RtL asked curator Nicole Caruth how she became one of the leading voices on the juncture of art and food… and she answered with verve and just a touch of skepticism.
Nicole J. Caruth is a freelance writer and curator based in Brooklyn, New York. In “Gastro-Vision,” her monthly column for Art21 (blog.art21.org), she writes about the intersection of food and art, and in her personal blog, Contemporary Confections, she tracks the meeting of “sweets and contemporary art.” Recently, at the Center for Book Arts in New York City, Caruth organized the exhibition “With Food in Mind,” in which she brought together forty food-related books and works of art produced in a two-decade period.
Caruth earned her MA in Curatorial Studies from Bard College and a BA in art history from San Francisco State University. In addition to her curatorial work, she is a Just Food community chef, fitness instructor and personal trainer. Her writing has been published by the Studio Museum in Harlem, CUE Art Foundation, ARTnews, C Magazine, and Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.
You can read Nicole’s recipe for Lemon Lush here.
How long have you been writing about food and art for Contemporary Confections and Art 21?
Since 2006. My blog actually came first. I started writing “Gastro-Vision” in 2009.
And how did the Gastro-vision column come about?
Kelly Shindler, who was Art21’s Director of Special Projects and in charge of the blog, approached me about starting a column. I had a few ideas, but the only one I was passionate about involved food. She went with it, and I think she was pleasantly surprised. Whenever I say that I’m interested in food people look skeptical. It seems so simple, but it can be quite complex and it branches out into many different, and sometimes very political, conversations and debates.
Can you talk a little more about politics in relation to food and art? Food politics is a very heated subject right now. I’m looking at the work you included in “With Food In Mind,” and there are a lot of manifestations of politics. Some pieces deal with the current food production system –for example, the cookbook by Critical Art Ensemble–whereas others, like Conflict Kitchen, a take-out restaurant that only serves food from countries in which the U.S is in conflict, open up a conversation about international politics.
I felt that this show was my opportunity to show the breadth of artists who are using food, from the fun and the playful, like Leah Rosenberg, who’s a pastry chef and [creates] paint stacks that resemble cakes, to a collective like Conflict Kitchen, who uses food to broaden cultural awareness about political turmoil.
Did you always intend for the show “With Food in Mind” to be book-centered, or was that a decision that had to do with the venue, which was the Center For Book Arts?
No, it had to do with the venue. I had done some work with the Center For Book Arts a few years ago and I was encouraged to submit a proposal. So I did. Because the proposal was for the CFBA, it had to focus on the art of the book. But that can be interpreted in many different ways. My original proposal was very different than what the show turned out to be. Initially, I wanted to do a show looking at vintage cookbooks published in New York. As I started doing the research, the idea no longer seem relevant to the time, or maybe it just wasn’t that interesting to me. Around then I met Kate Yoland at an art world event, a pub quiz hosted by Yara El Sherbini. We started talking, and she said she was really interested in food and had done some food-related work in the past. I told her to send me a proposal. Her proposal helped shape my exhibition. She wanted to produce a “Political Affairs Cookbook” in which she would daily record what she ate alongside the news headlines. That really shifted my thinking about the entire show and how it could be relevant to what’s happening today. I tend to use the word “relevant” a lot because it’s important to my work as a writer and curator. Food is always relevant to people, and I think my work with food began, in part, as a reaction to the many artworks and exhibitions I see that don’t feel relevant to the culture–or maybe just to who I am.
Can you talk a little bit more about the process of finding the artists for the show and what you were looking for? What’s great about the show is the diversity of the work. As you said, the work ranges from the playful to the very serious.
I approached the show in many different ways. There were pieces, like “My food, My Poop” by Hugh Pocock, that I knew very early on I wanted to have in the show. Then there were artists whose work or practice I was interested in but they didn’t necessarily work with food or cooking, so I encouraged some of them to explore the subject. Heather Hart is a good example of that. We just happened to be having a “catch up” studio visit while I was working on my checklist for “With Food in Mind” …
Joy Garnett is also a good example. I met Joy on Twitter when she was just starting to tweet pictures of her food. I encouraged her to explore what she might do if she has an opportunity to show them in a gallery. Sometimes artists recommended other artists for the show: Joy told me that I should look into the work of Elaine Tin Nyo. Joy said, “There’s this woman who makes these great sour cherry pies, she’s an artist, and she blogs about them every year. You have to meet her!”
Can you tell me a little bit about your previous curatorial work?
It’s kind of all over the place. I co-curated a show at the Brooklyn Museum called Burning Down the House: Building a Feminist Art Collection, which included works by men and women. That was one of my first big projects at the museum — I worked there for a few years as the Manager of Interpretive Materials. The [Elizabeth A. Sackler] Center [ for Feminist Art] opened the year after I was hired, and Burning Down the House was installed in the new Sackler wing. My thesis show at the Center for Curatorial studies at Bard College included works by Kara Walker, Adrian Piper and Nayland Blake. I was looking at the idea of miscegenation in contemporary art. Currently, I’m in Woodstock working on an exhibition about Grace Jones. I’m looking at the peak of her career, mostly in the 1980s, and her relationship to the art world at that time. And then I’m tracing her work and iconography to artwork being made today by younger generations of artists.
