“This was just accidental. I had bought a purple cabbage and I’d always heard that when you cook it, it doesn’t remain purple. And I wanted to prove them wrong.” Ginny Bishton is standing in her Burbank studio explaining the origins of her latest body of work — a series of dazzling stained glass–like photo-collages made up entirely from cut-out overhead shots of variously colored bowls of homemade soup. “And I did. I have proven — whomever — wrong. But it doesn’t last. It becomes gray. A chalky gray soup. So to document the proof, I grabbed my camera.”
Untitled (2006)Out of this moral triumph came the germ of a new spin on Bishton’s trademark mosaics of low-altitude vegetative surveillance photos. By 1997, Bishton had already established herself with a variety of conceptualist-grounded works, ranging from reams of contact-sheet images capturing the artist in the daily act of measuring baking ingredients to paintings of meticulously built-up clusters of clotted purple-and-green caterpillaresque forms. For her solo show at Richard Telles that year, though, she augmented her popular Minimalist painting strategies with a tour-de-force 13-foot-long photographic collage assembled from thousands of meticulously isolated images of the vegetables she had eaten over the course of a year, which, while probably even more labor-intensive than the optically neutralized caterpillars, fairly teemed with Maximalist sensuality.
Her subsequent solo shows here and in New York have mined this analog scan-and-sample strategy to great effect, shifting emphasis from culinary routines to flora encountered on the artist’s daily walks, and adopting more or less standardized units — circles first, then narrow rectangular strips made with an office paper cutter — instead of scrupulously extracting the exact contour of each organic form. And where the kitchen vegetables were organized in rectilinear compartments (“My homage to Judd,” laughs Bishton), the landscape fragments were allowed to accumulate into intuitively determined organic blobs resembling microbial life forms.
The soup works are to a certain degree a rapprochement with earlier concerns — with the kitchen, with visual units having a direct one:one correspondence to the objects they depict, and with a filled-in rectangular format. But there are a couple of key differences. One is color — specifically, its generation and manipulation. “Color has always been important to me,” recalls Bishton. “When I was out walking, I would be fairly unselective. I would take shots of all kinds of things, and select afterwards. It wasn’t that I thought, ‘I’m going out and only looking for lavender today.’ Because it would actually take a while to accumulate.”
But Bishton’s kitchen became a color lab with the advent of the soup project, and the artist dived headfirst into the alchemical process. “I don’t mix paint. I’m interested in seeing what I can get from fairly everyday things and in looking at those more carefully. For example, beet soups vary a lot, so they have a lot of different shades — some of them are darker, more orange, more cool or warm. Vegetables that seem to have similar color are different when you mix them up — turnips make a slightly different white than kohlrabi, for instance. It’s like mixing all these sort-of potions.
“I usually have a bit of some other soup I might’ve made, and I begin to mix them and the colors change. And then something that might start out as one color becomes bluer if I hold it overnight in the fridge and then reshoot it. So a lot of the colors are different shots of variations upon the same soup. A lot of the color manipulation comes with heat or cold or time, because the colors are so fugitive — especially the cooler colors. As they cool, within five minutes the color changes. It’s not color manipulation in Photoshop or something.”
Indeed not. Bishton’s work has a subtle but fierce streak of de-skilling — the artist eschews any photographic technical chops and gets her processing done by generic photo labs. But there are hidden layers of complexity to the work as well. Though the focus may be on the color chemistry of the soup itself, the work’s final configuration has been mediated through an electronic interface (this is the first series Bishton has shot on a digital camera) and the silver halide emulsions of the photographic process.
And though the arrangement of the 3-to-4-inch diameter soup bowls (actually, it’s the same bowl over and over and over again) would seem a piece of cake next to the hundreds of elements that made up her “walk” works, the final intuitive, anti-formalist compositions have to be painstakingly dismantled and reconfigured — a task for which Bishton devised an elaborate unseen system of maps, numbers and placeholders as dry and absurd as the geekiest systems-based conceptual art of the ’70s. This hidden layer of laborious deliberation in the seemingly aleatory aggregations is the crucial second innovation in the soup series. But the difference is one of amplitude — something is always held back in Bishton’s art.
Born in Burbank and raised among 15 (!) siblings (most adopted), Bishton clearly developed an abiding interest in managing her privacy. And in spite of its visual generosity and the trope of social nurturance summoned by the food-service angle, the work is an intensely private affair, as reflected in the heretofore near impossibility of studio visits and the controlled release of new work over the last decade. But things are changing. Her soup collages, in combination with a miniretrospective inclusion in next month’s 15-artist L.A. survey show, “Eden’s Edge,” at the Hammer, make a picture of meteoric ascension rendered in slo-mo — and offer a rare chance to reflect on the variations and continuities in her variegated oeuvre and the remarkable degree of contemporary art-historical synthesis it embodies.
Bishton’s work effortlessly touches on a spectrum of theoretically unlikely bedfellows, from Process to Pointillism, from conceptualist serial photography to domestic relational performance. This last tradition — probably made most famous by Rirkrit Tiravanija’s career-making 1992 Thai-food cooking performance/installation Untitled (Free) — has particular currency due to its roots in feminist art, as currently on display in Connie Butler’s “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” at MOCA. Works such as Martha Rosler’s 1975 video Semiotics of the Kitchen and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ “Maintenance Art” writings and actions are only a couple of examples from a vast strata of work challenging the notion that the Muse doesn’t manifest herself in the mundane tasks of the domestic sphere.
But this tempting surface reading of Bishton’s subject matter doesn’t quite take. “It’s not necessarily about domestic activity per se,” insists the artist. “It is about activity, and it is about quotidian things. But the fact that it’s soup is more situational. I’m making soup. If I was a car mechanic, I think I’d be as interested in recording bits of the engine as I was playing around with it. I consider myself a feminist. I benefit from what feminist art has been trying to accomplish. I think at one point women would have to consider whether they’d be taken more seriously because they’re making art that deals potentially with ‘women’s work.’ And the fact that I don’t even have to consider that means that some of what the feminist artists were striving for is now a given. But I don’t consider the activity to be genderized. Just because the patriarchy wants me to be making soup doesn’t mean I can’t make soup.”
GINNY BISHTON | RICHARD TELLES FINE ART, 7380 Beverly Blvd., L.A. | April 21 through May 26 | Reception Sat., April 21, 5-7 p.m.