On a visit to Baltimore’s quirky American Visionary Arts Museum, one is always entertained — you laugh, you cry, you wonder why — but the art also prompts thoughts about one’s place in the universe and connection to the rest of the planet.
AVAM’s newest exhibition, “Yummm! The History, Fantasy and Future of Food,” delivers as it offers up a cornucopia for the eyes, ears and mind.
The museum’s 22nd exhibition features 35 artists whose preferred media range from gummy bears and toast to paper plates and food packaging.
It marks the co-curatorial debut of John Lewis, the museum’s interim assistant director, under the direction of Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, AVAM’s founder, director and principal curator.
“This is a museum that has always looked at the highs and lows of what it is to be a human being on earth,” Hoffberger said at a recent preview party for “Yummm!” which opened Oct. 8.
Hoffberger cited that by 2050, the estimated global population will exceed 9.5 billion. She also noted that the Pacific Ocean “island” of plastic detritus that is two-and-a-half times the size of Texas continues to grow.
“So the way we package food, the way we share food, the way we transport food, the way we cultivate it, the sanctity of seeds” must be altered, she said. “Every single person who comes through [the museum] who has a very personal relationship with food has to radically and benevolently change [their habits].”
But the exhibition isn’t all about gloom and doom. There is some sugar to help the medicine go down, as Mary Poppins sang, and there is plenty to behold — some of it literally.
Such as Christian Twamley’s six-foot-tall “Sweepish Chef,” expertly hand-carved from about 4,000 assembled marshmallow peeps. There’s also a life-sized gummy self-portrait displayed under Plexiglas (to avoid nibbles) by Wayne Coyne, leader of the band The Flaming Lips.
A particularly mesmerizing piece is a 10-foot-in-diameter, motorized mandala titled “Brackman’s Botanical Bonanza!” The piece was created in hand-painted paper plates, straws, ping-pong balls, paper towel tubes and a gazillion staples that New York-based artist Wendy Brackman magically transformed into revolving disks of flowers, carrots, corn cobs, hovering bees, marching ants and a kaleidoscope of colors.
The assemblage is initially so unexpected and then so apparent, you will never look at paper plates in the same light.
But Brackman hasn’t always shopped for her art materials in bulk at Costco.
More than three decades ago, Brackman — then a fine art clay sculptor — was bored at a barbecue in Brooklyn when a huge stack of soiled plates whispered — muse-like — into her ear.
“It’s like it found me,” Brackman said. “It found the one person that could honor such a banal . … I saw a hundred plates, I saw a hundred ideas.”
She grabbed a scissors and went at it.
“It was my aha! moment in life,” Brackman said. “I thought, `Oh my God, here it comes, a thousand million ideas,’ ” which include paper plate hats; a wedding dress made from doilies and paper plates; Erté-esque attire; and mermaid costumes where overlapping plates created the perfect fish scales.
“I became the queen of bar mitzvahs in New York. That’s how I became so successful,” Brackman said, “by entertaining right there, making the hats, having fun with my kin — everybody gets this loudmouth Jewish girl — and I can tell jokes while I’m doing it.
“I always like to say the secondary use of paper plates goes far beyond the original use,” she said. “I can do amazing things with them. It gave me a career.”
Toast is another medium in the show, used for “The Bread Wall,” which fills most of a large gallery and was created by hundreds of volunteers who worked with artist Jerry Beck, founder and artistic director of the Revolving Museum in Fitchburg, Mass.
The works are created from expired and stale breads, which are toasted, carved and laminated for display. Recognizing that flour and water are used to make bread the world over, the pieces — humorous, inspiring and compelling — speak to issues such as ethnicity, personal identity, hunger and homelessness.
Exhibition themes also touch on the effects of climate on food production, food used as a weapon of war and even the story of fat.
The show is also peppered with some disarming facts such as “The molecular composition of sugar is very close to that of cocaine,” “Coffee was once an illegal substance,” and “Americans waste an estimated 133 billion pounds of food each year.”
Food for thought, for sure.
“Yummm! The History, Fantasy and Future of Food” runs through Sept. 3, 2017. For information, visit avam.org .
Melissa Gerr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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