Franz West: Butter King

The first time I made butter it was dead easy except I got so excited I ended up cutting my finger on the blade of the food processor. (So dead painful too, but I did manage to keep the drips out of the bowl).

beet and orange butter, prior to "washing". by the author

I made red-pepper flake butter and also pink Himalayan salt butter. Again, really easy, but you have to wash the butter thoroughly and then squeeze all of the moisture out so it doesn’t start to go sour after a few days. Butter washing and squashing with a bandaged hand doesn’t work too well so the butter lasted only a week.

Making butter is a bit like working with plaster, except there’s less of a race against the clock. Plaster always astonishes me: its like magic the way it goes from liquid to solid, but usually magic with malevolence mixed in. I’m often stuck with a good chunk of hardened left-overs which the plaster fairies/angels/devils caused to seize up part-way through my project.

Not so with butter. The stuff that doesn’t solidify in the churning process remains as butter milk, which is surprisingly tasty. You can drink it or bake with it and revel in the duality of its nomenclature.

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Franz West - Element of the Environment "Alpenglühn". Papier-maché, plaster, gauze, paint, metal and wood on wheels, 2001

Franz West works with plaster and papier-mâché, or, possibly additionally the innards of tortured minotaurs, or the things left standing once a planet has condensed to pure dark matter. I love his work and defy anyone to argue the contrary. He’s one of several sculptors whose work I group together: Rebecca Warren, Siobhan Hapaska, and Rachel Harrison are additional names that spring to mind, although only some of Hapaska’s work fits my categorization: eccentric blob(s) coupled with thin rectilinear hard things. The contrast in materialities reminds me of the butter/butter milk divide and there’s an inherent violence and joy in the objects that reminds me of my butter blending mishap. West’s pieces can also have the look of giant mounds of tufted fat: the kind you get when you start playing with the trimmings of some uncooked beef.

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I’ve got some partially made blob sculptures that I need to get back to. I’d love to say I’m going to make them out of giant blocks of beef fat and keep them in a see-through fridge, but perhaps this is best imagined. And I’m going to make more butter. Formaggio Kitchen has crystallized violet petals for sale: I think I’d like to use some of them with some really really dark salt. Maybe I’ll finish the blob sculpture that’s got speakers in it and paint it purple and black. Or maybe I’ll do Himilayan pink salt again with crystallized rose petals; its almost Valentines.

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Rachel Harrison - Nose. Wood, polystyrene, cement, acrylic, rubber, cardboard, 2005

Butter really is about the fat. The fabrication is a simple process: take some nice heavy cream and agitate it. Shake it or beat it or blend it til you’ve made whipped cream* and then keep on going. Suddenly (see magic processes in paragraph 3) from the one substance you now have 2: the cream is replaced with solid butter and the liquid butter milk. Once you’ve stopped marvelling ***and the blade has stopped spinning*** remove the solid lump of butter. Wash it in cold water and then squeeze all of the liquid out. This is very important as any remaining liquid will sour. You can work in any flavorings at this point. I’m not sure but I imagine if your flavoring can rot it will; the butter will not preserve it so plan accordingly or use the butter quickly.

*a blender or other electronic device is absolutely not necessary to make whipped cream. Put some cream in a container with a tight cover, leaving plenty of room at the top. Shake it til you no longer hear the liquid sloshing around and you have whipped cream. It takes a minute or two. Apparently you can keep on shaking and eventually make butter, but I’m too much of a wuss.

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Duality

They look like jam.

I’m referring, of course, to the films of Jordan Belson.

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Photographing percolating jam is actually rather difficult: the lens fogs immediately and there’s the risk of stabbing little splashes of hot bubbling preserves.

Achieving Samadhi, the title of Jordan Belsen’s abstract colour film from 1967 is of course, much tougher, as is the act of describing it by the uninitiated without gross copyright infringement. Essentially its a non-dualistic state of consciousness reached through advanced yogic practice.

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In making the jam I broke Petunia’s rule of triangulation. I used 4 ingredients in addition to sugar: blueberries, lime juice, tequila, and flakes of red pepper. During the cooking process W. commented that the mix smelled like old socks. I believe this was due to some sort of condensing action of the lime juice and the tequila. Or perhaps it was something to do with the neighbors. Gratifyingly the jam does not taste like Limburger (however you also can’t really taste the red pepper flakes; I thought of adding Sriracha sauce but restrained myself. Genius may have been snipped in the bud).

I also thought of adding bits of bacon, which lead me on a reverie linking Paula Deen, jam making, bacon, speck, class-based cultural critique, and late-stage-capitalist just-in-time breakfasting (all the ingredients in-one for greater expediency).

