Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Art Imitating Life

Trips to Northern California always seem to inspire me to write. It’s a rich area for anyone who is food inclined. Obviously with the wineries and San Francisco clustered so close together a food scene is bound to thrive, and the proximity to farms that benefit from the temperate weather that prevails for most of the year doesn’t hurt either. I had some awesome food and wine on my annual jaunt this year. Lovely fancy restaurants, innovative chic casual ones, some damn good Puerto Rican food, local olive oils and everything in between (with the exception of a sad oyster fail on the coast due to odd scheduling, fyi apparently everything closes on Tuesdays). 

But what got me thinking when I was flipping through pictures after returning home was an art exhibit Shea and I stumbled on out on Point Reyes. And I do mean stumbled on: there was no museum, no well advertised art gallery to draw attention to the exhibit. At the back of a “general” store in what counts for Point Reyes Station’s downtown strip there was a display of canned goods.

These were canned goods as art. Canned goods as commentary in many ways. The room felt sort of like wandering into someone’s pantry, and sort of like stumbling into a pretentious art gallery. I was, and still am, torn on how I feel about the exhibit.

Aesthetically it was right up my alley: rough wooden shelves, natural light, natural fibers. The subject matter was also in many ways right up my alley, I’ve been playing around with canning on and off for the last couple years from a purely practical standpoint as a way to survive abundant CSA shares.

In many ways I loved the exhibit; in the same way that I love most folk art exhibits because they celebrate a tradition of functional art mostly created by women in eras when artistic expression wasn’t encouraged if you were female. It’s the same thing that drew me to focus on social and cultural history over military strategy and politics when declaring a major in college. Until relatively recent decades the history of women was woven into the fabric of the textiles they wove and stirred into the recipes they made.

I was reminded again of this in reading a (sort of terrible) book I’ve had on my reading list for a while that reimagines some elements of the Salem witch trials. The book isn’t great, so it doesn’t bear mentioning except that watching the modern character in the book try to reconstruct the history of all these 17th century women from probate records because women didn’t really write things down reminded me about why cultural and social history matter.

Because of that, part of me loved this exhibit on preserving food. (I’m sure there’s an analysis in there about preservation of tradition and literal preservation of food for survival or something, but I’ll leave that to art critics.) The part of me that couldn’t wholeheartedly get behind the exhibit is the contrarian that rolls its eyes every time some “olde tyme” tradition gets popular.

I’m happy these traditions are surviving in such a technologically focused age, I am. And the more people who are moving away from buying processed food and scary prepared items, the better. But these traditions survived in many areas before they were trendy. Maybe it’s the herd mentality that irks me. Or maybe it was the $150 price tag stuck on one of the canned works of art in the back of the Point Reyes Station general store. As a whole, the exhibit might have some meaning. As individual works of art I can’t help but think that a $150 jar of dilly beans is just an overpriced jar of dilly beans that someone could have made on their own.