Powdered gelatin mixed with sweetener, artificial food colouring and flavouring first became a craze among Victorian-era New York City housewives, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s, soon after Jell-O was packaged in 1897 by the upstate carpenter Pearle Bixby Wait and his wife, May, that the chill-and-set treats — often filled with fruits and crowned with whipped cream — became associated with American female domesticity. Starting in the 1920s, Jell-O was advertised to women as an affordable diet trick; in the 1950s, as a dinner-party dessert; in the 1970s, as a quick treat for independent women who were too busy to cook.
It’s fitting, then, that several queer and female artists are now revisiting Jell-O as both subject matter and material, creating work that challenges society’s fixations on traditionally feminine realms and behaviours. In January, at the Abrons Arts Center in downtown Manhattan, Alison Kuo caressed, slapped and shook a translucent blob of Jell-O in “The New Joys of Gellies,” a performance piece that the artist — a member of a Facebook group dedicated to Jell-O creations called Show Me Your Aspics — says connects “sacrifice” (the main ingredient of gelatin is ground-up animal parts) with “sensuality,” the sliminess reminiscent of wobbling flesh. Then there’s the Brooklyn conceptual duo Josie Keefe and Phyllis Ma (known together as Lazy Mom), who create surrealist animations and videos of gelatin molds filled with ingredients like beef ravioli and carrots. The New York-based photographer Joseph Maida also questions who and what belongs in the kitchen in his 2014 “Things ‘R’ Queer,” a series of gelatin, meringue and plastic tableaus: a gelatin birthday cake atop a tennis racket, a fake hamburger with an electricity meter attached to it. They are, he writes, “historically ‘straight’ in their aesthetics and lack of manipulation” but “undoubtedly queer in their campy visualization of a fantasy-cum-critique of contemporary material culture.”
In one sense, these works clearly refute Jell-O’s consumerist legacy. But they’re also joyful celebrations of the material’s wiggly, neon charm. Consider, for instance, the Vancouver sculptor Sharona Franklin, who assembles layers of kaleidoscopic gelatin infused with medicinal herbs to underscore the limitations of “wellness culture,” which she feels has been detrimental to her as a person suffering from degenerative disease. Her Instagram project (@paid.technologies) comments on the ways women with illnesses have historically been considered burdensome. “The use of gelatin is a protest to that,” she says. “A shrine to the animal cells that I — and many others — need to survive.”
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