Art at Allen: Nutritional Value
By Ruth Lilienstein-Gatton
In an urban community vulnerable to the effects of gentrification, the healthiness, availability, and affordability of food are major issues. Uptowners regularly focus on the quality of local supermarket fare, restaurant choices, nutritional education in schools, and food costs. In Serving Healthful Art, a new exhibition at the Allen Hospital, four artists have produced works about food and/or its consumption that have both local relevance and global vision. This fourth exhibition presented by the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA) in conjunction with the Allen Hospital is curated by Henone Girma of Art In FLUX, a Harlem-based pop-up art gallery. The theme ties with Allen’s mission to support community health, as well as NoMAA’s commitment to showcase uptown artists in different types of venues.
Each of Alexis Agliano Sanborn’s four watercolors is titled after a season, in English and Japanese, and depicts actual vegetables “in season,” subtly alluding to the unnatural, year-round availability to us of all kinds of produce. Her schematic renditions of daikons, cabbages, yams, etc., labelled in both languages, have a child-friendly charm that references the artist’s personal experiences in Japan, teaching school and partaking in communal school lunches. The paintings of sweet, succulent-looking vegetables function almost like school-room charts or illustrations in a picture book, delivering a delightful message that wholesome eating habits are a concern for all ages and cultures.
Ruben Natal-San Miguel repurposes the recognizable pop icon of canned foods in his four 16” x 20” color prints of stacked cans, many prominently featuring Goya labels, forming a wall of product. As the photographer explained at the exhibit’s opening, the visual beauty of these commercial displays was something he noticed at grocery stores in New York neighborhoods where Goya is a kitchen staple. Beyond the appetizing pleasure triggered by the colorful labels, the photographs hint at social issues. The class consciousness inherent in food snobbishness disdains canned foods as nutritionally inferior–disregarding convenience, cost, availability, and even survival. The artist pointed out that for some people recently ravaged by the hurricane in his native Puerto Rico canned food is a lifeline: portable meals which can be consumed without the use of tainted water. Viewers may also be reminded of those nuclear fallout shelters from our cold war past, stockpiled with ‘radiation-proof’ canned food.
Science blends with fantasy in Ansel Oomen’s five, delicate pen-on-paper images of the processes of consumption. Using lines composed from small, broken, train-track-like marks in a few muted colors, the artist draws human, insect, or bird shapes gently and magically sprouting botanical parts or, conversely, plants that construct fanciful human and animal anatomies. Organisms consume and transform one another, as in the Coke bottle flowers that pour their contents into the mouth of a human-headed butterfly creature with a tree-branch for its internal structure. Oomen’s technical medical training informs his perception of how forms natural to flora and fauna mirror each other and his drawings make a splendid, yet masterfully uncluttered meditation on the interconnectedness of the ecosystem, how plant and animal life nourish and become each other in an endless synthesis.
Stephanie Lindquist’s photo collages join a concern about global issues of agriculture and sustainability to personal themes. Her mother’s Liberian roots led the artist to research indigenous foods and cultures and to uncover a complex history of transplantation of crops from their continents of origin to another. This fascinating line of inquiry, alluded to in combined portions of paintings and photographs, raises ideas about colonialism, poverty, hunger, and nativism. On a more intimate scale the artist incorporates images from her own life, including a potato plant she is growing in her apartment. The juxtapositions underscore the micro/macro aspects of food and eating and, as with all the work shown here, make us consider health on a communal level.
The exhibition will remain in the main corridor at the Allen Hospital through the end of June, as part of NoMAA’s 2018 Uptown Arts Stroll. It is free and open to the general public, and is designed to be appealing to children and adults. For more info: nomaamyc.org