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Billy Al Bengston's Lumberjack Luncheon: Plank Steak, Anyone?

Leave it to artist Billy Al Bengston to serve the LA Times food section a meal made out of wood. On view at Samuel Freeman until August 29th is Bengston's "Lumberjack Luncheon," a multi-course meal of twigs and wood that was served to Times food writer Rose Dosti in 1971. Having been contacted by the Times for a story on local artists with a passion for cooking, Bengston claims to have constructed the entire banquet, including "Aspen chips" and "twig fries," on the morning before the interview. (Only the accompanying bottle of Retsina was not an original work.) Dosti's photographer Mary Frampton left the studio without shooting the piece, protesting what struck her as a blatant affront to journalism. Or so one story goes.

"A whole gaggle of ladies stormed out," said Samuel Freeman, owner of the eponymous gallery where the work is now being shown. Presumably, he is recounting the story as told to him by Bengston. But wasn't it just the two women? "Oh well," he added, "I tell it different every time. Wood chip?"

Plank steak
Plank steak
Samuel Freeman

Bengston is often cited as a major force in putting California pop art on the map; critics have long been fascinated by Bengston's extra curricular activities, including surfing (he is rumored to be the basis for the Moondoggie character in the Gidget books) and a semi-professional career racing motorcycles. In this case, Bengston's handiwork in the kitchen seems to have been tough for the Times to swallow, so to speak. No matter: the "Lumberjack Luncheon" was picked up for a show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art not long after, and the ordeal seems only to have reinforced Bengston's conviction that little bit of fun should none-the-less be taken quite seriously. (He's recently quoted the price of the work as "too much or not enough" and "what would Jesus charge?")

Lunch is served.
Lunch is served.
Samuel Freeman

Until August 29th the "Lumberjack Luncheon" is "served in the chapel"; a gallery room lit only by a skylight and a neon sign that reads, "Waiting for the Reverend." Consequently, the luncheon does have something of a Last Supper vibe. A couple of woven rugs map out a rough crucifix on the floor, and if you've got the place to yourself, it can feel like a cross between getting stood up and sitting in a confessional. And although the meal itself was "cooked" about 38 years ago, a pleasant piney smell is still noticeable. (Actually, it smells delicious. You can't touch the work--or gnaw on it--but you can get close enough for a good long whiff.) "Assorted shaved bark salad" "Plank Steak" and "Standing Log Roast" manage to look both totally inedible and actually appetizing. Or, as Freeman put it, "I'm just enjoying lunch; steak's a little dry though."

On view at Samuel Freeman: 2525 Michigan Ave, Suite B7, Santa Monica; Tuesday-Saturday, 11-6.

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