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Food products for thought

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times Staff Writer

Jon Rietfors doesnt make much of the fact that his hometown is Greeley, Colo. To me, it was just a place to grow up, said the 32-year-old.But Rietfors allows that Greeley, site of the corporate headquarters of the multibillion-dollar meat company Monfort Inc., has had a subliminal effect on him and his art. The smell of the meatpacking and processing was so pervasive and constant when Rietfors lived in Greeley that it became practically invisible. But having lived in Glenwood Springs for nearly a decade, Rietfors has been awakened to the smell, and the activities behind those odors, during visits to his family in Greeley.I guess youre reminded of that every day when you smell it, he said. It smells like fertilizer all the time, the whole town. But I never thought about it till I moved here.Closer to the fore of Rietfors thinking, though, are ideas tied to his hometowns dominant industry. Much of Rietfors art focuses on the relationship of food and commercial products, on the transformation of natural foodstuffs corn or cheese or beef into items that appear on supermarket shelves Spaghetti-Os, Coca-Cola and packaged meat products.In this age of mad cow disease, farmed fish, increasingly suspect ingredients, and an unprecedented separation between the food that is grown and raised and what ends up on our dinner plates, Rietfors work can be grisly. One piece, Still Life with Food Animals, a photo of packaged meat cut into pieces and mounted on bars of Irish Spring soap, Rietfors doesnt show any more too disturbing, he concluded.Instead, he tries to cloak his ideas about food and commerce with a sense of humor. It begins with his standard methodology: taking photographs, usually right off a television screen, cutting the image into pieces, and then assembling them on an unusual surface. Enriched, for instance, included in the 2002 Aspen Art Museums Roaring Fork Annual, featured pictures of open cans of Spaghetti-Os mounted on 320 packages of Ramen noodles. The wall hanging was 7 feet across and 6 feet high. Fruitilicious has photos of pieces of Froot Loops cereal, mounted on packages of Lifesavers candies.Im trying to draw attention, to make people aware, and not being so in-your-face with the guilt, said Rietfors, whose basement studio adjoining an arts supply store is stocked with raw materials oversize Camel cigarette packages, Coke cans, tubs of Mentos candies and finished pieces and works-in-progress that utilize Doritos, breakfast cereal and series of matchbooks that feature all the presidents of the United States. I think humor can be effective. Oscar Wilde said if you give people bad news, youd better make them laugh, too, or theyll hate you. So you start people laughing, but then you get them thinking.There are humorous ideas beneath much of Rietfors work. About Enriched, he notes, Thats an odd thing we do we refine things down to the part that tastes good and then add back the things we think we need. Fruitilicious is based on the observation that there are all these things that are fruit-flavored and shaped like donuts.Art dealers and exhibitors have been laughing with Rietfors, not at him, and seem to find his work provocative enough to take seriously. Rietfors work was included at the inaugural exhibit, which opened this past week, at + Zeile/Judish, a prominent new Denver gallery. His pieces have shown at the New Mexico Museum of Fine Art, the Fort Collins Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, N.Y. At the sprawling Artists Cooperative at Aspen Highlands Village, Rietfors work gets more attention than any other, according to gallery director West Townsend.You are what you eatGrowing up, Rietfors paid more attention to comic books than to the meat industry that surrounded him. At Greeleys Aims Community College, he studied graphic design. Working for a Boulder graphic design firm, he was assigned to the Home Guide, a Roaring Fork Valley publication, and moved to Glenwood Springs. When he started his own graphics business, the ongoing concern Ad Infinitum, he took the Home Guide as his primary client.When his friend Paul Jacobsen started making oil paintings, Rietfors figured hed give fine art a try too. I was looking for what I wanted to do. I just wanted to make stuff, said Rietfors. His early work like, perhaps, his current work could easily be categorized as stuff. He began by putting stickers with slogans on them on blank matchbook covers. His first expanded piece, Journeys End, was 100 numbered matchbooks that spelled out Collect All 100. The original idea behind making up larger images out of a bunch of smaller ones was not based in artistic concerns; it was simply cheaper.Some three years ago, Rietfors started feeling, as he describes it, generally ill. He began watching his diet carefully, and that led him down a disturbing path. I thought about the ingredients of food, and how abstract they are from their origins, said Rietfors, whose studio, back in the 1950s, was the location of City Markets butcher shop. His early series Still Life with Food Animals which included a piece that had 140 boxes of Jell-O with a photo of a grocery meat cooler, intended to illuminate the fact that Jell-O originates as an animal product reflected his thoughts on food.With his attention turned toward food, Rietfors read Sue Coes Dead Meat, an effort to enlighten people about food that is as artistic and interesting as Rietfors own. An artist, Coe had asked permission to photograph meatpacking plants. She was denied, but the packing plants allowed her to sketch what she saw, and her drawings became the heart of a stomach-turning treatise on animal slaughter. Rietfors stopped eating meat and improved his eating habits.I still eat garbage, but its organic garbage, like organic Cheetos, he said. But I look at all the ingredients. I try not to eat lots of things where I cant pronounce the ingredients.With the arrival of mad cow disease on these shores, it would seem a natural for Rietfors to employ current sensitivities about meat in his art. But he says the mad cow news hasnt inspired him to create. Its already scaring people out of their wits. Maybe I dont need to do anything with it, he said.Bite-sized commentariesRietfors has expanded beyond the food-related and into the political and social. Legacy, a Department of Defense photo of an airplane dropping a huge load of bombs, mounted on 1,500 matchbook covers, indicates Rietfors reaction to the U.S. propensity for military action. Regular/Super-Size combines the political and the nutritional; it features a photo of food packets being dropped in Afghanistan. Rietfors has much to say about the political landscape. He is dissatisfied with the Unites States approach to Iraq and Afghanistan, and he doesnt think those operations are so different from the long history of the U.S. government.I dont think any president can say that something bad hasnt happened under his administration, he said. Its not always the presidents doing, but something bad is always going on, some corporation is always getting away with something awful.Still, Rietfors isnt completely satisfied with his politically oriented pieces. He thinks they lack the comedic content of his food work.Possibly a more promising avenue is the series of works that use the musical as inspiration. One of Rietfors most compelling pieces is For the Sake of Growth 2. It is a photo of Violet Beauregard the girl from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory who disobeys Wonkas orders, chews the experimental gum, and turns into an expanding blueberry. The photo is broken up into pieces, placed on buttons, and mounted on Dixie cups. For Rietfors, it combines several concerns environmental, nutritional with an art form he finds relevant to the way he feels about food and politics: the musical.After I started thinking about food so much, I started feeling out of place. You go into a grocery store and that multitude of products is so common, he said. So I thought musicals were a good metaphor where everybody acts like breaking into a song-and-dance number is totally normal. Its like the acceptance of something totally bizarre is normal.


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