Food brings us together. Beyond providing sustenance, it is a vehicle through which we socialize, celebrate, and show love and affection. Certain foods tie us to home and the culture or religion of our upbringing. Currently, what we choose to consume has also become a way to assert identity in ways that not only reflect our cultural background but who we aspire to be. We may identify as a vegetarian or vegan, or as a staunch carnivore, or perhaps as an environmentally conscious eater focused on local and organic foods. However, even as our food choices continue to become more and more politicized, there is still room to consider the joy of nostalgia within a food system gone awry.
In Grocery, LeBrie Rich’s series of twenty felted food sculptures that will debut at Wolff Gallery in Portland, Oregon this fall, the artist visualizes this tension between the politics of food as culture and food as commodity and how these notions overlap. Rich focuses on processed foods by major brands that have long been staples in middle-class American homes such as Hostess Donettes, Jif Peanut Butter, Ritz Crackers, and Fritos Corn Chips. She reflects that “as an adult I have come to consider the conglomerated brands of Kraft and Nestle as symbols of late capitalism gone wrong, and yet their products and brands have been in my consciousness since birth, through commercial messaging, grocery shopping with my Mom, and family dinners. These products that I consider sinister also represent familial closeness, shared meals, and sustenance.”
Historically, we can see the influence of Claes Oldenburg’s The Store from 1961 or his larger-than-life Floor Burger from 1962 in Rich’s work. More recently, British artist Lucy Sparrow gained international attention for fabricating a convenience store full of quickly-made plush felt products. Diverging from Sparrow and more in line with Oldenburg, Rich’s felted facsimiles are not multiples for mass consumption; they are one-of-a-kind sculptural art objects. Painstaking attention is paid to rendering colors, logos, and text in felt to closely mimic the originals, although tellingly, the ingredients and nutrition facts remain unreadable (it is no accident that the original of every product featured in the series contains wheat, soy, or corn, and most of them have all three). Slowing down the creation process and revealing the labor of the human hand in the fiber versions endows them with a preciousness that reflects the emotional connection that many consumers feel to these foods. Rich’s choice to work in the irresistibly touchable medium of felt also communicates this softer, nostalgic pull of these products despite our understanding that they are the result of mechanical processes and targeted advertising campaigns.
For the artist, the countless hours required to recreate each felted food item is as much a labor of love as it is a critique of our throwaway consumer culture and a food system in need of reform. Although food as subject matter and felt as medium have long been integral to Rich’s artistic practice, something clicked in 2016 for the artist that led her to create Grocery. She recalls, “I started making this work shortly after Trump got elected. I felt that I needed to do something that makes me and the people around me happy.” It is a rare gift when an artist can present serious commentary while also leaving room for joy, yet this is what Rich has done with with exhibition at a time when we need it more than ever.
Grocery by LeBrie Rich will by on view at Wolff Gallery in Portland, Oregon September 5-October 25, 2018.
LeBrie Rich is a visual artist who works in a variety of media including collage, mosaic, and fiber. Her work emphasizes experimentation in materials and processes and often explores the realm between the representational and the abstract. LeBrie’s work has been shown in diverse settings including museums, galleries, storefront windows, and art vending machines. In 2014 she presented work in a two-person exhibition in Fukuoka, Japan and in 2013 & 2015 she attended the Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida. LeBrie is also the owner of PenFelt, a feltmaking studio in Portland, Oregon.
Zemula Barr is an artist and curator based in Portland, Oregon, where she co-directs Wolff Gallery and manages the photography exhibitions at Blue Sky Gallery. Zemula studied photography, digital media, and English literature at Scripps College and later completed a Master’s degree in curatorial studies with a focus on public art at the University of Southern California. She has curated shows and organized public programs hosted by Port City Gallery in Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Workspace, and RAID Projects in Los Angeles, California. Her writing has been published in Picture Sentence and in exhibition catalogs for Blue Sky Gallery and ONE Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles.