Paul Thek at the Hammer Museum and the History of Meat Art
In Los Angeles at the moment, it is safe to say that a meat movement is marinating. Whole-animal butchery is in, as are butchers who covet proximity to meat sources and are scrupulous about waste. Liberated, self-conscious carnivores are raising their own animals and signing up for butchery demonstrations and hands-on classes where they can learn the craft of meat carving.
Food-centric "happenings" are as common now as pickup basketball games, whether in the form of pop-up restaurant or pickling class. Bacon has appeared on doughnuts and in chocolate bars, in soda and, yes, in toothpaste. Foie gras emerged on L.A.-based French chef Ludo Lefebvre's pop-up menu in the form of a white powder that easily could have been absorbed through the nostrils. In some neighborhoods, votes for best burger trump turnouts for local elections, and beef Wellington, locavore and sous vide have found their place in The Associated Press Stylebook.
As meat has been revitalized as a topic of interest for eaters, so has the controversial staging of flesh as art. The Hammer Museum's show "Paul Thek: Diver, a Retrospective" includes works from one example, his series Technological Reliquaries, mysterious, painstaking wax replicas of bloody chunks of meat and severed limbs.
Over the past 50 years, as artists have challenged their audience's comfort with the topic and company of meat, wars, gender dynamics and appetites evolve, and so does the metaphor. The scene was fresh when Thek created his meat sculptures in the '60s, about the time Carolee Schneemann first presented Meat Joy at the First Festival of Free Expression at the American Center in Paris in 1964. Meat Joy featured a sloppy dance of partially nude humans rolling around on the floor, rubbing themselves with raw fish, chickens and sausages, sinking their teeth into the slimy raw flesh, sandwiching the corpses between them as they caressed and kissed each other. The scene was revolting yet somehow tender — human bodies commingling with dead animals, the common denominator being flesh.
More recently, some contemporary artists have taken the new "farm to table" ethos as a provocative invitation, finding an aesthetic expression of the collapsing distance between consumers and their dinner. For the performance art fair Performa in 2009, Jennifer Rubell presented Creation, an installation inspired by the first chapters of Genesis that included one ton of barbecued ribs lubricated by a dripping honey trap mounted on the ceiling above. In order for spectators to fully experience her artwork, Rubell required them to physically engage, to dig into mountains of wet slabs of ribs with sticky tongs and eat with their bare hands.
"Of all the food I've used in my work, meat is by far the most pornographic, and often elicits the most intense response," Rubell says in an email. "Like pornography, it has that push-me/pull-me quality — seductive, arousing, exciting, enticing on the one hand, and then immoral, wasteful, cruel, decadent on the other. My work as a whole asks viewers to transgress that Don't Touch viewer/artwork boundary that's been drilled into all of us since childhood. The food is a prompt to that transgression, and the more intense, loaded and irresistible that prompt can be, the better."
Song Dong's edible installations at Chelsea's former PaceWildenstein Gallery (now the Pace Gallery) in 2009 satirized traditional art through wall-mounted landscapes of food from which the audience was invited to eat, including stacks of prosciutto layered with slices of bread and decorated with broccoli florets leaning against a white wall and a mountain of roast pork. His perishable works are essentially art objects for a brief moment before they are devoured. His image captions approximate small recipes. By consuming Dong's ephemeral installations, gallerygoers become collectors of his work.
Feminist artists have long used meat as a metaphor in their work, showcasing it as a garment on the female body. Linder Sterling's dress of chicken entrails from 1982, Jana Sterbak's 1987 work Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic (made from 60 pounds of raw flank steak) and Lady Gaga's raw-meat dress from MTV's 2010 Video Music Awards all looked like something the Rodarte girls might assemble out of their natural-world inspirations. They posed questions of conventional appetites, rituals and gender as well as human-animal relations.
"I went with the cold-concept, warm-execution method," Gaga's dress designer, Franc Fernandez, says via email. "There's something so obviously crude about making a dress out of meat that I wanted the finished product to be almost beautiful, fit her right, look good on camera, make people think twice whether it was real meat or not. The medium is taboo more and more every day."
In contrast to the gluttonous themes at the heart of Dong's, Rubell's and Schneemann's works, and the shock value of meat garments, Thek's "meat pieces" at the Hammer come off as incredibly controlled, almost demure, cautionary and sterile. Inspired by his 1962 trip to the Capuchin Catacombs in Sicily with then-lover Peter Hujar, Thek's sculptures are sealed in Formica and Plexiglas boxes as though they were precious specimens, or morbid preserves, a precursor to Damien Hirst's animals pickled in formaldehyde 30 years later. Unlike Hirst's whole-animal works, Thek's pieces feature unidentifiable portions of meat and severed limbs cast from his own body. The sculptures could easily be mistaken for vestiges of Gunther Von Hagens' early experiments in Plastination in the 1970s, bodies preserved down to bone, tendon, vein.
Untitled (Meat Pyramid), for instance, involves a four-sided Plexiglas pyramid box that contains a bloody, sinewy chunk of wax-meat textured with clear lumps of what could be fat, the top coated in a cloudy layer, insinuating congealed lard. The image caption reveals a list of organic and nonorganic materials: wax, hair, metal, wood, plaster, cord, paint.
Thek's "meat pieces" will not be physically digested by his audience and, unlike the ephemeral works mentioned earlier, which were born out of the relational aesthetics movement, they have physically outlived the artist — who died of AIDS at age 54 — and will outlive audiences. The works are simply art objects — the experience is neither aural, olfactory, gustatory nor tactile. Appetites will not be entertained.
Like the satirical and sarcastic scenes posed by other artists who employ meat as a medium, Thek's works are both ridiculous and religious at once. Although they do not require his audience to physically handle, chew, and digest, the experience of peering into his boxes is no less self-conscious.
But the experience of his works is a relatively private act, and can offer pause to modern viewers preoccupied with meat sources, cooking methods and cuts. Like a diner at a trendy pop-up restaurant, a participant in one of Rubell's meat installations might leave with greasy fingers, a full stomach and a few new friends, while Thek's audience is kept at arm's length, left to consider, without the distraction of sensory details, the matter and meaning of meat.
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