If Kevin Beasley’s sculptures from A view of a Landscape were largely concerned with countenancing historical narratives, reframing atavistic patterns from the 18th and 19th centuries to emphasize how they remain in place centuries on, Canadian sculptor Catherine Telford-Keogh’s work in the aspic genre reflects squarely on the perversities of contemporary, late-stage capitalism. And if the last essay explored Beasley’s symbolic suspension of exploitation, erasure, and decay, the works I’ll discuss here approach the crumbling worlds of contemporary capitalism by leaning into the encroachment of precarity or decay. Telford-Keogh’s work is largely defined by a flailing sculptural mode similar to those we’ve seen so far: perplexing, intractable wholes composed from anxious, interminable mixtures of unlike objects. This ethos holds across much of her practice, but the genre is most clearly embodied by a shapeshifting series of floor-mounted cylinders she has been producing for the past several years. Depending on the smaller series’ of which they’re a part, these objects have names like X LOWLIFE X, or The BaByliss Ultra Series institutionalized all forms of human function into low, flat intensities—titles that, in the latter case especially, mirror the sculptures’ frantic lists of constituent materials, which greatly outnumber Beasley’s already sprawling manifests. Once again, without erasing the meaningful distinctions between each individual work, we can identify the common tropes: each cylinder is roughly one foot tall and forty-two inches across; they appear to consist of a roughly inch-thick plastic shell, open at the top, scalloped at four points, and filled with a dizzying array of branded consumer objects, letters, image cut-outs, and foodstuffs, suspended and cast in what looks like a solid block of resin. Like so many aspics, they are each dyed bright, vibrant, murky colours, evoking images of bogs, swamps, stews, acids, fires, and plasmas.
Beasley’s cotton sculptures, whose dyed, busy, “composed” sections were supported by a thick base of raw cotton, created an unsteady relationship between surface and depth, or volume and mass, with the raw cotton acting like a blank canvas for his cross-historical workshop, even as the embedded objects protruded from and receded within the vertical surface. In Telford-Keogh’s cylinders, this unsteady play between surface, depth, space, and volume represents both a key formal strategy and a thematic touchstone: there is a material trick, or a play of appearances at work in all of these works. In constructing these cylindrical works, Telford-Keogh fills the molded outer shell with its eclectic mix of objects, images, and substances, then forcefully presses overtop the objects a fitted piece of glass, onto which she has poured thin layers of resin; the layers of resin give the sculpture’s surface its muddied, coloured sheen, and give the sculpture’s interior its illusory semblance of solidity, while also leaving the internal objects (now crushed together) visible to the viewer. And while the glass and resin sheet does crush and compact the mixture of objects, Telford-Keogh ensures that her structures are lined with networks of vacancies, openings, gaps, and hollow chambers, where, unlike the solidity of the aspic’s gelatin stasis, entropic forces still reign. The compilations of food, paper, cosmetics, chemicals, metals, woods, and plastic are left to co-mingle and mix, erode one another, form new compounds, change shape and colour, while always retaining their appearance of solidity, submersion, and preservation, held beneath Telford-Keogh’s glass firmament. Inspired by the churning activity of global environments, animal digestion, and bacterial decay, Telford-Keogh treats her objects as perverse late-capitalist microcosms, contained yet heterogenous, fluid and forced.1
A series of economic recessions, famines, and austerity measures in the 1890s led to gelatin’s, and the aspic’s, most essential revolution—the introduction, primarily in the US and Germany, of portioned jackets of flavourless, powdered gelatin, sold for household use, best known under the brand name Knox. During the same period, in 1897 in the United States, the Cooper family added fruit flavours and a base of sugar to their longstanding but unsuccessful dessert jelly, coining the brand name Jell-O. These widespread, household-name gelatin powders served as the bridge by which aspics transitioned from being upper-class delicacies to lower-class staples of austerity cooking and food rationing. The