The Studio Museum in Harlem’s exhibition “Palatable” is a well-plated feast of artwork that engage the senses and explores the relationship between food and the culture that produces and consumes it. The exhibition includes paintings, photographs, gilded pieces of fruit, and a video piece.
One of the most piquant pieces was Kader Attia’s video, Oil and Sugar #2 (2007). The work shows a perfect cube, composed of white sugar cubes, breaking down under black oil that has been poured over the top. Oil and sugar are both symbolically fraught and freighted with unease and guilt. Sugar fuels our bodies and seduces the pleasure centers in our brains; while our global infrastructure is equally as dependent on oil to run as an efficient body. The oil soaks into the the pure white sugar, causing the cubes to erode, sag, and lose their purity. The environmental associations are hard to miss. The cube looks like an eroding glacier being destroyed by the environmental impact of our addiction to sugar, oil, and other costly commodities.
Perhaps that is a central tension in food; it brings us together and pulls us apart. Attia’s video delineates how food pulls us apart, while artist Romare Beardens rendering of a family meal shows us the opposite impulse. His collage Family (1969) shows a family united around a meal on the table before them. The abundance of food brings the family together. The scene contrasts with that of the neighboring work Poverty from artist Benny Andrew’s “America Series”(1990). In the work, a gaunt and depressed man holds what looks like a stale piece of bread and fingers the handful of peas and the scrap of meat on his plate. He looks afraid to eat, the fear that comes from not knowing when he will eat again.
Visitors to Palatable aren’t likely to suffer from similar hunger pangs. The exhibition offers a satisfying tasting menu of artworks from different artists and diverse cultures. The feast is open to the public until June 26, 2016.