Connecting – Part 3: Ceci n’est pas une Twinkie

Pamela Johnson, "Girl Scout Cookies," 2008. Oil on canvas, 54 x 68 in. Courtesy of Pamela Johnson.

I asked Pamela Johnson about other people who had encountered the massive Girl Scout cookies or cheese and cracker Handi Snacks™, eager to know how they were received and processed through various memory banks, personal histories and social filters, and curious about what ideas came out the other side.

Some people totally get it and they usually get a bit of an embarrassed laugh out of the junk food. Then there is the large number of people that love the work because they love cupcakes, Pop Tarts™, or P.B.&J’s. At least their interest in the work opens the door to a conversation of why I paint huge piles of junk food. I think most people understand the excess of our culture, even if they are choosing to embrace that excess instead of being disturbed by it. I do get a lot of the ‘I know it is bad but I can’t resist’ sentiment. All of it makes me wonder if I need to push the work a little further.

Pamela Johnson, "PB&J II," 2009. Oil on canvss, 58 x 44 in. Courtesy of Pamela Johnson.

Pamela Johnson, "Burgers I," 2006. Oil on canvas, 72 x 32 in. Courtesy of Pamela Johnson.

The first time I saw the paintings, at The Artist Project in April of 2008 as part of Artropolis, Johnson told me that they even elicited nostalgia, memories of when mom would pack a cupcake or Ding Dong™ in a sack lunch and send you off with an idyllic Americana nudge out the door. Admittedly the sound of cellophane calls my own kidhood to the surface because I too used to get Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies™ in my lunch, or, on special days, Swiss Cake Rolls™ which I would peel the wrapper away from and methodically eat the outer shell of, yes, waxy chocolate, only to unroll the spiral of cake centimeters at a time with my tongue, slowly devouring the whole thing as I went.

Eventually I learned that there was nothing particularly wholesome about such “food” (unless wholesome describes the high fructose corn syrup and beef fat that you ingest while you enjoy your Hostess CupCakes™), which happens to make me wonder if there’s anything particularly wholesome about the business behind these delicacies. Maybe the picture of Little Debbie herself is where the nutrition went, into her airbrushed blushed cheeks and pixie smile framed by glossy brown curls; a real saleswoman.

My own childhood was far less rosy than what I imagined Little Debbie’s to be. I always thought she must have been an exceptionally intelligent and talented girl to have won the privilege of having her face associated with the only pleasant part of my early education. So all of the irritating or humiliating memories from a period which presently makes up just under one-third of my life are inextricably linked to the cakes and rolls and treats, and thus to Johnson’s paintings. The primary difference would be that the American Still Life series offers actual sustenance — though I could be underestimating the degree to which sugary stuff added to my happiness as a kid.

Pamela Johnson, "Hostess Cupcakes II," 2009. Oil on canvas, 52 x 34 in. Courtesy of Pamela Johnson.

Each time I hear Johnson recount other people’s interpretations of the mammoth junk food paintings, I’m reminded of and taken by how differently we all see things, how an image could have such an indelible effect on me in one direction, yet lead someone else down an entirely opposite path. There is certainly a beauty in that, and it’s equally matched by frustration, as people tend to see only what they’re comfortable seeing of any particular thing at any time. Once the personally determined level of comfort is reached, people feel free to stop investigating.

Though the national diet isn’t something I’m qualified to delve into, an image from the documentary King Corn (2007, Mosaic) – a film of sincerely acted-upon intentions – offers something I found resonance with while considering the American Still Life series; namely, that on our massive cattle farms, we’re feeding the future burgers and steaks of America millions of pounds of corn, something cows were never built to consume, which was evocatively illustrated by one of the most startling scenes of the entire eighty-eight minute film.

A cow stands in one of those Walmart-sized barns, just chewing and looking at its world through those dark cow eyes while we zoom toward the Frisbee-sized plastic-rimmed hole in its side. The hole opens to a stomach, a moving wet darkness into which a farm employee sticks his hand and pulls out a fistful of indigestible cornhusks. It’s horrific. And this is what we eat. And we’re eating all of it in one way or another. There seems to be some metaphorical similarity between six glossy feet of cupcake and stomachs full of food that is absolutely useless but impossible to quit. A similarity might also exist between drugged cows consuming whatever they’re given and us.