first wave of mass-marketed, electric, iceless refrigerators came about in the mid 1910s, but didn’t become affordable until decades later, and for a long stretch the only somewhat accessible form of cold storage was the “icebox,” a moderately insulated crate cooled by blocks of ice, notorious for filling with mold and flooding living spaces. During WWI, and into the Great Depression a short time later, issues of food waste became matters of government regulation and penalty; aspics became common strategies, across Europe and North America, to preserve food for as long as possible in spite of uneven, moldy iceboxes. Aspics also offered an alibi for unconventional recipes, compiled from whatever was on-hand depending on the state of rationing or poverty; the encompassing base of gelatin provided a sense of unity to whatever arbitrary lists of ingredients might have needed mixing. Jell-O’s popularity grew during austerity times, as its sweetness compensated for a rationed sugar supply, siphoned to a war effort or rendered inaccessible by cost. The tag line from a mid-century Jell-O ad summarizes the ethos well: “Now that Jell-O has put salad flavours into gelatin … you can put anything into a gelatin salad.”1
It’s important to note that the “anything” with which Telford-Keogh populates her contained ecosystems consists of distinctly branded objects: like a Jell-O salad, the lists flail endlessly, discrete items following one another seemingly at random: listerine, dog chow, oreo cookies, fragrance spheres, advil, dill pickles. Delivered from the chaos of extractivism and manufacturing to be trafficked throughout most of their lifecycle in largely sterile environments, from factories to intermodal containers to store shelves to home shelves, most of the objects Telford-Keogh employs are destined to conclude their journeys inside the human body, subject to the undifferentiated internal mixtures of the mouth or nose or blood stream or gut. We return again to this play between interior and exterior, but endlessly more complicated: globally-spanning supply chains run up against the inside of the home, pharmaceutical research labs clash with the insides of an unknown organism. Each of the branded consumer objects Telford-Keogh interns in her cylinders index one sprawling network or another, of resource extraction, supply chain logistics, international trade agreements. Telford-Keogh’s sculptural guile brings them into the snaking passages of a deep-forest marsh or digestive tract. We might even see a distant rhyme in this play, with the capitalist notion of the “externality”—the economic trick that allows businesses to refuse or “externalize” expenses like waste-management, environmental remediation, or worker safety from their balance sheets—without which almost all energy, extraction, chemical, and manufacturing firms would fail to turn a profit. The capitalist spoils that Telford-Keogh interns in her petri-cylinders have all emerged, in one way or another, from these “externalized” systems, only to be symbolically brought “back in,” internalized, made to face the chaos of material ramifications in a translucent gladiatorial arena of glass and petrochemical resins.
Contravening the 20th century aspic’s original function to aestheticize and preserve Depression-era families’ leftover groceries, Telford-Keogh’s aspic sculptures transpose capitalism’s material contradictions and systemic affronts into artificial enclosures, pitting branded products against one another, positing a reversal of capitalism’s destructive polarities, where the entropic waves of air, moisture, fungi, and bacteria reign over her contained consumerist effigies. While undoubtedly emblematic of the aspic’s “flailing genre,” these sculptures’ almost adversarial nature also recalls what Kris Cohen (a former student of Berlant’s) calls a “broken genre”: a broken genre manifests in the forceful countervalence, or backlash resulting from a genre’s failure to live up to its expectations.2 Cohen uses the example of internet trolls, citing their virulent antagonism as a pendular counterargument to the internet’s early utopian framing and its absolute failure to deliver a world anything close to that promised. At the same time that they inversely sacralise the aspic’s closed-system preservation, these testbeds of capitalist erosion that Telford-Keogh establishes can be seen as a kind of antagonistic retaliation to the promised fantasies, luxuries, and utopias trafficked to the exploited lower-classes by brand-names and consumer capitalism.
