Leigh Anne Lester and Jayne Lawrence, co-owners of this artist-run space, say they are grateful to artists who come from out of town to share their work with the San Antonio community. Lawrence cites the artists’ faith and generosity in their work as the primary factors that make all the exhibitions possible. She and Lester are thrilled about the large turnout at the past three openings, as well as the dialog the shows have fostered between the out-of-town artists and local viewers.
McCabe’s show is infused with the same generosity of spirit that makes such artist-run spaces possible. The interior of Cactus Bra is painted white, and a one-foot-tall strip of chalkboard paint encircles the space at eye level. On the wall next to the doorway is a shelf laden with canned food, contributed by visitors on opening night. “All donations welcome” is written on the wall in white chalk. The artist will donate the food to a local food bank, redistributing the Pot-luck windfall back to the San Antonio community.
The small, square gallery is filled with an intriguing assortment of objects and images. On the left wall, six photographs hang in a row. Each portrays a person bearing a container of food, standing in front of a brightly colored oilcloth reminiscent of your grandmother’s table. On the opposite wall hang six artworks created by the individuals in the photographs. Some are notes, others recipes, next to a watercolor and a grouping of miniature sculptures. These are delicately affixed to the wall with straight-pins, in the style of exhibiting insects or butterflies. McCabe has allowed the participants of Pot-Luck to take center stage on the walls with her. This style of group participation is akin to Harrell Fletcher‘s work, notably in one of his pieces for the 2004 Whitney Biennial , This Contanier isn’t Big Enough, where he commissioned several unknown artists, including children, to find a space in the city to install work. In the Whitney galleries was a newspaper that provided information about each of the shows and artists. Fletcher says in the newspaper, "What if the art world were based on a socialist system instead of a capitalist one?, What if the gaols we were shooting for were sharing, equality and mutual support, instead of competition, rarefication, and celebrity?"
A giant video covering the back of the space ties the rest of the show’s components together. Each subject is interviewed onscreen by McCabe. They are artists in the Houston community whom she has invited to a pot-luck dinner party. She has asked them to bring food or art, and everyone has arrived with both. They answer questions about their chosen dishes, and these remarks lead to personal anecdotes, often about their families and childhoods. Similar to McCabe’s prior work at Lawndale Arts Center where she posed as a researcher for The Caledonian Institute for the Study of Interpersonal Relationships and proceed to interview people with questions like, "Who do you trust and why? Are you happy? Would more money make you happier? Do you believe in love at first sight?"
Plenty of time is allotted between interviews, enabling the viewer to examine the photograph and corresponding contribution while contemplating the subject onscreen. Each interviewee has placed a certain amount of trust in the artist to become a part of this project. McCabe has a distinct way of gaining that trust with her participants as well as asserting her own voice in the project. She allows each of them to reveal something intimate while still having her hand involved in the questions, so she is able to steer the work and still leave enough room for it to breathe with other voices.
One photograph portrays a woman holding a bowl of what appears to be potato salad. On the wall opposite her is a yellow Post-it Note, with the following poem written in black ink: “There was an old woman who lived in a lamp/She had no room to beetle her champ/She’s up’d with her beetle and broke the lamp/And now she has room to beetle her champ.” The correspondence between object and image is not apparent at first glimpse; rather, it seems almost nonsensical. However, in her video interview, the woman explains that she has prepared a traditional Irish dish known as “champ.” It consists of mashed potatoes with butter and scallions. She relates in a captivating brogue that in Ireland, when famine was an ever-present fear, rhymes were invented about food as a gesture of thanks in times of plenty. The term “beetle” refers to the mashing of potatoes with tools similar to a mortar and pestle.
Through Pot-luck, McCabe challenges the values which society places on various commodities, in this case comparing food and art. As McCabe puts it, "By using the form of a potluck dinner and expanding its premise to Art I wish to offer an alternate model, one out with the confines of the Art market’s paradigm. In creating an arena where Art and food are equally valued, I anticipate relative values of need, want and luxury, to be brought to the fore, begging the question, how can we as Artists challenge the market and these apparent societal discrepancies?"
The artwork contributed by the participants, as well as their video testimonies, offer insight into the experiences and people who have shaped their lives. This is McCabe’s medium, these people and their stories which are then reflected back to the viewer. Pot-luck reminds the viewer that art often provides a telescopic glimpse into one’s own heart, past, and self, encouraging one to reconsider what is truly of value in life.
1. Mia Fineman, "The Biennial That’s Not at the Biennial," The New York Times, May 2, 2004.
Images courtesy the artist and Cactus Bra.
Emily Seale is writer living in San Antonio and West Texas.
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