The Art of Degustation

Five Exquisite Dinners Imagined by Artists and the Highly Visionary Chefs at Uchi

George Alexander. Photography Chris Brown.
November 22, 2013

It was a masterful plan. As a run-up to the opening of the exhibition “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” (through December 7), the Blaffer Museum of Art staged a series of five exquisite dinners, each featuring an artist working with the museum’s staff, the host providing the venue and the chefs at Uchi restaurant preparing their take on modernist Japanese cuisine. Noted sommelier David Keck chose wine pairings for the individual courses. The fortunate few who attended (seating was limited to about 30 persons) tucked into once-in-a-lifetime repasts.

Blaffer director Claudia Schmuckli and her staff decided to stage the dinner series in lieu of the annual Blaffer fund-raising gala. “My development staff and I had been brainstorming for some time about an alternate format for fund-raising events, and the exhibition provided us with an ideal platform to experiment with a new model,” Schmuckli says. The artists involved in the dinner series are also participants in the exhibition, and during the run of the exhibition, audience participation is invited through a series of performances including Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee, Lee Mingwei’s The Dining Project and Tom Marioni’s salon The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art.

The Blaffer dinners are not primarily about the aesthetics of food; they are explorations of social interactions built around the cultural norms of the group dining experience.

I. The first dinner took place April 12 at real estate investor James McAlister IV’s home. The presiding artist was Mary Ellen Carroll, who works in a variety of media, both here in Houston and in her second home in New York City. As Carroll has observed regarding an event she staged at the Chicago Board of Trade in conjunction with the “Feast” exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art, “Food is not art. Art is different, because it only has to be itself.” For the Blaffer event, guests were seated outdoors at a single long table in front of a row of illuminated Christmas trees. The holiday decorations, according to Carroll, represented birth. A rider on a black horse that approached the seated diners represented “the mystique of Texas.” Since the Blaffer family largesse had its origins in the Texas oil business, Carroll added actors reading from the movie based on Edna Ferber’s massive 1952 novel, Giant; a silent screening of the 1956 film of the same name; and, for a final fillip, a Scotsman who read lines by Robert Burns with an authentic burr — because Blaffer is a family name of Scottish origin.

II. The second dinner was staged by Scottish-born Houston artist Lynne McCabe at the home of oil-trading CEO Mike Loya on May 18. For this dinner, McCabe chose a piano composition by Eric Satie entitled “Vexations.” The work, very contemporary in its conception, uses 18 notes, enharmonic notation and a massive duration — the notes are to be played 840 times. The menu was designed to likewise feature a limited palette of ingredients in different dishes that brought out the nuances of each. This culinary approach is used in the formal Japanese service known as tea-cooking, perhaps the only culinary system that successfully aspires to the level of a fine art. For the apogee of the evening, the guests were invited to join the pianist at the keyboard, then served a mixture of squid ink and sundried tomato in the shape of a musical note.

III. The June 22 event took place at the home of Leslie Hull and her husband, energy-industry speculator Mark Hull. Here, Venezuelan-born artist Miguel Amat recreated, in a highly abstracted form, the experience of visiting parts of Houston that are known as “food deserts” — areas where no markets find it profitable to operate because of the poverty of the residents. Amat visited several such neighborhoods, where he offered to trade new plates for the residents’ old dishes. Amat was also invited to play at various card and board games, as that is the main form of entertainment and social interaction in these neighborhoods. Diners at the event were served off the dishes Amat had acquired in his trades, and various items of food depicted board games.

IV.  The July event was hosted by Jim Furr, managing principal at Gensler & Associates’ Houston offices, and his wife, Jo, in the iconic Pennzoil Building (which the firm designed in 1972). The artists paired with the location were Houston’s perennial art comedians, Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, who have worked together as the Art Guys for 30 years. Their event used the corporate environment as the backdrop for a motivational retreat right out of a Dilbert comic strip. For this dinner, the delicate, inventive Uchi dishes were served in the sort of plastic take-out containers familiar to cubicle-bound masses across the world. After dinner, the diners, who had been divided into groups of six per table, were required to report on their evening’s “projects.”

V. The final dinner was hosted by Jim Petersen Jr., president of the energy industry services company Gulf Electroquip, Ltd., and advertising executive Lindsey George in Petersen’s unusual home on Milam Street in downtown Houston. (The building is now also a satellite gallery of the Blaffer Gallery.) For this dinner, artist Gabriel Martinez built 15 simple wooden benches, each sized to seat two. The Uchi staff created dishes that reflected Houston’s thriving food-truck culture and the food trucks of cities worldwide that share Houston’s latitude of 29º 46’ north. The benches were then distributed to Houston food truck locations to provide seating for customers.

The exhibition “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” is currently on view at the Blaffer Museum of Art on the University of Houston campus, 120 Fine Arts Building, through December 7. The exhibition includes archival materials from artists’ food events dating back to Filippo Marinetti’s dinners in Italy in the 1930s. Every Thursday, Ana Prvacki’s The Greeting Committee, UH faculty, staff and students welcome Blaffer visitors with a spoonful of Serbian slatko, a sweet strawberry preserve served to guests as a traditional gesture of hospitality. The strawberries were picked locally, and Blaffer staff and volunteers made the preserves according to a recipe from Prvacki’s grandmother. Thursday, November 7, 6 to 9 pm, a beer tasting will be held in conjunction with artist Tom Marioni’s conceptual work The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art.