbell's Soup series) into his work. Bertolli hopes to inspire this same embrace of the everyday through their promotional contest, enlisting young artists to translate the tomato into art, and subsequently that art into a some savvy media marketing for the once lowly tomato.

"It struck me as a really versatile competition," says Bruce Warden, a Minnesota-based artist who was a mixed-media finalist. "I liked the idea of working with such a simple theme, and it seemed to me that a lot could be done. It left a lot of room for interpretation."

Danny Chun, an L.A.-based designer who just left an investment banking job, was seeking to build an advertising portfolio and saw the contest as the perfect opportunity. "I knew that 80 hours a week and all the flaws of corporate America weren't exactly for me," says Chun, who won in the graphic-design category, "and I thought this was a great chance for experimentation. Making a tomato sauce company into art was a wonderful challenge."

In the end, Bertolli's "Art of the Tomato" is a mix of opposite elements-- creative motivation and corporate marketing. Food for the starving artist, so to speak.

"Many corporations do special juried theme competitions, some more civilized than others," says Juror Terrence Brown, "but to give an artist a subject like, 'It's just a tomato' and ask them to make something of it, that's a novel idea."


"The Art of the Tomato," Saturday-Oct. 20 at BGH Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave, Santa Monica. For information: (310) 315-9502

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