A similarly heightened sensitivity to the fragility and entropic valence of edible, consumable objects is also at the heart of Canadian artist Daniel Griffin Hunt’s sculptural practice—yet while Telford-Keogh’s political crosshairs seem locked on the conflicted logic of consumer excess and extractive production, Griffin Hunt’s align more with the aspic’s literal historical functions, centring specifically on the material politics of agriculture, agrochemistry, and food security. For years, Griffin Hunt’s work has foregrounded the unpredictable and dynamic material activity, or what he calls the “material intelligence,” of food objects, marrying a phenomenological and aesthetic curiosity towards non-human things with a political genealogy of nutrition and bodily thermodynamics. Griffin Hunt’s works, taken as a whole, do not fit as neatly within the aspic genre’s formal tropes as many of Telford-Keogh’s, and even Beasley’s (who has been intermittently making aspic-like works since 2014, at least). Griffin Hunt’s organic or sculptural materials often lay open to the elements, relatively isolated, or minimally modified: a carrot and a lit cigarette left to desiccate on a bent metal rod, its process recorded as a GIF and its remains donated to a fundraiser; a bag of lemons connected to piezoelectric sensors, plugged into a speaker system to broadcast their decomposing electric charges. Over the past two years, however, Griffin Hunt has produced a set of works that exemplify the genre we’ve defined here.
During a studio visit with Griffin Hunt, I learned that it was during his time completing his MFA at the University of Guelph that he began to take the politics of food security seriously, as one of the University’s primary funding bodies at the time was the agrochemical giant Monsanto (since acquired and subsumed by the Crop Science wing of Bayer for $62 billion). In the midst of this revelation, Griffin Hunt created An Awkward Age (2016), a five-piece sculpture obliquely reflecting the morbidity of contemporary food science. Five cement objects, roughly the shape and size of footstools, are mounted on wheels, and strung together with steel hooks and bright red polypropylene rope. Atop each cement cylinder is a different, peculiar object, composed entirely of everyday foods, including a bright green gobstopper, a cardboard cylinder perforated with MacDonald’s fries, and a composite sphere of dorito chips adhered together with processed cheese. These bizarre, enshrined food sculptures hold much of the work’s visual attention, but it’s in the concrete sculptures that belay them that we see another key performance of contemporary aspic sculpture. Rather than mixing cement with aggregate rocks as is standard for concrete structures, Griffin Hunt substituted these rocks with miniature marshmallows and elbow macaroni. Standing in for the aggregate, the macaroni tenuously holds the cement mix together, nominally allowing it to harden. As concrete hardens, though, it creates a strong exothermic reaction, producing a considerable amount of heat as the mixing chemicals release their energy; while aggregate rocks would remain impervious, it effectively cooks the foodstuffs in Griffin Hunt’s arrangement, these two material systems successfully carrying out their expected operations in completely incompatible ways.
Though undeniably clever, the material poetics in An Awkward Age also present a grim equation. Griffin Hunt channels Monsanto’s hovering dominion into a sculptural paradox: the macaroni is cooked, yet encased in a concrete tomb, inedible; the tomb, in turn, is held together with a compromised substrate, the macaroni cooked, weakened, and ready to fall apart at any moment; the result is zero sum, a death spiral. Without much of a stretch, we can map this equation onto several intersecting fault lines of contemporary capitalism’s most antagonistic developments: the impending climate collapse, as our warming planet sees more and more arable farmland swallowed by deserts each year, while the world’s concrete manufacturing industry, in turn, exhausts the planet’s supply of usable sand; the rising tides of reactionary conservatism, where austerity conditions and fears of material security push populist majorities to elect fascist or neoliberal governments, who exacerbate these same material issues. Griffin Hunt subtly rounds out the material system by inculcating these tragic cylinders as stands for even more ornate and inscrutable food sculptures, constituting an almost-literal tableau, where the beguiling feats of contemporary corporate food science stand atop a doomed material base.
Yet the work’s gesture is not simply a cynical condemnation. Similarly to Catherine Telford-Keogh’s anti-capitalist ecosystems, and Kevin Beasley’s simultaneous survey and vitrification of historical legacies which cannot be lost, An Awkward Age also holds a projective dimension, which returns us again to the heart of the aspic genre, in plain form: a contravening desire, in the face of overbearing forces of decline, degradation, despair, or dissolution, to seize hold of time and entropy and, as Berlant says, “to make it slow or make it stop.” Where many of Griffin Hunt’s works, like Telford-Keogh’s, foreground the decay of their constituent objects, An Awkward Age theatrically forestalls their dissolution, at least for a time.