Nick Jirasek is a food artist and founder of underground food entity Guerrilla Smiles. He has worked with Tony Fitzpatrick, Links Hall, Redmoon Theater, Linda Warren Projects, Hauser Gallery, Ensemble Dal Niente, High Concept Laboratories, and more. Nick has a strong love of Malort and makes a mean pork shoulder. I got to ask him some questions about who he is, what he does, and his exciting presence in the arts scene.
A.Martinez:What is your definition of a food artist and what you do?
Nick Jirasek: A food artist is one who uses primarily comestible materials to create, explore, or challenge ideas. I work professionally in this capacity at exhibition openings, private events, the streets, house-parties, underground dinners, performances, pop-ups, talk-shows, and screenings.
Martinez:You are a self-trained- how did you develop your skills?
Jirasek: Immersion. There are seemingly unending resources, documentation, and wisdom surrounding food. Everyone wants to talk about it, wants to teach you the ‘right way to do it,’ to share the ritual of eating with you, the most authentic place to buy kielbasa, the healthiest diet, the ethical diet, the best place to eat carnitas. Once I had the feeling that being a food artist is what I wanted to do, I made it my entire life. Some of the learning has been traditional in cooking under trained kitchen professionals, but most of it has been in acute observation and guerrilla learning tactics. I’ll sound like a broken .FLAC if I say the internet has been a tremendous resource, so I’ll say it’s been invaluable. That of course means the usual suspects of e-books, Youtubes, and blog trolling, but also some harder to find fountains of information in more underground and illicit venues of the www. Once one is cognizant of basic technique, cultural/ethnic culinary tradition, and flavor pairing, is when some cooks then begin to hone their craft or get the fuck out; an Italian chef mastering the different regions of Italy, travelling to the Piedmonts to study centuries of tradition in Agnolotti, or a trade-school dropout in search of Tru. They begin to specialize based on their talents, their genealogy, and interests. But, I’m not interested in specializing my edible journey. I want to continually challenge the ideas and traditions of food while building a vocabulary of how to articulate that comestibly, socially, and literally.
Martinez:Who and what is Guerrilla Smiles and how long has it been around?
Jirasek: Guerrilla Smiles started as a social project about 6 years ago; to simply spread smiles in unexpected places and unexpected ways that would serve to beautify our lives and the lives around us.
I was a worn-out, director of food and beverage at Chicago’s 4th tallest building, the John Hancock. I worked a ridiculous amount of hours. The dreams at night of P&L’s, and the commute home down Chicago on the 66 bus was the cherry on-top of the soul sucking sundae. One day someone at the Hancock had ordered what must have been nearly a hundred gold, helium filled balloons and thrown them in the loading dock after the party was over. I grabbed all the balloons and walked down the street, handing a floating ball of gold to anyone and everyone that would take them. People like balloons, or maybe just the color gold more than I had thought. I was overrun by would-be gold-diggers by the time I made it to the McDonald’s on State street. At that point I walked to the middle of intersection and released the remaining bouquet of gold into the sky. Similar projects came in weeks following like cashing half my paycheck at the currency exchange in quarters and handing them out, then throwing them in the air and off bridges. Safety became an issue.
Around the same time my good friends Claire Molek and Erin Babbin were starting a gallery practice called Studio1020 (later theStudio and thisisnothestudio). Building on the ideas put forth on the street, I pleaded with them to seize the opportunity of the ubiquitous gallery food & wine table. The idea was simple; to mirror the displaying artists’ work aesthetically or thematically in comestible form. This way the dialogue of what the artist’s message was, was literally palatable and hopefully led to broaden and ease the discourse. Through the past 5 years, a changing cast of cooking professionals, artists, and friends have helped carry on this mission from private dinners of 9 to public events of 900.
Martinez:The Break The Bread series focuses on your collaborations with visual artists at galleries around the city. How do you choose what artists and galleries with which you’re going to collaborate? Or do they choose you?
Jirasek: For the vast majority of gigs, the artist, gallerist, or curator approaches us. Guerrilla Smiles does not advertise, has no website, and uses social media sparsely as a means to communicate. That is to say, we truly relish our underground disposition. My time with Studio1020 afforded me a great opportunity to interact and network directly with interested parties, interesting artists, and share lots of ideas through food. It all started from there and kind of naturally branched out by word of mouth. I have, in special situations, approached artists I want to work with and am looking forward to doing so more in the near future, as well as producing independent original work.
Martinez:What is the process of trying out new dish?
Jirasek: I kind of have an ongoing list of techniques, ingredients, serving vessels, equipment and ideas I’m waiting for the right opportunity to try. When it seems appropriate, I get to try out new stuff. In general, the basis for everything I make is a new dish as every exhibition or performance is new. There is some safety in knowing my control of flavor is adept, my technique is solid, but conversely an exciting trepidation in knowing that this dish has components I have done before, but altogether is completely new.
