Laura Letinsky on Art with Food

It seems people always ask, “So do you write a food blog?” No, I don’t take Food52-esque shots of my zucchini ribbon pasta (with vegan cashew cream, no less). I also don’t write raving restaurant reviews about delicious potato flatbreads and roasted beet salads.  I am an aspiring journalist, a translator of meaning through the language of food. Because food isn’t just an Instagram staple—at its basic core, food is a cultural artifact reflecting the human existence.

Just as I “blog about food”, Laura Letinsky “takes pictures of food.” To be more specific, she creates still lifes of rotten cantaloupes, crushed soda cans, and stale bread sitting morosely on dirty tablecloths. Her artwork on the “aftermath of meals” is simplistic and stark, “calling the idea of perspective of question.” Like an I-Spy book, her photographs immediately catch my attention as I futilely search for something neat and familiar in the scene.

Laura is a currently a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Visual Arts, and her work has been featured in prestigious organizations, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She has received grants from the Richard Driehaus Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial, and has been published in the NYT Magazine and Aperture Publishers. We meet at Tank Noodle in Argyle, where we share a meal that’s a little less rotten. We share a papaya salad and both order delicious bowls of piping hot pho.

It WAS a delicious salad…

Photography has a poetic and theoretical relation to the past-a photograph is always in the past, never in the present,” she says. The desiccated apple cores and stained coffee rings in her artwork symbolize these leftovers of the past. But her still lifes also represent the fragility of life, the inevitable process of decay and death. That beautiful bowl of peaches will eventually spoil into a mound of grayish blobs, and that flower centerpiece will fall limp and shrivel into brown bits. According to her much-better-phrased Wiki page, the food remains “investigate the precarious relationships between ripeness and decay, delicacy and awkwardness, control and haphazardness, waste and plenitude, pleasure and sustenance”, and in general, Laura’s “domestic scenes are redolent with the allures of domesticity (safety, comfort, familiarity) as well as its dangers (boredom, satiation, lack of desire).”

As depressing and mind-numbingly complex as that seems, Laura isn’t your typical tormented-contemporary artist type. For instance, she says photography keeps her awake and present to changing times: “It’s easy, as one gets older, to become petrified. You find certain things you like, certain things you don’t like.” Photography keeps her grounded, allowing her to be open to other ideas. (She says that how people interpret photographs and the world is through preconceptions, which has led religions, nations, and groups of people using superiority to abuse others.) Furthermore, Laura says she’s not as technically-sophisticated as people assume all photographers must be (she hates reading manuals). She says that the biggest misconception about photography is that it’s an art:

“A paint and brush isn’t art. A bunch of words is not art. Merely releasing a button and having an image isn’t more or less an art. They’re all materials. Photography is a material.”

Like most artists, Laura shares a love-hate relationship with her work. She both enjoys and despises the ubiquity of photography, especially when it comes to her artwork. For instance, she says that since her still lifes are printed on certain paper and arranged in a specific way, a Google image fails to capture the full essence of her artwork. She also says the industry is highly competitive and fickle; very few people live off their art work without having some form of supplementary income. She says most artists will attend grad school but less than 10% will go on to have careers as exhibiting artists. Many will work as graphic designers, teachers, artist assistants, and even lawyers until their work receives acclaim, if ever. Like most industries, a photographer’s success depends on cultivating the right relationships and connections.

I find that Laura is a natural artist. She says that contrary to popular belief, artists don’t create work because they’re inspired. “Art is trying to communicate something that isn’t verbal or textual. It’s a way of thinking.” Her insight seems to undermine Maslow’s hierarchy; people create art because their inherent instinct to express and communicate rivals life’s basic drives. It reminds me of an episode of No Reservations, where Anthony Bourdain travels to Port au Prince and finds hungry and homeless artists creating beautiful masterpieces in the rubbles of their broken city.

By reflecting the present, art is a magnificent form of social commentary. For instance, Laura’s still lifes explore the idea of domesticity, in that the majority of household tasks are still completed by women. In fact, she tells me that people still consider still-life a feminine genre. But photography also provides Laura with a unique “license to look and stare.”

She says that females often don’t have the privilege of “looking” in that if a woman returns a man’s look, her action is interpreted as aggressive or as a come-on.

As a photographer, she says, “You can be in a room and not participate. I could just be a fly on the wall, and it’s exciting to do that.” Although women have made significant social and economic improvements since the 60s, sexism still pervades our society in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. “When Hilary Clinton was running, the language that was used was so gender-based,” she says, also mentioning a study showing that when women ask for a raise, their argument is seen as problematic and more demanding compared to their male counterparts. Having been raised to believe that both genders were equal, Laura finds modern sexism frustrating and says it’s a “continual realization of having to negotiate the world.”

But if anything, Laura’s an optimist—she says that the world is “getting better” and that progress doesn’t move in one, linear direction. In the meantime, she’s working on a pottery project with Mexican collaborators and continues her still-life artwork at her studio. And of course, she enjoys cooking. Pastas, paellas, and risottos are a family staple, and she can whip up a mean sourdough bread. Like me, she enjoys hole-in the-wall ethnic joints or higher-end eateries, like Avec and Blackbird. I ask her why Chicago. Why here instead of say, the East Village in New York? For the sake of practicality, Laura says that an artist can afford to actually live in Chicago. But she also likes the grittiness and working-classness of the city, and that the different ethnic communities (though polarized) make for great food and culture.

I went on this mission thinking I would learn more about food photography, but I found myself discovering more about art in general. It seems photographers have it easy— select an angle, adjust the ISO, click. With adequate equipment and the right subject matter, anyone can be a photographer. How many times have I seen pictures of a lone weed poking from cement cracks or some sepia shot of a child holding a forlorn balloon? But ultimately, photography is no different from writing in that what separates the average amateur from a true artist is the meaning, not the skill, behind the creation. Sure, I can throw some apple cores on a dirty tablecloth, but that wouldn’t symbolize anything to me or my audience. Meaning is the hallmark of art, and art is the tangible condensation of the brain’s ethereal thoughts.