I’m not really the type to hitch my trailer to every conspiracy theory that drives by, but if you read any version of the news, it becomes difficult to deny that various entities seem to have been working (and for how long?) to exert control over one tribe or another. Jack London wrote about it in The Iron Heel, the grandfather of dystopian novels published first in 1907, which reads like a Bush 2 playbook of dictatorial power and complete disregard for all life outside the citadel. So much of the story suggested the present day in terms of brutality that I couldn’t help but wonder why such prescient books haven’t led to the end of manmade catastrophe. Laziness and apathy? Submission to distraction and indulgence? Stupidity?

It seems to be a truth beyond argument that corporations produce toxic and addictive but somehow edible items that we cannot stop eating and in our culture, the only motivation to produce such things is money. If food could be even more cheaply made out of, say, plastic, it would be. (Actually, it has been in other countries.) Consumers drive capitalism and capitalism is sounding more and more like a conspiracy against consumers to me. And what we eat is just a small part of this conspiracy. What we think is where the real power lies.


  1. Having immersed myself in “conspiracy theory” and McLuhan-esque study of the news media for over 12 years, my position regarding conspiracies developed thus: Sure, sometimes there is a small cabal of men communicating and working in concert, but that is rare. What is not rare is more a conspiracy of mind; many more men of like mind and a particular worldview who do not need to meet in smoky back rooms to act in concert. Thier motivations are simple; profit at all cost. They seek to escape the consequences of such a worldview and treatment of the common welfare by securing their fortunes and using the privileges of power and money to insulate themselves from the subsequent effects on society and the world.

    Instead of “conspiracy” substitute “affinity” and the wild-eyed crazy “Jewish banker UFO CEO black helicopter Illuminati theories” make much more rational and easily-understood sense (Occam’s Razor). Certain types of men think in certain ways; have certain outlooks, have similar methods of gaining and using power; this is elementary and true to the point of cliche. No need for elaborate signs, secret handshakes, mystical ceremonies or goat sacrifice.

    As to your last two paragraphs, laziness and apathy might go hand-in-hand with a diet of fat, sugar and salt, and a general level of stupidity might be in the training and diet most of us recieve as children.

    The second thing that keeps people in a dazed and distracted state is the manipulation of crises designed to keep our nose to the grindstone and eat our leisure time. Free time has always been the hallmark of an advanced society; it is what allows thinking, experimentation, study and advancement in all the arts and sciences. In this, I put the blame squarely on the modern media, owned and operated by the tribe of profiteers, who push foods to make us stupid, toys to distract us and mis/disinformation to confuse us with “news” of the same digestibility and nourishment level as the cow/corn example given in your post.

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  2. KW says:

    I like the connection that was drawn between our societies eating habits and the drugged up cows that are consuming something that they are not able to digest (and then people eat the cow). Vicious cycle. Pamela Johnson’s food paintings look incredible! I would love to see them in person.

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  3. Nice work and overlapping such work into healthy food systems is an important approach. What we think is often times directly related to how we eat. Much lies in the connectedness of our thoughts and actions.

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  4. Damien James says:

    Miso, I also place quite a bit of blame on modern media for how disjointed we have become and how easily manipulated we are. It seems that each time some significant piece of legislation is on the table or new piece of information is released that might have a positive outcome for a portion of the suffering or forgotten citizenry, new incidents of “terrorism” (or whatever the hot topic of the day is) surface to distract us, to crush us into submission, or take our eyes off substantive issues and cast them back toward the abstraction of fear. (If you haven’t yet read Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander, I think you’d find it fascinating.)

    On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of next week, three more installments of this essay will be posted, and I hope you’ll continue reading. Parts four and five directly address some of what you’re talking about with regards to both media (and spin) and our lack of focus.

    I’m always hesitant to use the word “conspiracy” because it brings with it all of the stereotypical associations (back-room meetings, secret handshakes, tables at which sit an organized group of people will ill intent), but sometimes I think the only way to motivate people is to rely on such stereotypes. I also agree that such secret organizations probably don’t exist to the point that they direct the future of society; rather that disparate individuals (perhaps leading players in multinational corporations, corrupt governments, etc.) the world over are in fact simply acting on their natural impulses for success at any cost.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is exactly what I was hoping for when posting on art21.

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  5. Pingback: Connecting – Part 4: All spin of one kind or another | Art21 Blog

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