Uncomfortable cuisine

Viviane Le Courtois’ ‘Edible?’ takes an uncomfortable look at food

\"Venus of Consumption,\" by Viviane Le Courtois

Deep in the back room of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), an enormous Cheeto, roughly four feet long and made up of thousands of real Cheetos, dangles from the ceiling like dead flesh in a meat locker. Up close, the individual Cheetos have a sticky glaze on them, as if someone put them in her mouth in order to stick them on the form beneath, and loud crunching noises coming from speakers inside the oversized snack echo throughout the room. Just to the right, a monitor shows a video of a chubby-cheeked claymation face sucking down gummy worms and soft candies on infinite repeat. It’s an unsettling combination.

The pieces are part of Edible?, one of BMoCA’s two spring exhibitions, which close June 17. The oversized Cheeto and the claymation loop are hardly the only discomforting part of the exhibit, which is a mid-career retrospective of Denver artist Viviane Le Courtois’ food-based work. But Edible? is two-pronged and features a somewhat misleading opener.

“The Garden of Earthy Delights,” which takes up the museum’s entire front room and is the first thing you see as you enter, is a greenhouse and a tea room combined. Fresh herbs and sprouts grow underneath various lamps throughout the room, and visitors are encouraged to take a thin, clay cup, fingerprints and marks still visible in the lightly fired clay, and make a cup of herbal tea using the herbs growing around them. And when finished, you throw the cup against the wall, as delicately or as violently as you please, adding to a growing pile of shards on the ground.

The disposable clay cups were inspired by a similar practice Le Courtois encountered in India, and the act of throwing is supposed to represent returning the clay to the Earth, according to BMoCA Associate Curator Petra Sertic. But the cups are also wafer-thin and disposable, and the violent destruction of those cups encouraged by the artist becomes unsettling once you venture into BMoCA’s back room, which houses the Cheeto as well as a host of multi-colored, candy-based pieces from Le Courtois’ “junk food phase.” Because as fragile and destructible as the cups are, there is a perturbing immortality to the Life Savers, gummy worms and licorice sticks Le Courtois uses for curtains to section off the back room, and the juxtaposition of the biodegradable organics next to the processed candy is a disturbing reminder of what many of us consider to be food.

The back also contains the crown jewel of the exhibition, which, like the other works on display, draws you in for a closer look while making the hair on your arms stand up straight. It is the “Venus of Consumption,” which takes the archetypical image of the reclining female nude and gives it a junk food twist. Instead of a beautiful woman there is a bright-orange, bloated human female form, with cartoonishly fat cheeks and swollen fingers. Instead of resting delicately on a bed, Le Courtois’ Venus lies on a too-small pedestal, and the figure’s enormously fat belly and limbs spill over the sides of her resting place.

It’s the small details like that that make the exhibit truly unsettling. The Venus is made from crocheted yarn, and Le Courtois has smeared a silicone-based substance over the Venus’ body. Whereas silicone is often used to make the female body more closely resemble our society’s ideal of feminine beauty, here it lends a sweat-like sheen to the figure, and the result is hardly attractive.

Venus faces an eerily beautiful yet disturbing pair of bookshelves filled with jars in which everything under the sun is pickled: pretzels, marbles, troll dolls, Peeps, Barbie dolls and more. The jars are placed on shelves that light the jars up from the bottom, and the results are sometimes beautiful but often disgusting. The small jar of marbles filled with a blue liquid possesses an ethereal beauty, but the candy fingers, swollen with pickling liquid and slightly deteriorated, look like something from a serial killer’s basement.

Whatever the source of Le Courtois’ fascination with food, it’s clear she is unafraid of working with saliva as a tool. One of the pieces is a wall display of chewed-up licorice sticks, teeth marks and all. Other smaller pieces from the exhibit are beautifully wrought cast-iron apple cores — trash made into art. And a final piece features eaten artichoke leaves displayed in baskets hanging from the ceiling.

Le Courtois’ works displayed at BMoCA have a way of taking the mundane — food, candy, clay cups — and making us reexamine them with a degree of horror or revulsion. The other spring exhibition at the museum, Brooklyn artist Jason Rogenes’ SP4C3CR4FT, does the opposite, by repurposing the mundane for beauty. Rogenes uses cardboard and Styrofoam to create an enormous spacecraft which hangs from the ceiling of BMoCA’s second floor. The craft is made out of Styrofoam packing blocks, and Rogenes uses cardboard to create conical stalagmites that protrude from the wall. It’s joyful, like a child’s doodles constructed in three dimensions.

Both exhibitions stand strongly on their own, but seeing how the two artists mine such disparate, passionate emotions from objects that usually inspire none is doubly impressive. The juxtapostion shows how wonder — be it astonishing or spine-tingling — can be found anywhere around us, should we look hard enough.

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