Manifesto for a New Food Art
1. Food culture has undergone a large transformation in the last few years. This is apparent in the proliferation of organic markets, the emergence of local and sustainable food movements, as well as a wealth of writing about the old industrial system, and the nascent interest in gardening, canning and preparing food.
2. I am suspicious, as always, though that the images by which we visualize food, or express our vision of this new food culture, are in many ways still rooted in the industrial model: place-less, generalizing, unattached from real land.
3. For instance, looking back over a string of books I’ve recently reviewed, related to the topic, most partake of similar vaguely rural, very bucolic endless rows of a single crop, or a long landscape with a huge sky. Perhaps a tractor or plow or barn appears for good measure. These are, for all intents and purposes, generic images, in contrast to the particularity of foods, plants, people and places espoused therein. The image-world continues to propagate one idea of agrarianism, largely tied to an idyllic ideal of rural life, or conversely, ‘wild’ nature, with no trace of the human as far as the eye can see.
4. In a garden, the created order of plants, soil, animals come together with human cultivation. The flourishing of natural processes happens alongside human culture and ingenuity; for each to thrive requires attentiveness to specifics, and a cultivation of detail. Different plants require different methods, and the more diverse, and the denser plant communities become, the greater the care must be.
5. Likewise, art must be exacting in particularities; it requires cultivation not unlike that of a plant. If we are asking for this close attention to detail in our agrarianism, why ignore the images, that in many ways reveal how we really imagine the world to be like?
6. The Vegetable Garden, just published by Taschen, brings together 46 color lithograph reproductions of the 19th century Album Vilmorin, along with a new introduction, plant guide, annotated plate list, and index. Originally printed serially for the seed company Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie. as advertisements for their garden and commercial food plants, this beautifully-produced new edition brings together dozens of familiar vegetables – the squash, peas, beans, melons, tomatoes and more – along with a host of others that have lost some of their popularity, at least in the States (tuberous rooted chervil, anyone?).
7. What is immediately striking about these prints is the specificity, the amount of detail rendered in any image; more often than not, individual vegetables are drawn larger than lifesize, detail here is amplified – the opposite of the visual approach of printing a huge landscape down to a 4” x 6”.
8. Perhaps the most common are the root vegetables – beets, radishes, potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions (plates 1-7, 10, 28, 33)– and thanks to the generous page sizes, there are 10-inch radishes, foot-long carrots, and one 17-inch, purple and white, gnarly, still-sprouting beet (plate 9). The root crops’ long lives formed in the dark ground now reveal all hues of color, and weird gnarled bodies, all rendered in minutiae.
9. And how, exactly, to draw something like a potato? It’s like drawing rocks: a knobby, brownish lump. But, upon close, careful inspection, even potatoes begin to differentiate themselves and take on particular characteristics. Back again to the anonymous view of the landscape of industrial agriculture, where any one plant is identical to any other; whereas in The Vegetable Garden, every food crop becomes a specific.
10. To some extent, of course, these are idealized forms; it’s the nature of representation to take one particular moment and make it stand still, however, these prints, as with picking any vegetable, are irresistibly particularizing: every leaf and vein of lettuce; the fibrous roots growing from beets and radishes; the seeds of melons; and the textured, colored surfaces of squash, and their pulpy insides. This is to say that these prints could be used to identify a variety, or to anticipate an ideal, as their seed-selling origins surely hoped for, but viewed today, they are also a welcome reminder of what food looks like, as it comes right from the ground.
11. One of the highlights of this album for me is Plate 7, the only print given over to a single isolated image (a typical plate, such as the following Plate 8 includes ‘sugar beet, leek, cucumber, carrot, tomatoes, garden radish, cantaloupe’), which is a Savoy Cabbage, all greens and blues, with deep shadow surrounding the yellowish center. The curl of the leaves, the clarity of their veins, and their rich color all suggest a healthy, choice vegetable; at the same time, the outer leaves lose their color and fall away, holes and blotches are evident, suggesting further that this specimen is the result of close attentive looking at a particular plant, and recreating it as it was at a moment in time. The result is not only beautiful, but also necessary.
12. As talk of food and its significance changes, we need images along the way to reformulate the possibilities of what this food culture might entail. If it is to be healthy, placed and diversified, we need images that function the same, and more. Our images of the world are what we live into, and we need artists imagining art and food that is tied to particular landscapes, geographies, weather, and people. The Vegetable Garden is a reminder from the past that these images do exist, and also begins to suggest a direction forward, to a new food art!
Brent Aldrich is Art Editor of The Englewood Review of Books and Adjunct Professor at Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.