How did you originally come to be a curator? Did you know such a career existed, or was it an obscure field nobody knew about?
I was working as an accountant for Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto while taking classes at community college. I was enrolled in an art history survey course and one of our assignments was to visit the Berkley Art Museum. I had never been to an art museum before. It sounds really cheesy, but that visit changed my life. I left my job, took an internship at a local museum, and was set on this path. I started researching jobs in the visual arts and I came across something about this thing called curating, and I was like: I wanna do that!
I knew I wanted to be a curator but it took a long time to figure out what that entails. I worked in galleries and directed a gallery, yet art administration didn’t seem like something I needed a degree in. [I already had the experience.] So, when I decided to get my Master’s, I looked for a Curatorial Studies program. At that time, Bard had the only one in the country, so I went to Bard. Since then, curatorial studies programs have popped up left and right.
Food is having a really big moment right now. Everybody seems involved in cooking or thinking about food. Do you see that reflected in contemporary art? Do you think artists are bringing food into their studios more?
I think they are. And it’s something I’d like to explore further in my writing. I just finished a piece about the the rising number of artists who are growing food as part of their practice. Back when Agnes Denes did “Wheatfield” 1982, it was argued that this kind of practice was science and not art. But now you have shows like “EAT LACMA” where a museum turns its grounds into a series of artist-designed, food-producing gardens for an entire year. It’s unprecedented!
[In 2013] there will be an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati solely devoted to edible food stuffs, curated by Sue Spaid. I am very interested in artists who are growing food as social practice. While artists are thinking about food systems, feeding communities, and the environment in general, institutions are making efforts to foster this kind of work. I think this has to do with the current food climate in which discussions about sustainability and the future of food are at the forefront. Food journalism has also progressed in the last few years. Hopefully, it has helped to make people more aware of questions that need to be asked. I don’t think artists live in a bubble; they’re aware of these conversations.
Where do you see these conversations going? Are you at all suspicious of this as a fleeting trend or something that is a privilege of the middle and upper classes? Do you think that this food revolution is even reaching the segment of the population that needs affordable, sustainable food? I’m particularly curious about your perspective as a community chef with Just Food.
I am skeptical but I’m skeptical about everything. Some people tell me that they don’t think the food debates are a trend. They think it’s part of change that needs to happen and that will have to continue. I think we just have to see. But in the meantime, we can all continue to do the work that we feel needs to be done. I am dealing with two very different populations. When I’m curating a show, I’m dealing with what people assume to be an educated crowd or an elite crowd. I often assume that this crowd has more access — to better food, eduction, etc — than the other audience(s) I work with.
As a community chef cooking at Weeksville Heritage Society, for example, a low-income area, [I’m just] trying to get people excited about this peach salsa I’ve made, about using fresh vegetables and fruits. It sometimes feels like I’m going from one extreme to the other in terms of audience. The heirloom vegetable auction that was recently held at Sotheby’s, in my opinion, sends a message that that kind of food is for a certain group of people. When I’m doing a cooking demo I’m trying my hardest not to use an heirloom tomato even if I think it’s going to make something taste better. People don’t want to spend the extra money — or they can’t. So there are very different audiences and I’m always trying to think about what conversations are happening in one place versus somewhere else. Making art accessible to a broad audience has always been important to me. Where the subject of food can be complex, it is also something everyone can relate to on some level.
Is that something you think of as being part of a curator’s role? Making art more accessible?
If that’s the kind of curator you want to be, then yes. But formally speaking, I don’ think it’s part of a curator’s role. This is typically considered the educator’s role. But is a curator not also an educator? It’s just a matter of how you want to think about your personal curatorial practice.
How did you get into food? And do you cook often?
This year I’ve been really lazy about cooking. It’s been more about throwing things together in a bowl: quinoa, feta, cherry tomatoes, and avocado, with chips on the side. I’ve haven’t been putting too much effort into what I’m cooking, except when I’m doing cooking demos. I stress out over that.
I dedicated my exhibition catalog to my grandmother and my sister because my best food memories are from [them]. My sister, who’s 10 years older than me, is like a mother. I can still remember walking home from elementary school and smelling something wonderful cooking at the end of my block. Turns out it my house was producing those fragrances, and it was my sister at the stove.
My grandparents were also a big influence. My grandmother made the best food in the world. She’ll be a 101 this year, so she doesn’t cook any more. But when I was a child, she would spend the whole day cleaning and cooking chitlins. She made amazing fried chicken and spaghetti. I remember asking her to teach me how to cook a particular dish. I asked, “How much of this do I put in?” She got really upset with me and said, “I don’t follow recipes or measurements!” She eyeballs everything; she just knows.
Do you have a favorite artists’ cookbook?
Food Sex Art by Paul Lamarre and Melissa Wolf. They just gave me a copy and I’m very, very happy to add it to my collection. I’m also a fan of Mythology and Meatballs by Daniel Spoerri. It’s a diary/cookbook from his time spent on a little Greek island. It’s really fantastic.Nicole Caruth was interviewed by Maria Pithara.