In Depth

Trading the Paintbrush for Pastry: Why Many New York Artists Have Been Turning to Food As a Response to Troubling Times


Trading the Paintbrush for Pastry: Why Many New York Artists Have Been Turning to Food As a Response to Troubling Times
Artist, chef, and food activist Amanny Ahmad at her Summer Solstice Dinner at Pioneer Works. Image via Walter Wlodarczyk.

Back in May of 2006, the young gallerist Leo Koenig invited Austrian artist Paul Renner to create a bacchanalian six-day feast called Hardcore Diner at his Chelsea gallery. Each of the five-course dinners was themed to the tune of excess to the point of absurdity. Monday’s attendees sat down to Fertile Fat Breasts: Abundance and Excess, which featured, according to Adam Fisher’s account in New York Magazine, “calf’s tongue with wasabi caviar served on a bed of blossoms (‘an ode to cunnilingus,’ says Renner).” Tuesday, meanwhile ushered in a “marrow-and-gore-themed feast” titled In Cold Blood: Henkersmahlzeit, whose dessert consisted of a chocolate birthday cake with seven candles—the last meal requested by Texas murderer and death row inmate Miguel Richardson. And so on and so forth went the week, abundantly adorned with edible gold leaf and overflowing spirits, all lit by candelabras made of dried herring dipped in bronze.

Decidedly Dionysian in its extravagance, the dinner series reflected the morbid decadence of a time ripe with post-9/11 guilt and paranoia, just on the brink of the 2008 financial collapse. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” had just been released, Facebook was only two years old, Barack Obama was just a little known Chicago Senator, Trump was hosting “The Apprentice” for a second season, and you could regularly hear Shakira insisting that her hips don’t lie on the radio.

In art, it was a time when Damien Hirst’s $100 million diamond encrusted skull For the Love of God was culturally significant, emblematic of the impending financial collapse to come. In food, culinary practices were being thrust into the realm of high art with chefs like Ferran Adrià leading the fore with molecular gastronomy, taking all that was traditional and familiar about food and cooking and deconstructing it into alien combinations of form and experience—like a liquid olive or a tomato foam.

saltzJerry Saltz's dishwasher. Image screen captured via Instagram.

Recently, art critic Jerry Saltz revived a 2008 article detailing his experience at Adrià’s famed restaurant El Bulli in an Instagram post of his own dishwasher, romanticizing his lack of gastronomic literacy as a kind of virtue against what he deems “society” (the dishwasher has clearly never been used for anything besides storage). Contrasting Adrià’s otherworldly menu of martinis served in perfume atomizers and parmesan frozen air with muesli, Saltz describes his own typical culinary routine—microwaved diner coffees, and pre-prepared deli takeout—as an example of what a true cultural practitioner’s relationship with food ought to be: “We don’t cook. We don’t go out to eat. We don’t do takeout. Never entertain.”

While it’s true that food can frequently find itself on the backburner in the thick of creative inspiration, and that pre-packaged ramen is not only quick but an economical option for the oft tight-budgeted arts practitioner, it wouldn’t be right to undervalue the importance of food to many artists. “I really consider it an extension of my art practice,” says multimedia artist Claire Christerson, “picking out a vegetable and being intrigued by its shape, texture, color can inspire a whole dish. Their forms really play into my work and can often guide how I draw.”

Instagram itself is a testament to how much artists (people in general, really) care about food. The platform abounds with artists showing off their culinary savvy, either in foodie posts or entire accounts dedicated to their edible portfolio. “As my studio practice deviates from an object-based process,” says video artist Yixuan Pan, “I now use cooking to fulfill my desire for a hands-on making experience. This straightforward, concrete, and tasty culinary labor not only satisfies my hands and taste buds, but also gives me an opportunity to f*ck the professionalism BS on Instagram. I only post food pics!” It also demonstrates how differently artists are approaching food in today’s social, political, environmental and economic climate.

Artists and food practitioners like Adrià, Hirst, and Renner were working at a time when it was still relevant and purposeful to embody materiality and luxury in their work. Over a decade later, the gesture can often appear trite, self-obsessed, and privileged. In other words, wholly cringeworthy. It’s almost dizzying to consider all that’s happened since 2006—just the past two years of Trump’s presidency have accelerated an avalanche of much needed social and civic change. Artists as a result have shifted gears accordingly, and are turning to food less as an expression of decadent consumption or avant-garde envelope pushing, and are instead looking to it as an embodiment of all that’s righteous, unifying, and nourishing in this world.  

rirkritUntitled (Free) (1992) by Rirkrit Tiravanija. Image via I Heart Park

Taking a page from Rirkrit Tiravanija’s groundbreaking 1990 series pad thai, wherein Tiravanija cooked and served the traditional Thai noodle dish to gallery attendees at Paula Allen, as well as Carol Goodden, Tina Girouard, and Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1970s Lower East Side artist-run-restaurant, FOOD, many of today’s gastronomically minded artists are cooking as a way to explore and share their cultural identities, create new and more sustainable economies, and above all, foster community and connection in ways that more institutional forms of art can’t.