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I was thinking about bacon and Belson because I’m helping to curate a show and this weekend we looked at alot of proposed pieces (one of which made me think of bacon and another Belson; no jam though). Some really great work, but sadly we had to send out rejection notices because there just isn’t room for it all. I’d never sent a note rejecting someone’s art before and I came finally to understand the saying “this is going to hurt me more than you” (about spankings). Ultimately it doesn’t hurt more: its the difference between a splash of liquid and enlightenment, but its interesting to see things from the other side.

For more information about Jordan Belson see the Center for Visual Music’s website. A DVD of a selection of his films may be ordered from them: Jordan Belson – 5 Essential Films. The image at right is a still from Samahdi; its actually rather different from some of his other films. It also looks a bit like cotton candy.

Chestnuts

For some reason the idea of roasting chestnuts scares me.

I’m not afraid that they’ll explode from the heat. Rather, its that post-oven they’ll go whizzing around the kitchen in some snake-like airborne state, hissing and weaving and emitting odd steam.

This fear of roasting chestnuts may date from a childhood visit to New York where there were vendors selling roasted chestnuts and hot dogs outside the MoMA. For some reason I confused the logic behind the construction of their wheeled metal sales contraptions: large and solid to avoid damage and the elements and shiny to attract patrons. But I took the solidity as a barricade between humans and the dangerous materials heating within and thought the wheels might serve as a means of expedient removal in times of extra threat. Like a chestnut powered tank or perhaps a mobile anthrax culture lab . . .

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Eating chestnuts is another thing and I’m particularly fond of chestnut jam (Through the Eyes of French Design has some wonderful images of prepared chestnuts, including Confiture de Marrons. Many chestnut jams/spreads are from the Ardèche region of France). Chestnut flour is gluten-free and may be used to make desserts and even pasta. The first time I went to Coppa in Boston they had a delicious sounding chestnut pasta dish on the menu but I’ve unfortunately not yet tried it. I’m not sure if its always the same one; the current menu lists Fettuccine di Brambly (House made chestnut pasta with heritage pork and roasted chestnuts). Yum.

Coppa bills itself as an enoteca: an Italian term essentially meaning “wine bar” or “wine cellar”. Italy is a major producer of chestnuts, exporting them to France and the US among other destinations. Not surprisingly “European (sweet) chestnuts” are grown in Europe whereas a number of “American chestnut” species once grew in the US and Canada until they were almost eradicated by the chestnut blight of the early 20th century. You can however, buy domestically grown chestnuts in the US. One source is Allen Creek Farm, in Washington State who sell a variety of chestnut products. Their site has a page of Tuscan chestnut recipes, including the amazing sounding Crema con Fave e Cardi (Broad Beans and Cardoom Thistle Cream) which uses chestnut flour. They will not ship chestnuts outside the US due to the fact that unlike other nuts chestnuts must be kept chilled and spoil easily. Culinarily and evolutionarily this seems a mis-step on Nature’s part and I assume the squirrels are up in arms (about the rotting, not the shipping). I never refrigerated the chestnuts I bought a month ago so I assume something disgraceful has happened internally.

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All of this leads back to the other day’s entry on beer. Peeled roasted chestnuts are an optional flavoring. I bought new chestnuts and roasted them. Quite a mundane experience, except that the instructions with the beer state the wrong roasting temperature (far too cool). No explosions, snakes, or strange steam.

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If you acquire some chestnuts and then think better about roasting them you can watch this video for alternate suggestions. Its very cute but keep the volume turned down. . .

Beer

I got a beer-making kit this Christmas and have run out of excuses for not using it.

Making beer (and I’m assuming most alcohol) involves an ordered set of stages similar to those immediately preceding and following its consumption:

  • hard work and/or fear
  • a period of relative relaxation
  • euphoria/misery

The beer kit comes in a nice brown box that reveals none of its content (I understand printed pornography once arrived similarly concealed). This means that, prior to opening, the imagination may run rampant (again, see prior reference). To wit: inside is my magic beer kit. There’s a large container and some magic powder; you put the powder in the container with some water and then you have beer a bit later. Or, possibly: inside is my beer unicorn. I will keep it tethered in the back yard and milk it every night for pints and pints of delicious unicorn milk stout.

Predictably it is more the former than the latter and the first step is to sterilize everything (see “fear” from list above) and then do something several times with the rather large bag of grains as well as the chestnuts which you have remembered to purchase, roast, and peel in advance (see “hard work”) after which you may play with the alchemical pipes and rods and read up about “wort” for a week or 2 (see “relative relaxation”). Finally after another few weeks you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor (or shake your tiny fist if something has gone amiss: see “euphoria/misery”). The beer kit is from Brooklyn Brewshop. I will report back. If you want to snoop ahead you may read the instructions here.

Ave Caesar (Jedediah)

I go unshowered* to the MFA. It makes me feel nostalgic (I went to the Museum School). Having dirty hair also let’s you judge the true demeanor of the gallery people. They’re all very nice, as is much of the art. This is a good thing in humans, less so in art.

