Since the time of Eve, or for Darwinians, since the time of Lucy, women have been the primary gatherers and preparers of food. Sure, men like to focus on hunters, but mankind survived only because for every meal of roast beast there were a score of gathered salads, and women, by and large, were the gatherers. When agriculture became the dominant source of food, men generally tilled the land but it was women who processed and prepared the meals. Even today, in the era of fast food and microwaved meals, women are still, in the main, the preparers of the daily meals. To put it simply, there is, and always has been, a strong linkage between Women and Food. From the time of the cave dweller who carved the Venus of Willendorf, to the Renaissance and Lucas Cranach who depicted Eve with the infamous apple, to the last century and Edward Weston who famously portrayed peppers as female nudes, and now to our present century and painters like Lee Price and Elizabeth Langreiter, the linkage between Women and Food has not been lost on artists – even if that relationship is only one of many possible interpretations of their art.
Recently, at her exhibit at Denver’s Box Car Gallery, Jessica Hillvitz, a young photographer and recent graduate of Metro State College, channeled the Women and Food theme. Her exhibit consisted of two series. One series (untitled) is a set of six conceptually identical diptychs. Each diptych is comprised of two 17×21 digital C-prints. The left panel is a B&W photograph of a tightly cropped portion of a woman’s body and the right panel is a B&W photograph of a food stuff or plant. The title of each diptych alludes to some bit of Greek mythology involving a woman or goddess and food, and the food reference generally relates in some way to the food or plant image in the diptych. The other series, entitled Placemat Mary, is a set of four untitled multi-media pieces. Each piece is a cheap white plastic placemat in the center of which has been pasted a cut out color photograph of a woman in a white Virgin Mary outfit (with a Jean Fouquet/Agnès Sorel twist) surrounded by cut out photographs (or the actual plastic wrappings) of fast food condiments. The female model in both of these series is Ms. Hillvitz herself.
As Roland Barthes once observed, every image possesses a denotative aspect at the first level of meaning – clearly ‘Women and Food’ in the case of this exhibit. But Barthes also noted that images, especially those in sequence like these Hillvitz pieces, can carry at the second level a connotative meaning. Hillvitz’ reference to Greek mythology in the titles of her diptychs was a further clue that I could search for meaning at this connotative level, for in Barthes’ theory of signs, the second level of meaning is the realm of myth. But would this connotative meaning—the meaning for me—be wrapped in Modernist or Postmodernist sensibilities?
Whenever I see photographs by a woman artist that show certain female body parts, some early warning system in my brain cries out: “Take cover! Postmodernist ideological cruise missile incoming!” But as I walked about the gallery I detected only a modicum of Postmodernist anxiety, primarily in the Placemat Mary pieces. The diptychs in fact exude a charming gentleness to them; I sensed no edgy Cindy Sherman-esque comment on cultural stereotyping of women in these images. Further, the diptychs are tastefully matted, and they were hung at eye level, an indication that—as Christopher Phillips noted in his essay The Judgment Seat of Photography—this Art was to be accorded the status of “authorized admiration and delectation”. While perhaps not emanating the level of ‘aura’ described by Walter Benjamin in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the diptychs were presented in a fashion to garner respect for the Art and the Artist. Together, the images and their presentation point to a Modernist’s approach to Art.
I found in Hillvitz’ pieces only artful warning: Food, once gathered by women from nature and prepared and served to ensure mankind’s survival has become manufactured, processed, contaminated and is no longer healthy for us. The exposed breast in each of the Placemat Mary pieces, surrounded as it is by evidence of our fast food culture, suggests that even mother’s milk—the last bastion of natural food—is now tainted by the ingestion of drugs, preservatives, carcinogens and other harmful elements that ultimately find their way to milk and then to child. But the Hillvitz diptych series speaks of hope as well. For, like the fair maiden in the title of one of the diptychs (Andromeda Bound by Beauty), perhaps mankind, now chained by convenience and culture to self-inflicted peril, will be rescued by waking up to the danger and return once again to more natural sources of food and preparation.
I took Hillvitz’ use of her Art to provide warning rather than skepticism, and her un-ironic references to mythology—perhaps her Art is to be Perseus to mankind’s Andromeda—as further evidence of a Modernist’s faith in Art’s value and redemptive potential.