Play with your food and this is the result

Times Staff Writer

STONEHENGE reconstructed from cheese puffs. Easter Island totems of molded Tootsie Rolls. Digital photos of Froot Loops and noodle soup arranged in wallpaper patterns. What looks like a complete ham dinner, crocheted in yarn, forming a disc about the size of a beret.

If any of these catch your eye while you stroll through Del Amo Fashion Center in Torrance, you’ve stumbled on “Toothsome,” an art exhibit designed to reach out from the Joslyn Fine Arts Gallery and grab the attention of unsuspecting shoppers.

“When [‘Toothsome’ curator] Kristina Newhouse first approached me, it seemed strange that it was in a mall,” says Christian Mounger, whose photos are on display through Saturday. “But the more I thought about it, the more excited I was.

“I was delighted with people’s interest,” says Mounger, a faculty member at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. “It made me think about the fact that art in a museum context makes it seem elitist. But in a mall it’s much more accessible, and that’s very healthy. I teach, and part of the teaching experience is to make students think about the role of the arts in the community. Art isn’t just about being for a small audience.”

The installation is set up in a storefront that appears side by side with vendors hawking jeans and Chick-fil-A sandwiches. Georgia O’Keeffe-style paintings by Gus Harper of giant orange slices and Ian Doyle’s David Hockney-ish photo collage of the inside of a very messy refrigerator draw in passersby, competing with chic outfits on mannequins in the windows of Macy’s and the latest frozen drink temptation from the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.


That’s grand, say the artists. Most agree that the consumerism of the mall fits the food theme of the show.

“I have a lot of respect for that,” says Mounger, whose photos are titled “Food Court.” “By turning food into a decorative medium, it says something about the way images are conveyed, and sometimes that talks about a materialism that’s difficult to avoid.”

Mounger, who also works occasionally at the Huntington Library, a repository of the decorative arts, takes large photos of food, scans them into a computer and manipulates them into repeated patterns. His squares of beef and peas are arranged as symmetrically as pieces of wood in a parquet floor. But even though he’s done a kind of tribute to the food court, don’t expect to run into him in a mall anytime soon. “My idea of hell would be the Beverly Center at Christmas,” he says. “I don’t have anything against the environment, it just makes me crazy with its excessive imagery and that sense of visual overload.”

Overload is the first sensation caused by John Ahr’s photographs. He has reconstructed the Giza Pyramids in lemon Jell-O Jigglers, complete with rusticated-looking surfaces created with cooking spray. Look closely at his Parthenon and you may realize that it’s blueberry sour sticks and colored sugar. The majestic steps of Chichen Itza are formed with sugar cubes and Pez pieces.

After spending hours setting up and photographing the junk food wonders of the world, he simply tossed them out. “I didn’t want anyone to exhibit the sculptures rather than the photos,” Ahr says. “They were my high-priced fashion models -- beautiful in the pictures, but they would have been a mess outside of that.”

Besides, it’s OK that they’re ephemeral, because we’ll probably never know if the real archeological sites have all the meaning ascribed to them either.

“I took a great many art history classes at UCLA and studied with one of the foremost art historians on Egypt,” he says.

“Now I tell people just watch a good video and be satisfied, because after reading so many books on the culture and the meaning of it, it is so remote in history we’ll never know. It’s like I needed an outlet for the frustration, so it became Jell-O.”

Clare Crespo, creator of the ham dinner piece, experienced a different kind of frustration with the art world while working on her master’s degree at CalArts.

“It felt pretentious,” she says. She decided to “make art using crochet needles,” art that would be “about something everybody understood.”

Crespo does more than crochet. Her Web site on how to create edible displays generated so much interest that it became a cookbook, “The Secret Life of Food.”

That book spun off into cooking classes for kids. She’s showed children and their parents how to make green beans and toast look like flip-flops and how to fashion cupcakes and sprinkles into tarantulas.

An obsessive cook, she considers food to be art, even when it’s not in an exhibition. “It’s like that movie, ‘Like Water for Chocolate.’ You can put so much love and emotion in your food,” she says. “The cookies you make for your boyfriend are not the same cookies you make for your boss.”

She’s not trying to make any profound statements with her pieces in “Toothsome,” but she does hope strollers in the mall will bite.

“It’s great,” she says, “that people might walk by, see my stuff and be amused.”



Where: Joslyn Fine Arts Gallery, 3 Del Amo Fashion Center, Torrance

When: Today and Friday,

10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday,

10 a.m.-7 p.m.; ends Saturday

Cost: Free

Info: (310) 618-6340