Dozens of slices of white bread sit stacked in columns, forming crags mimicking Yosemite's Cathedral Rock. Corn cobs, corn flakes and husks are arranged so that they suggest cliffs hugging Cape Horn of the Columbia River. Fruit Loops bob in a river of milk, imitating a mining camp on the Albion River. These are just some of the photographs in Processed Views, a show by artists Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman opening tonight at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center.
Processed Views marries America's industrial-food culture to the country's iconic Western landscapes; the images are meant to invite audiences to consider the connection between nature and food, and to consider the state of the industrial-food machine in America. Processed food has inundated our dinner tables, invading some of our most sacred traditions surrounding sharing meals and is likely to have "unintended consequences for the environment and for our health," the photographers say in their artists' statement. This work exposes that tension and calls attention to how completely food marketing has infiltrated our culture.
The pair did the majority of this work between 2012 and 2014, and they were inspired in some part, Ciurej says, by conundrums related to feeding their children. "We had done a previous series called Ponder Food as Love, wherein we were looking at the language of food, and what flows from it beyond nourishment," she says. "It was about the emotional and psychological connections we have to food. But it was on food you could recognize — ingredients that were very close to the source, nothing processed or refined. We were metaphorically thinking about how these things, and about, what was it that for your kid’s birthday you allow them to eat the blue ice cream that you would never serve otherwise? It's a struggle to keep them away from junk food."
Ponder Food as Love showed the interconnectedness of food and health via photographs of ingredients nestled into the human body. Initially, Lochman and Ciurej worked on some similar images with processed food. "But as soon as we put an ice cream cone on someone’s body, it looks like pornography right away," says Ciurej. "What is that? It was clear that we couldn’t talk about that topic in that particular format."
So the duo went back to the drawing board, mulling over the concept of food deserts, which led them to Western landscapes. "We love history and photo history, and we started thinking about Timothy O’Sullivan in the American West, and his photography of vast landscapes," Ciurej explains. "We started to look at [Carleton] Watkins, and the role of his photography for selling us on the West." Watkins shot the West during the nineteenth century, often on commission for mining and railroad companies that wanted to lure Americans to a new frontier. His photos also became an impetus for creating the national parks system to protect those iconic landmarks. "[His work] had a double-edged sword — they were an advertisement, but they also did good," Ciurej adds. "They managed to help people see the wonder of the West, and to preserve Yosemite."
The artists thought there was a compelling narrative there that also applied to the processed-food industry. "This is where we are with processed food: We know what happens when we reaped and raped the West," says Ciurej. "There were unintended consequences of overuse, extreme logging, things that shifted the landscape. There was an analogy there: Couldn’t we look at what we’ve done in the past by going too fast and too far, and stop and think about the consequences?"
That's what Processed Views is meant to highlight, provoking viewers to consider those consequences and sparking a larger conversation about how we move forward as a technologically advanced society. "It’s not the science that’s bad," says Ciurej. "It's about how do we bring back human-centered values into conversations about progress? That’s what I hope for. It's about making people's health and welfare a consideration when you decide to make blue cake."
And testament to the work's success is the fact that it's gone viral via the Internet, sparking global conversation between artists, food enthusiasts and social-justice devotees. Ciurej says this is good support for the notion that art can sometimes engage in ways that analysis and science cannot: "Art should be at the table when we’re talking about these issues. When you’re trying to make your point through analysis, visual art can bring attention to things in a different way."
After the show opens at CPAC, there will be ample opportunity to engage in that conversation: As part of its ongoing dialogue series around art, the gallery invited the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council to join the artists for a discussion about the implications of industrial food with regard to the environment and health. Members of the council will select a photograph and then speak about their own experience with processed food and related issues, as they relate to that image. The opening runs from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, October 15, and they'll begin their analysis at 6:30.
Even if you've caught these images floating around the Internet, Ciurej promises that it's worth heading to the gallery to see the prints. "Someone put a lot of research into these color palettes," she says. "They totally entice the eye, so the prints are really sumptuous."
After tomorrow's reception, CPAC will be open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from noon to 4 p.m.; the show runs through November 26.