I never did reply to the invitation for the free lunch held at Gallery 1C03 this time last year, but I thought about it.
I certainly couldn’t have asked for better hosts. The invitation came courtesy of senior Winnipeg artist Elvira Finnigan and painter Lisa Wood, now based in Brandon. Both, I can attest, are excellent conversationalists and great company.
Rather the event, which saw the University of Winnipeg gallery briefly transformed into a functioning school cafeteria, touched on a primal dread I have around eating in public.
In the end, students and staff, community members, artists and others — friends, colleagues and perfect strangers alike — did get together for a meal, conceived of as a kind of group performance or "happening."
Time-lapse cameras at each table caught participants mid-sentence and mid-mouthful, capturing photos that would serve as source material for drawings, collages and oil paintings on translucent Mylar that Wood brought back to the gallery as they were completed.
After the guests left, Finnigan swept in with vats of supersaturated brine, coating dirty plates and half-spent soda bottles in layer after layer until every surface glistened with crusty, crystalline salt deposits. The unusual mode of preservation has been a constant in her practice for more than a decade.
The food hang-ups that kept me from the meal itself aren’t all that interesting or unique (once an anxious fat kid, always an anxious fat kid, apparently), but my squeamishness points to the centrality of food and rituals around it to daily life and the workings of society. We may eat to live, but for better or worse, we can’t help imbuing the act with added weight and meaning.
In the first Cafeteria exhibition, pickled place settings were mostly left in situ. Tables and chairs occupied much of the gallery, which took on the ambience of a dining hall in Pompeii. A mural-scale grids of four-by-six snapshots spanned the rear wall punctuated by Wood’s sketches, collapsing events in a kind of abstract timeline.
In a pleasing symmetry, the positions are reversed in Cafeteria II, which closes to the public this Saturday, April 8 (the exhibition will remain up for individual appointments and group tours until April 28). Wood’s three massive new double-sided Mylar paintings take pride of place, freely suspended where the tables once stood. Artifacts of Finnigan’s process — blue tabletops streaked with salt, resembling star charts or petri dishes, a few stray dishes locked up in Plexiglas vitrines, a handsome grid of photographs — hug the walls.
Where the first exhibition felt like a more-or-less factual record, a year later the mood is almost reverential. Perched on their plinths, Finnigan’s sculptures read like religious relics, while the photo grid, Pangaea, and her Ghost Tables invoke cosmic and geological timescales.
Wood’s paintings are marvels of composition and bravura brushwork. She took inspiration in 17th century "merry company" paintings, a Dutch genre of raucous, boozy, tavern scenes, and hers have the same freewheeling, convivial energy. Figures plucked from multiple sources bump shoulders and lines between them blur, everyone running their mouths and stuffing their faces, oblivious to the artist’s gaze. At the same time, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper comes insistently to mind.
The paintings have to be seen in person, not just for the revelation of watching them transform as you move from front to back, but because their warmth and sensitivity just doesn’t reproduce. In photographs, Wood’s unflinching (and very often unflattering) attention to detail renders her subjects nearly grotesque; my food worries bubble up just looking at them. My experience in the gallery is something altogether less fraught, more nourishing.
In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have skipped lunch after all.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.