How L.A. artists use food as both subject and medium in new show

The pandemic has completely transformed our relationship with food, in both tiny and monumental ways. As mandatory lockdowns swept across the nation in early 2020, grocery store lines snaked around the block. Many shoppers adopted an “essentials only” mindset and shied away from guilt. Restaurants have cut menus in half or closed altogether. Some hunk-downers were starting to cook at home for the first time, while others sanitized their no-contact deliveries before carrying them inside. Large family celebrations have been postponed indefinitely.

For low-income people and people living in underserved communities, access to food reached crisis levels. A Report conducted by USC found that between April and December 2020, approximately 1.2 million LA County households experienced food insecurity — defined as “a disruption from eating regularly because of money or other limited resources.” The report also found that one in four low-income households remained food insecure in 2021.

The new exhibition, At the Table, focuses on food and brings together a collection of LA-area artists to explore how the pandemic has forced us all to reevaluate our priorities, adapt and get by.

The group show, which opened July 29 at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena, includes works inspired by and in some cases made with Food. There are plays that celebrate food-based cultural traditions. Some take a close look at how citizens and natural resources were exploited for food production. Others highlight the artist-led community efforts to provide food and essentials to those in need across LA. Gallery visitors can participate in interactive workshops that encourage personal reflection and social connections. Visitors can also donate nonperishable groceries to a free onsite community pantry.

Ahead of the opening, we spoke to four of the participating artists to discuss how they incorporated food materials and food-related themes into their submissions.

An image of a woman with colored lights

Yeu “Q” Nguyen seen through her play “Fifth Dimension” at her Alhambra studio.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

For artists from Alhambra Yeu “Q” Nguyen, Food is the key to unlocking memories and emotions. Childhood moments spent helping your grandmother in the kitchen, the sublime smell of your favorite dish, the last meal you shared with family before lockdown – she wants to tap into all those sensations and feelings. Their “Sweet, Sweat and Love,” a set of usable dispensers filled with dessert-scented hand sanitizer, floods the senses with sweetness while celebrating our bittersweet new normal. She evokes her Vietnamese upbringing through a series of textile-based pieces depicting noodles, peanuts, and fish heads, while also addressing social issues that may sound familiar to a variety of immigrants and refugees in the states.

Nguyen will conduct in-person workshops in which visitors will make cloth dumplings, fill them with written accounts of their feelings, and contribute them to her interactive sculptural work entitled Emotional Dumplings.

“It’s about everyone coming together and giving a little piece of themselves,” she said. “I hope people can do this interactive thing and discover how my ritual makes them feel. Then they can develop their own ritual to process emotions and share them with others.”

An artist sits between seven panels covered with words.

Jackie Amézquita opposes her play Gemidos de la Tierra.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Jackie Amezquita was drawn to corn masa as a medium for both its practicality as a binder and its deep connection with her heritage. “Corn is a fundamental nutritious ingredient in Latin American culture,” she said. “I grew up in Guatemala and I remember going to the mill with my grandma to grind corn. I mixed it with soil because we didn’t have toys like the kids have here.”

In 2020, she revived this youthful pastime to create Proclamación, an ongoing interactive series exploring how food can convey a sense of place. She created slabs of masa, hydrated lime and soil that she collected from 36 LA boroughs. She then held gatherings across the city, encouraging participants to eat different dishes using the platters instead of plates. The results offer a unique take on the topography – when hung side-by-side, the food-splattered panels form a map of sorts, charting the city’s various food routes.

“What triggered these pieces is this sense of home and belonging,” Amézquita said. “I started thinking about how food gives immigrants both nourishment and a sense of identity. In LA there is a cross-cultural connection with all these different dishes. On a personal level, meaningful interactions can happen, and food is an invitation for us to have those conversations.”

Yrneh Gabon in his studio

Yrneh Gabon in his Santa Monica studio.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Yrneh Gabon“Fire and Salt” explores the effects of salt beyond its ability to add flavor to a dish. The series was inspired by a 2017 visit to Dakar, Senegal, where the Jamaican-born artist observed the famous pink waters of Lake Retba, a vast salt mining site. “I witnessed the busy environment in which people worked,” he recalls. “The labor pains make you cry. You see people harvesting this salt for eight or nine hours.”

Back at his base in Santa Monica, Gabon began researching the history and politics surrounding the global salt trade and tracking the environmental impact of salt mining. He also researched health issues related to salt consumption, paying particular attention to how these issues affect underserved black communities in the United States

The mixed media works featured in the exhibition include real salt crystals that change and grow over time. The pieces also feature prominently pairs of clasped hands as a tribute to these West African miners. “For me, hands are about the people you can’t see,” he said. “You see their work, but you never see their faces or know their names.”

Francisco Palomares in his Los Angeles studio.

Francisco Palomares in his Los Angeles studio.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

With his oil painting “Food Box” Francisco Palomares pays tribute to the farm workers who continued to work in the fields during the first months of the pandemic, despite much of society being sheltered indoors. Surrounded by cardboard to evoke the look of a typical produce container, the canvas is overflowing with squash, peppers, nopales and corn – vegetables commonly used in Mexican dishes. A cluster of painted marigolds lines the bottom of the box and serves as an ofrenda to commemorate workers who lost their lives due to COVID.

Palomares also brings his interactive piece, “Francisco’s fresh paintings” to the exposition. The mobile studio, made out of a wheelbarrow, is part art installation, part love letter to the roadside fruit vendors he grew up with in East LA. In the summer of 2020, he began setting up the cart at various locations around town and selling finished products – Order oil paintings of fruits, vegetables and hand-held treats like Pan Dulce.

“A fruit cart and the person behind it are automatically considered ‘less than,'” he said. “But I’m turning that on its head. I am committed to not only representing myself as an artist, but also to representing the community I come from. Every street vendor out there with his cart is an entrepreneur. This is a reflection of that.”

‘At the table’

When: Fridays 3pm-7pm, Saturdays and Sundays 1pm-5pm. Until December 4th.
Where: Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena
The information: (626) 792-5101; How L.A. artists use food as both subject and medium in new show

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