SMoCA exhibit finds the art in the grocery aisle

May 28, 2013

Laundry detergent, Hershey’s bars, and produce stickers may not be what you’d expect to see in a fine art gallery. But as KJZZ’s Nick Blumberg reports, an exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art uses the grocery store to inspire art, and conversation. 

Emily Stamey "Stocked" is the brainchild of SMoCA associate curator Emily Stamey. She's standing in front of Scott Blake's 32-canvas work, "I Am What I Eat." (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

You’ve probably got a good shot at guessing the very first pieces in "Stocked: Contemporary Art from the Grocery Aisles" — two of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans. To the right, a wall of barcodes, hand-painted by artist Scott Blake. After SMoCA’s associate curator Emily Stamey told me they actually work, I took out my phone, downloaded a scanner app, and tried it.

“Kashi TLC cookies," Stamey said, looking at the iPhone's screen.

Stamey lead me around the exhibit a couple days before it was set to open. One of the pieces featured is "A la Cart" by Hilary Carlip, who gathered abandoned shopping lists and looked at the contents, the handwriting, even the medium.

“One of the lists is written on a box of matches," Stamey said. "The two items on it are listed Coors and Oreos. That’s the whole list right there. So she imagines that that is written by this guy named Woody. And she transforms herself into that imagined character.”

And plenty of others: “like Pammy, who’s the retired porn star -- yeah.”

Stamey showed me another group of photos, from a series called “Retail.” They’re taken in what looks like a Costco.

“In a way they’re kind of surreal," Stamey said. "It almost looks like it’s not a place where one would find food."

Fruit Stickers One of the pieces Stamey says should be seen in person is "Lost in My Life (Fruit Stickers)" by Rachel Perry Welty. Each of those flecks of color is a grocery sticker the artist collected. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

“I’m photographing things people see all the time," said artist Brian Ulrich, who lives in Virginia. "And that was, of course, the challenge: how do you make a picture of the thing which we all do all the time and don’t necessarily pay attention to or scrutinize?”

The exhibit also features a video mounted next to a long receipt that unspools lazily. It’s from a $20,000 bill several artists racked up at a New York grocer in danger of going under.

“They took out cash advances on their credit cards, and went in and bought out every single item in the store in one fell swoop in an effort to try to save it," Stamey said.

Jody Gnant was one of the artists behind "Store Buyout." After they snapped up everything in the store, they got a gallery to show some of the items.

“We would take a yellow lighter and give it a story, give it some context, call it ‘Portable Sun,’ and sell it for $75," Gnant said.

It may sound like a put-on, but the way context determines price is something Gnant thinks a lot about.

“Walking the streets of New York City, you’ll see handbags all over the street for sale for $20. What makes a purse on the street $20, and [the] same or similar purse in an upscale store $350?”

As SMoCA’s Emily Stamey showed me each piece, I was struck by just how different they all are: art that features cut up pieces from laundry detergent bottles, painted casts of different kinds of milk containers, different little produce stickers — even a photograph and chart from a book very much like a Peterson’s Field Guide to Identifying Birds — but this one's a guide to identifying shopping carts.

Documenting those lost shopping carts isn’t just for art’s sake. They illustrate a problem that’s important to the artist and to Stamey — food deserts. A lot of the abandoned carts are found in neighborhoods without a grocery store and where residents don’t have cars.

Stamey also wants to make people think about nutrition and obesity and how we buy food. She said art should start a conversation.

“It’s that thing there in the room that we can look at and we can enjoy it for the beauty that it presents us — and then you start to try to figure it out," Stamey said. "And in figuring out, you talk about it.”

And maybe it’s because she’s the curator, but Stamey thinks a lot of this art has to be seen in person to be appreciated.

"Stocked" runs through Sept. 1.

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