Typically run out of Jasmine Lee’s apartment, Comic Sans Earth is an occasional dinner series that was primarily born out of a desire to reconnect with Lee and collaborator Bettina Yung’s familial roots (both Jasmine and Bettina’s families are from Hong Kong) and to create a space that could give back to the community. A portion of the financial proceeds from each dinner is donated to Families for Freedom, a New York-based multi-ethnic human rights organization by and for families facing and fighting deportation. “Food has always been an important part of my life, as has art and community building,” says Lee. “These dinners became a perfect way to bridge those worlds and create something that’s also charitable.” This past February, Lee and Yung also collaborated with the nonprofit Art Against Displacement alongside a number of other members and participants and co-hosted a lunar new year dinner for the displaced residents of 85 Bowery at the Chinese Staff & Workers Association Chinatown office.

By virtue of serving Hong Kong-style cuisine in New York, their menu is intrinsically reflective of international influence, diaspora, and adaptation. Past meals have included a vegan mapo dofu with long beans, young leeks, pea shoots, chinese celery, dill flowers, and “loads of málà,” as well as a sultry almond flour lemon cake with caramelized loquats, osthmanthus jelly, condensed milk, kaffir lime leaves, thai basil, and bee pollen. “Speaking on her behalf,” says Lee, “I know Bettina grew up feeling estranged from her cultural heritage, stemming from an anxiety to fit in and assimilate. Comic Sans Earth is a way for us to access our own histories.” 

comic sansWoodear and lotus root salad with garlic chive oil, dill flowers, and black vinegar at Comic Sans Earth. Image via Comic Sans Earth. 


Similarly called to cooking as a means of reconnecting with, establishing, and sharing cultural identities are Amanny Ahmad, a Palestinian-American artist, chef, and food activist, and DeVonn Francis, founder of the food-based media and event company Yardy. Recounting the first time food became part of her practice during her thesis year at Cooper Union, Ahmad describes how it was “the only way that made sense for me to convey my cultural identity to my peers. It was a pretty unconscious thing—I wasn’t really necessarily thinking about it as an art piece. I just wanted to teach people about green almonds, how to eat them, weird sodas that I drank...”

“I was raised in Palestine in the West Bank and also the United States,” says Ahmad. “While I was studying at Cooper, there was always this internal divide between wanting to make something beautiful and aesthetic but also feeling compelled to create works that addressed my background and the political, social realities that we face. Food just made the most immediate sense.” “Also,” she adds, “political art tends to be really ugly and hard to do effectively. It’s either really nail on the head or like… a Banksy.”

ahmadAmanny Ahmad's Summer Solstice dinner at Pioneer Works. Image courtesy of the artist.

An avid forager and self-taught chef, Amanny’s practice is based in studying, recording, and helping to preserve indigenous culinary traditions and methods of survival. Like Lee and Yung, Ahmad also sees her culinary work as an opportunity for philanthropy, frequently donating proceeds from her work to the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library.

Meanwhile, fellow Cooper Union alumni DeVonn Francis’ Yardy is a reclamation of Francis’ Jamaican heritage in the form of pop-up dinners and events. “Food for me is so intrinsically tied to language,” says Francis. “It’s one of the most fundamental and immediate forms of communicating and disseminating ideas and concepts.”

Named after the Jamaican term for a native familiar,—“You always know when Jamaicans are speaking to other Jamaicans when you hear them call each other ‘yaadie.’”— the company is a reflection of Francis’ own experiences alienated from his heritage as a queer “yankee” (a Jamaican term for the uprooted, diaspora afflicted Jamaican).  A first generation Jamaican-American growing up in Virginia, Francis always felt that he was “not quite Jamaican enough, but not quite American enough either.” “Yardy has allowed me to fully explore what it means to identify across cultures and embrace and champion identities that have historically been overlooked.”

Along with opening up direct avenues for expressing cultural identities (necessary at a time when the powers that be are constantly undermining our country’s diversity), food is also allowing artists to reclaim their own economies. “It was really important for me to establish Yardy as a business,” says Francis. “It allows me to have a staff and an administrative team and actually compensate people for their time and labor. There’s so much talk about wellness these days, but how can we talk about wellness if we aren’t diversifying wealth? How do we start giving the same amount of care and attention that we give to the provenance and identities of food to the labor and identities of all the people involved?” For Ahmad, that wealth translates to directly supporting and nurturing conscientious means of production, “It feels really awesome to be able to put money in the hands of farmers and food practitioners whose practices you support.”

giovanni'sThe spread at a recent dinner at Giovanni's. Image courtesy of Chloe Seibert.