I’m here for the Jedediah Caesar show which bears nothing in common with the images I’d seen on the MFA’s website so I feel a bit ripped off (I came to take a peak at *that* work; for what its worth the website has now been updated to reflect the actual content on display but I learn this only upon my return home). Because giant art museums make me feel as if I’m at Costco I visit only the Caesar show and the current offerings of the Linde Wing. Short visits to the MFA are another long-term habit dating from my years of free entry. I am also loathe to spend more than 2 hours at any institution, regardless of the price. My eyes gloss over and it’s like I have the flu: all intake and no cognition.

I first became aware of Caesar’s work at the 2008 Whitney Biennal. I loved his giant multihued resin block and, though I’d forgotten it, the monochrome sliced tile piece that you see in the video. Materiality and process are big in Caesar’s work: the process whereby he creates the materials for his own work. There are more tiled pieces at the MFA show with different hues and configurations. Caesar makes these by collecting objects, and, according to the MFA :preserving them “in a range of forms, including colored resin slices, impressions cast in clay, and raw assemblages.”

There are 2 parts to the Caesar show: the sliced tile pieces and a big unfired clay thingie. The clay thingie is awesome and has a wonderful name: /ALBATROSS/BADGERS/CHIMPS/DINO/EXTENSOR/FENCE/GRANITE HILL/HEAVENS/INSIGNIFICANT/LARK/MR. TUX/ORANGE PEEL/PURPS/RAMPA/SWINGLES/THIN SPOT/UPSHOT/WHITE KNIGHT/YELLOW PANT/ZIPPER/
Its like a Damien Hirsch title but more urgent and less pretentious. I have no idea what it means and yet it feels right, like listening to a neighbor sing in the shower when you can hear only bits of words but still get the rhythm. I think he may have mis-spelled “perps”.

When seen from the right angle the clay piece is sphinx-like in form. Like a sand sculpture it’s both static and transitory and is nicely activated by the sound of patrons’ footsteps as they cross the fancy wooden floor. As with the title, the mark-making feels urgent and fresh; too quick for imposed logic and so it’s the piece itself that provides it. You get a better sense (than with the tiles) of Caesar’s compositional and formal talent and they’re strong. There’s also something pleasingly primitive about it, like a Ziggurat or an Aztec altar (this is 2012, after all).

I’m less keen on the tiles. Some of them work and some of them don’t, in part because there are so many patterns and hues involved. I like the running floor-level border that encompasses the walls of the space (it has a cinematographic quality due to abrupt changes in hue and the time-based/chronological composition of its fabrication and assemblage). And I like the single red tile placed up high like a piece I once saw by Cornelia Parker that had something to do with giraffes. But I don’t like the arrangement of the remaining tiles. Their checkerboard patterning means there’s insufficient mass to create discrete volumes and they remind me instead of the alternating blacks and whites of tiled kitchen floors. The tiles feel quickly done and under-edited. Nonetheless I’m excited to see his work at the DeCordova in a few weeks.

The Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art
I’d like more failures in the Linde show. Not intentional ones but instances of highly complex art that doesn’t “work” according to existing canons and therefore engages. Everything does work and feels extremely safe: guaranteed to engender no anxiety or insecurity in the MFA-going public. Most of it also feels highly familiar, coming from artists recently shown at the ICA (where Senior Contemporary Curator Jen Mergel used to work), the List, and past Biennials. There’s even an El Anatsui piece from his wonderful survey at Wellesley. Stripped of its context and on its own it seems mostly decorative, like a lot of the work. A bower bird would love this show.

It’s a toss-up for favorite between Cerith Wyn Evans’ conceptually engaging chandelier and the wonderfully named Timorous Beasties’ equally wonderful wall paper (go Glasgow! and see image at right). Fred Wilson’s mirror comes in third, followed by Matthew Day Jackson’s Bockscar, and the Felix Gonzalez-Torres glitter curtain. There’s not alot of intellectually demanding work so I go for the joyful glitz and am glad for the MD Jackson as I missed his show last year. I just wish there was something to sit on as I get confused between the decorative art and the furniture and feel awkward about asking (or mis-sitting).

Petty food note. The “taste” cafe could stand improvement. They have no clue how to make tea (one of the 4 beverages they offer) and the food offerings are scant. I can’t help but compare it with the stellar cafe of the Wellcome Collection in London. The big black and yellow wall painting is nicely decorative (since I’m not sure what its letters say I can’t pass further judgment. Is it a social commentary on NY taxis? Or bananas?? Conceptual art aimed at the great apes? They could swing from the chandelier while pelting visitors with useless tea bags). I mention this only as the cost to enter the MFA is $22.

* in this instance