Modern art–and Abstract Expressionism in particular–puts painters like Mark Rothko and Ellsworth Kelly on a near-religious pedestal. Just last week, when a disgruntled conceptual artist tagged a Rothko painting at the Tate Modern, he got everything from death threats to tears.
Mimi O. Chun isn’t exactly scribbling her name on an $80 million piece of art, but she is challenging traditional thinking about value and authenticity in the art world. Her chosen medium for doing so? Sugar cookies, which she decorates with motifs lifted from Rothko, Ellsworth Kelly, Kasimir Malevich, and others.
“Typically, it’s been really difficult for people outside the art world to understand how some of these artists contribute to the canon,” Chun explains. “The idea behind the cookies is to democratize it, make it more accessible and easier to understand.” Her cookies pop up all over the foodie web–on blogs, on Pinterest, and on recipe sites. “It’s interesting to see who responds to this work,” she says. “Some people get the artistic intent, other people got, ‘Wow! there are really pretty cookies.'”
Her most recent work, based on a 21-painting cycle by the German painter Imi Knoebel, went nothing short of viral last week after it showed up on DIA Art Foundation’s Facebook page (it’s permanently installed in Dia’s Beacon space). The cookie version of 24 Farben (für Blinky), painted as a tribute to Knoebel’s friend Blinky Palermo, ended up with hundreds of re-posts across Pinterest and other crafty social sites.
The series has a sweet backstory: Chun saw Knoebel’s shape paintings while on a trip to Beacon with a friend from Oakland last spring. When his birthday rolled around this fall, Chun wanted to give him something that would remind him of the trip. She spent four hours in Beacon sketching the paintings, translating them into tin cookie cutters and developing frosting tints that matched Knoebel’s own. She shipped the cookies overnight to California. “Not only did they arrive safely, but he actually ‘installed’ them on a ledge in his loft and held a mini opening,” she says, “allowing his guests to experience 24 Farben (für Blinky) in Oakland the way we had in Beacon six months prior.”
Chun lives what she describes as a “dual life.” In her day job, she’s the design director of tech and design campus General Assembly, a job she adores. But at night, she makes “domestic art,” baked, sewn, and built in her studio. “In the pie chart of my life, I really like being hands-on and making stuff,” she tells Co.Design.
In another project, Hipster Emblems, Chun sews full-scale stuffed versions of artisanal goods: pickles, chocolate bars, and gourmet popsicles. Based on popular foodie products from Williamsburg icons like Mast Brothers Chocolate, the cuddly objects expose the economy of authenticity surrounding small-batch goods. “Watching the meteoric rise of the local artisanal movement has given way to a tempest of conflicting reactions–at times, reverence; at others, amusement; and on the rare occasion, perhaps a bit of eye-rolling,” she writes. “Hipster Emblems is very much an experiment in media and meta-narratives–a playful attempt to combine a medium best suited for four-year-olds with the very levers that invoke such fetishism among the hand-made, artisanal movement.” Right now, she’s working on a replica of an entire hanging rack of cured meats.
So will we ever get chance to buy Chun’s own vastly overpriced small-batch goods? “My grand ambition is to rent a table at [Williamsburg foodie flea market] Smorgasburg, and then sell the work at the same cost as the original.” So a stuffed replica of a Mast Brother’s chocolate bar, for example, would cost exactly what an actual Mast Brother’s bar costs (a pocket-searing $9, for the record). “It’s less of a performance than a way to allow people to engage and own a small batch of a small batch… My hope is that, in doing so, these poly-filled instantiations will function as both a mirror to the times and covetable objects in and of themselves.”
Chun is quick to point out that she’s well-aware of the twee undertones in her work. “It’s probably also worth stating for the record that I realize this is all ridiculous. I could probably spend my time writing critical essays on the exclusivity of the art world or the proliferation of the artisanal movement within hipster culture, but it’s a hell of alot more fun for everyone to eat a color-field cookie and squeeze a stuffed scoop of Van Leeuwen ice cream,” she adds. “And if people miss the irony, so be it. When they discover my dead body buried beneath fabric scraps and bags of poly-fill, you can pretty much rest assured that I died doing what I love.”