 “It’s so much more immediate than in the art world,” says Chloe Seibert, the cooking portion of the team that operates the artist-run-restaurant Giovanni’s. “I think a lot of artists are gravitating toward food because it’s not really viable to subsist on our current systems. Artists have such little control over their own financial situations so it’s like… How can we make some kind of small micro-economy that you and your friends can all partake in? And what better way to do it than with delicious food and getting a little drunk!” 

Financial accessibility is a focal point for a lot of these dinners. In explaining the impetus behind starting the pop-up restaurant Zax, artist Will Spencer describes wanting to “create a space that was more available to the arts community, both financially and emotionally.” Dinner at Zax is always vegetarian, and always an unbeatable $5 (an additional $3 for alcohol). At Giovanni’s, $25 will get you “a lot of wine and a lot of food.” Red Hook’s Pioneer Works meanwhile, has been inviting local chefs to use their open fire pit to create $10 community lunches. “I was away for a little while and when I came back, we had over a hundred people attending!” says Gabriel Florenz, founder and artistic director of Pioneer Works. “We do a lot of events—concerts, lectures, openings—but we haven’t had something that allowed for more intimate and sincere connections. Food is such a great way of bringing people together to slow down and connect.”

This yearning for sincere conviviality was a ubiquitous sentiment in all the artist-chefs I spoke to, with a particular disdain the art opening. “I felt like I spent years in New York and would only see friends at openings where it always kind of feels like work,” says Spencer. “I noticed that all of my social interactions were becoming more like that and less like I wanted it to be.” “It sucks only getting to see certain people at art openings where you can’t ever have an actual conversation,” echoes Lee. Even big name artists like Olafur Elíasson have begun introducing this spirit of slowed down communality over food to his studio—his book “The Kitchen” documents over 100 recipes from the world renowned artist’s communal studio kitchen, where Eliasson joins his assistants, staff, and guests for family style lunches.

olafurOlafur Elíasson's communal studio lunch. Image via Studio Olafur Elíasson on Facebook.

“For us,” reflect Seibert, “it’s about feeling comfortable in a community. I think food is a really accessible and immediate way to participate as opposed to sitting in your studio and painting (which is also great, and I do that to) but food is an opportunity to respond directly to people and for people to respond directly to you.”

More than anything, it seems that what’s driving so many artists towards food are the institutional trappings of the art world itself. “It’s so much more open,” says Ahmad. “Food can be so deeply egalitarian and humanistic in a way that escapes the classicism of fine art. When I get in an Uber with a ton of groceries and the driver asks what I do and I tell them I’m a chef, they always get excited and want to talk about their favorite family recipes. When you get in a cab and tell them you’re an artist, it’s always like, ‘ you paint?’”

“Eating is literally the thing that everyone does,” says Stewart, “There’s a connecting force that’s very attractive—everyone gathering to do this thing that we all do. It’s about being with each other in our community and shining a light on our communality. There are a lot of people that aren’t directly part of the NY fine arts community who come to our dinners and I’m kind of glad for it. Not that I have anything against the art world but it becomes insular. It’s nice to have access and entrance into other social circles. It points to what’s good about food and serving food to people—it’s not art-specific.”


It is truly strange realizing Renner’s Hardcore Diner and all the ironic decadence of those early aughts occured over a decade ago, and are now concepts quickly fading into the cultural archive. Since then, we’ve had Barack Obama come and go as president, the 2008 financial collapse, the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, NoDAPL, Feel the Bern, #MeToo, Fake News…

While researching this article, former Artspace contributor Dylan Kerr sent me a great 2017 essay titled, “Ways of Eating: Tradition, Innovation, and the Production of Community in Food-Based Art.” In it, authors Laurie Beth Clark and Michael Peterson detail the fascinating way our social, political, economic, and environmental hellscape have broken down the fabric of what’s considered “avant-garde” in favor of social practice: “It seems likely that consumer capitalism has reshaped the ground on which avant-gardism marches; at least in the United States the context of materialism, consumerism, and persistent modern alienation mean that communitarian gestures (perhaps especially those involving ‘real’ food) maneuver around the cultural opposition by looking backward to once conventional practices.” In other words, at a time when every news cycle prompts cause for another spiral of anxiety, in a city where rapidly increasing costs of living make it impossible for anyone to do anything but work, maybe the most radical and avant-garde thing artists can do is slow things down, take sincere time out for one another, and take stock, nurture, and support the things they love and care about. Cheers! 



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