THROUGH April 3, the National Museum of Natural History is host for an exhibit of contemporary Japanese ceramics. As with all shows, whether in museums or on Broadway, what the public sees is a product that has been created by many artists and craftsmen. In this case, the effort was to create a dynamic, interesting and informative setting for the collection of Tomo Kikuchi.
I had been called in as an expert on food as art--something I've always believed in, but even in this age of "performance art" something not widely acknowledged. Here was the dream commission: 20-square-foot still-lifes and the food didn't have to be gastronomically compatible so much as beautiful. I could devise and choose largely on the basis of shape, color and texture. Shopping would be a delight as vegetables and fruits seductively beckoned and teased the imagination.
As food stylist for three large background photo murals, I had entered the picture very late, and so as I sat and waited for the photographer's lighting to be perfected, I was surrounded by people who had been working on the show for months. People at drawing boards and lathes, with brushes and welding torches contributing their crafts. Their work was to be an expression of the vision of the show's designer, Richard Molinaroli, a vision reached in collaboration with curators who are experts in Japanese ceramics.
My turn came, and even for something as secondary to the show's focus as these photo murals showing the ceramics in use, there had been and would be hours of consultation and preparation. Since these murals were to be enormous, any lapse in taste or execution would be enlarged by geometric proportions (food as architecture).
I started with a preliminary meeting with Molinaroli, Louise Cort the curator, a mounting specialist from the Freer and a Japanese representative of Kikuchi. It was decided to use non-Japanese food so as not to misuse the ceramics.
I show the wares I partially prepared the day before. Okay: On the large flat plate we will do a pork tenderloin stuffed with prunes and garnished with a cucumber and red pepper salad. On its accompanying side dish, asparagus. In the iridescent black bowls--everyone's favorites--a leafy salad, salad garnishes and a seafood melange because the mussel shells look so brilliant against the bowl and I had the good fortune to find periwinkles during my shopping.
About the rough, square Bizen plate there is no argument--the meringue nest with fruit and coconut streusel. Out goes the steak tartare and the shrimp.
Which set-up first? Practical considerations reign. The meringue baskets will melt from the fruit liquid while the lighting is being set up. The lettuce will wilt and I didn't buy enough radicchio for a stand-in salad. So we go for the pork because there are three roasts and plenty of vegetables.
We will be photographing very starkly, so the backgrounds are to be plain, solid colors. But which ones? Twenty minutes later it is decided to use one color for all three set-ups. Perfect for the flat plates, nice but not best with the bowls and a definite compromise for the Bizen plate.
During the next two hours minute changes in lighting are tried and not so much rejected as built upon until Chip Clark--lighting is his department--has put in front of Richard's physical eye what he had in his mind's eye before any of us arrived on the scene. Louise and I crouch on the floor to apply last-minute makeup to the food with spray bottles and brushes, and a black-and-white Polaroid print is made. We all look. Lights are adjusted again.
As I prepare the food for the second set-up, Louise, who is the only one we allow to handle the ceramics, cleans up from the first shoot. Number two--the iridescent bowls--goes much faster. The first decision is not to use the bowl with the salad garnishes. We are left with salad and seafood. Do they go together? What, we wonder, is the logic of the photograph? They look magnificent together and we four decide that that is logic enough for us. The lighting is changed and in almost no time at all the Polaroids and the finished pictures are taken.
On the third set-up our only discussion is about whether to use one or two meringue nests and where on the very structured plate to put it or them. Since I had built the nests to be used singly and in only one location, my judgment is deferred to. We set up, apply the makeup and shoot in what seems no more than five minutes.
Now we are finished. Louise takes possession of the ceramics and cleans them. Chip takes down his lights. Everyone eats the food and we all go home. Many people--like me--will have been involved for brief periods, although Richard and Louise will have put in a year of effort. Usually I get immediate response from my food audience. This time I have to wait--like most artists--for the reviews.