James Ostrer's Junk Food Portaiture
Cheese curls, licorice, donuts, and the like are usually foods we associate with that one aisle in the supermarket no one likes to admit strolling through. Visual artist James Ostrer spent a great deal of his time and money in said aisle buying supplies for his strikingly visceral portraiture series "Wotsit All About," a series that saw him layering pounds of cream cheese on his friends and family and adorning them with a literal buffet of candy and fatty foods. With an aesthetic that is both Pee Wee’s Playhouse and dessert-centric nightmares, Milk Made spoke with Ostrer about the complexities of his creations and the inspiration behind his visual feast.
Can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind this series? What prompted you to begin sculpting with junk food?
My dissertation at university 15 years ago was The Ethics of Advertising to Children and that was the starting point of my interest in the science of advertising and its affect. I consider sugar to be one of the most dangerous drug addictions of our time and I wanted to use the very same items and techniques used to sell it to help redefine my own personal relationship to sugar. The original intent with the start of this project was to expose myself to such extreme levels of junk food that I would no longer want to eat it again.
It seems that you used friends, relatives, and even yourself as models for this project. Was that an intentional decision? Did that lead to some interesting experiences? I don’t have too many friends who would let me put cheeseburgers on their eyes.
I generally always work with people that I know. A lot of my early works were all about understanding relationships between myself, family, and friends so they were the only real choice for me in terms of participation. There is always some sort of emotional ritual taking place in the experience of making my work and this seems to have just carried on with my close community so far.
One highlight from this body of work was when my dad had three massive loaves of bread wired to his head and i was just about to smother a bucket of black cream cheese on his face. I stepped back and he had this massive smile and I started laughing uncontrollably with joy about how much love I felt from him in that moment…..
Take us through the construction process of these sculptures. How long did each one take? How were you able to sculpt using cream cheese?
Through a process of multiple experiments I found that cream cheese had the perfect qualities to achieve the look I wanted while also being viscous enough to stay in position long enough. While working this out I obviously had to consider what would be vaguely acceptable for the sitters to be able to endure as well!
Just the same as cooking a great meal, most of the actual work is in the preparation and the cleaning up afterwards. Each piece takes between four and eight hours. I have spent over $8000 dollars on junk food and sweets and more often than not what you see is just the final ‘outfit’. Often I make multiple head dresses, jewellery and adornments and have them laid out like a stylist might for an A-list actress working out what they will wear on the red carpet. I always have some idea of what I want but once my model is in position on their plinth generally everything changes…..
Was it hard using food as materials? Did it ever get too messy or difficult to control? What was your favorite kind of food to work with?
However much I tried, it always reached the point where it became out of control and I would be sliding all over the place running back and forward to the camera on its tripod. I can’t say I like working with one ingredient in particular as they all do different things to me and have their place. However, I do remember stepping back after sticking the final frazzel (similar to a cheese puff) on a model’s head and thinking I had fallen in love with this creature I was making. In the same way some Japanese people do with anime cartoons.
Many of your pieces resemble tribal masks of various indigenous cultures. Did any particular motifs of ancient art serve as an influence for you?
I had been thinking about redefining the human species into different tribes based on what we now consume so that aesthetic was always going to be there. I didnt have any specific references in my studio as I wanted to channel a pure and unguided stream of every kind of visual influence that I have been exposed to in my lifetime while making the works. That could be memories of slide projections of African tribes-people in a geography class when I was at school years ago or an instagram of Kim Kardashian rolling around in the sand that I may have seen that morning.
What was the most challenging part of this series? A tough clean up process? Uncomfortable sittings?
The most difficult part was knowing when to stop adding more to the works as the adrenaline and excitement I felt while making them is so fun and addictive. That and trying not to munch the ingredients as, lets be honest, these items have been scientifically developed to attract our desire however convinced I was that I would be repelled.
Would you ever work with this kind of subject matter again? Other mediums you feel this could translate to?
The subject is a major issue for me personally and the world at large so I am sure I will carry on with it in some capacity or another. The final medium in these works is photography while their actual reality was semi permanent sculpture. What I do know is that I miss them a lot in their 3 dimensional form.
What was the most satisfying part about working on this project? Would you say it was an overall enjoyable experience?
Everything has been an absolute joy. From running around super markets in an uncontrolled frenzy to sitting in my studio alone thinking what the fuck am I doing with my life and now sitting here calmly reflecting back to every aspect of it. I would say I have experienced every kind of emotion you can in the process, both good and bad, and that is what life is. So I feel alive and that’s good enough for me.