BITING commentary 'T.V.Dinner' holds artistic food for thought

July 24, 1993|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Staff Writer

Imagine the channel surfer's world: The pizza limp from toppings, the orange-flecked nacho chips, the sweating beer can. Basketball players bounding across the court become a braid of bodies which becomes an LAPD shootout. Equally familiar is the channel surfer's expression: that otherworldly glaze which suggests that nothing else exists en route to satiety.

The relationship between viewer and television has stirred anxieties for almost 50 years, both attracting and repelling those who consider this human-technological connection.

Baltimore artists Mary Owens and Fred Collins have thought a lot about it. They think television is so potent a force, in fact, that they have put together a wide-ranging visual arts exhibition about its effect on viewers. "T.V. Dinner: Channel to Channel," which runs at Maryland Art Place through Aug. 21, features multimedia visions of 40 local artists in categories which range from "Guns 'n Donuts," an exploration of the casual nature of TV violence, to "Sofa Porn," which takes a look at viewer voyeurism.

"I consider information to be a diet," Ms. Owens says. "The idea of 'dinner' in this show is used loosely as a metaphor for what we're receiving on TV."

She also takes the idea of dinner more personally. Just as some artists specialize in painting landscapes, you might say Ms. Owens specializes in small food sculptures -- the more surreal, the better. She believes certain foods are so culturally powerful, in fact, that she works them into jewelry. Her earrings dangle tiny cellu-clay plates of fried eggs, slices of chocolate cake or pieces of blueberry pie. They seem both cheerful and nutritionally malevolent -- a series of cholesterol charms.

Consuming desires

For the MAP show, Ms. Owens has contributed work that emphasizes the connections between consuming too much television and too much food. Her piece "Your Teeth Will Survive Your Brain" is a warning on her perceived dangers of NutraSweet -- and perhaps the fake-sugary programming on television. She has sculpted a mouth in the shape of a pie wedge. It is open and ready to receive a walnut-sized morsel which turns out to be a brain. In the background of this work, an enlargement of the NutraSweet logo rotates hypnotically.

Another creation pokes fun at the ritualistic excesses of eating food while watching TV football. "Barbecued Linebackers on Pasta" is a large dish of linguine topped with the barbecued bodies of two hog-tied linebackers. It is served with tomatoes, onions, peppers and miniature football helmets. Fondue forks spear tiny footballs which are split open and slathered with sour cream.

It's a tad intense.

But Ms. Owens insists she doesn't "feel any animosity toward football players. "To me, it's really easy to mix metaphors of food and flesh when you're watching TV. There are just a lot of tasty-looking sensual realities."

When she's not making "food," she's serving it. Ms. Owens, 31, lives in Reservoir Hill and works as a waitress at Cafe Hon in Hampden. Ever since she dropped out of the University of Maryland -- she studied anthropology, art history and literature -- she has worked as a waitress to support her artistic endeavors.

Food is comfort

"When you give people food, they're happy," she says. "It's one of the nicer ways humans can communicate with one another."

The seventh of eight children from a middle-class family in Silver Spring -- her father delivered milk, then bread; her mother baked remarkable pies -- Ms. Owens grew up around a lot of food. She has worked at some of the area's more widely known eating establishments: Big Boy's, the Harvey House, The Little Tavern on the Block (briefly) and Louie's. It was there, working with the legendary desserts, that she realized the extent of sugar's intense grip.

"People are at their psychologically weakest point when they want sugar," she says. "It's a fascinating point of vulnerability. They begin to act like children: They're impatient and self-indulgent. And they feel a lot of guilt.

"A lot of women would say, 'I'm being soooo bad!' when they were thinking of ordering one of the cheese cakes."

It appears as if Ms. Owens herself eats more carrots than carrot cake. Tall, slender, her long hair burnished with chestnut, you might consider her farm fresh. Then you notice the earrings fashioned from rosary beads, the leather cord around her neck with the tiny raw pork chop.

Food as a symbol

"A meat necklace is a little strong for most people," she admits. "It's got an iconic meaning that's fairly bloody. . . . A lot of people think that food [symbols] are immediately funny, but then they sort of bother them, too."

"Mary's work is whimsical, but sort of foreboding," observes Charlotte Cohen, MAP's program director. "It's very funny at first, but it does have that sort of malicious edge to it. It's not what it seems at first glance."

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