Gazelli House Gallery will present the work of James Ostrer from 4 August until 11 September, the National Portrait Galley’s Curator’s Choice.
James Ostrer has always has a complex relationship with food and is himself one of the world’s most common dependents, a sugar addict. For his latest photographic study, Wotsit All About, he has covered his subjects in layers of confectionary. The works are feverishly and painstakingly created tableaus with layers of sweets and junk food applied to a human subject, often the artist himself, which are then staged and photographed. Ostrer became fascinated with the idea of sugar as subject matter in 2009 when Kelloggs mascot, Tony the Tiger was banned from advertising. As a committed confectionary enthusiast, Ostrer describes this work as his caveman paintings in his relationship to food. He explains, ‘Our ancestors would have had to been stung by bees a few times to get the taste of sweetness but all we have to do is grab something from the nearest shop.’ As big business and powerful brands seduce us to consume more sticky unhealthy treats, the question begged, Wotsit all about?
Ostrer to set to work, planning tableaus with layers of sweets and foodstuffs in every kind of convenience food, bought in bulk. Transporting the mass of products back to the studio, he organised the boxes of sweets, buns, crisps and pastries as an artist would a palette, adding dyes and artificial colouring to the cream cheese so that the messy creative process could begin. The models are positioned on a plinth and smeared with layers of lurid-coloured cream cheese and adorned with junk food. Brad Feuerhelm writes, ‘the works become a catalogue of self-destructive behaviours, re-packaged eye candy for uncomfortable consumption.’
Ostrer references the self-harming sugar worship by drawing comparisons with between modern man and our tribal, counterparts for whom the taste of sweetness would have been a rarity.
What is your artistic background?
I went to art school initially and then landed out touring as the scenic artist for the english national ballet for 7 years. I then had a major accident back stage where a piece of scenery fell on my head which led to me enduring months of incapacity topped with a strong bought of depression. During this time, which was 8 years ago, i decided to make my first body of work as a self healing exercise.
What inspires your work?
Absolutely everything, whether it is an athena poster from the 90's of Pamela Anderson in a bikini or a Caravaggio painting of a murder happening....
How did you come to be interested in the idea of questioning our modern relationship with sugar?
Initially from a purely autobiographical perspective. I am a massive sugar addict and I really wanted to develop ways of breaking my addiction and relationship to being attracted to the bright colours and warped promises of the advertising world around these food types....
Why did you chose your canvases to be human?
It started with me making them on myself. The intent was to submerge myself in such large volumes of junk food and sweets that I would no longer want to ever engage with these types of food again. I soon moved into working on other people, as I wanted to have greater control over what the final sculptures looked like. I love using human models, as often there is an energy that comes through of the character of my subjects and my relationship with them in that moment..
What defines when a piece is complete?
There are so many different variables but I think often its been the split second before a big chunk or the whole face falls off. There is a tension in that final distortion that embodies so much of the emotion I want to portray.
How did you choose the food that you used in your work?
So many different ways. It could be just thoughtlessly grabbed as I run round the aisles of the supermarkets and corner shops like Michael Jackson on one of his frenzied antiques shopping trips. Or the other end of the spectrum where I intensely study items on the shelf trying to define what they will contribute to a work in terms of colour, shape, texture and therefore emotion...
How do you think our eating habits are going to develop in the next 20 years?
I think like everything else.... extreme in both good and bad directions.
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