Martinez:What is the biggest revelation you’ve had about the way you work?
Jirasek: One needs to be aware of their work patterns and not sabotage their opportunities. I don’t like asking for help, and no one will ever work for me for free.
Martinez:Is shopping for ingredients an important part of your creative process?
Jirasek: Extremely. I devote at least an entire day to shopping for an event that can completely change the menu. The Green City Market is a staple and only occurs on 2 days of the week. But generally I go to local specialty stores and markets that take me from 113th to Skokie. This process of traveling all around the city, of breathing in the lifeblood of our diverse culture, of interacting with ethnicities whose only commonality with me is Chicago and food, is probably my greatest inspiration. It’s not dissimilar to the interaction I have with people on the night of an event. Most ‘food people’ will disagree with me on this, but I’m less interested in the local food movement and more interested in small, local family businesses, and traditions in Chicagoland.
Martinez:What is your favorite ingredient to work with?
Jirasek: Celery or Popcorn.
Martinez:Guerrilla Smiles has a dish called Oak Street Beach. Describe this dish and how it came about.
Jirasek: Oak Street Beach started as dish for a thisisnotthestudio show featuring artist Xiao Tse at High Concept Laboratories. Tse took upwards of a thousand pictures from the concrete pavement of Oak St. Beach’s shore, facing the lake and narrowed it down to one piece that combined around twenty of the most discerning shots. It is essentially a deconstructed soup, with the broth held separately so as not to affect the aesthetic and textural integrity of the dry ingredients. The dry ingredients are held in a ten ounce clear plastic glass. The sand is a combination of ground peanuts, cashews, and maltodextrin. The grass is julienned wild ramps. The trash is a candied ginger chip. The fish is a rice flour fried smelt. The towel is a soy and turmeric based spring roll wrapper. The wet ingredients are suspended above in a fitting five ounce plastic glass, rimmed with suntan lotion that is garlic mayo. The Lake Michigan water is a kombu dashi. The eater is instructed to take a small mouthful of the dry ingredients and wash it down with a swig of the wet ingredients, going back and forth in a double fisted affair like they are swimming, until they are finished.
The service of Oak St. Beach was very much so inspired by a dish put forward by Michael Carlson of Schwa at Redmoon Theater’s Spectacle Lunatique 2011 called “Walking Through the Forest.”
Martinez:You were born and raised in Chicago and this has a strong influence on the food you make. Are there any other cities or cultures that you either look to for inspiration or are inherent in your work?
Jirasek: I think Mexican food simply got everything right. We obviously have a large population of Mexican-Americans in Chicago, and benefit greatly from the cornucopia of ingredients, flavor, and culture they have imbued upon us. Aside from that, I took great inspiration from my time cooking in Panama City, whose flavors are a great amalgamation of the diverse foreign cultures who have occupied the area and the local flora and fauna. I look forward to delving into historical American First Nation culinaria as a geographical inspiration, and look forward to marrying Filipino and Czech food with acidic flavors.
Martinez:Food-wise, what do you think are some exciting places or events happening around the city?
Jirasek: I think The Plant in The Back of the Yards is going to be a blueprint for metropolitan farming worldwide. Asado Coffee’s recent expansion plans and concept of ‘nano-roasting’ is next level. Smalls BBQ is the kind of approachable, forward thinking neighborhood restaurant that Chicago has lacked to put it on the level of NYC. Floriole’s baguettes are worth lining up for a la Paris when they come out fresh at 11am everyday. Three Aces is what every gastropub should strive to be. I also think we’ll see a boon in quality independent food writing like Graze, Middlewest and whatever Anthony Todd has up his sleeve.
Martinez:What is your favorite Chicago-style food? And where’s your favorite place to get it?
Jirasek: Chicago’s hot dog is unmatched. Though not all the classic ingredients are included, Gene & Judes’ can’t be contended with because of the volume they go through and the freshness that entails, and fries like woah. Gotta go with underdog Chickie’s for beef because their giardiniera is only quickly cured and crunchier. Salerno’s for pizza because the true Chicago slice is thick crust and party cut.
Martinez:What does Guerrilla Smiles have lined up in the coming months?
Jirasek: In the great tradition of former Redmoon Theater Development Director Sean Kaplan, we will be curating the amuse-bouche portion of the upcoming fundraiser Spectacle Lunatique, outfitted Guerrilla style, primarily by the underground supper clubs of Chicago. We are in post-production for the next episode of our Break The Bread series with OnTheRealFilm for last year’s THAW fundraiser for Links Hall, as well as designing a menu for a soon opening southside cafe with one of Chicago’s champion contemporary artists.
Martinez:Is there a piece of advice, food-related or not that you think of often?
Jirasek: Don’t crowd the pan. When it rains, it pours. Be safe, be strong.
All photos courtesy of the artist.
A.Martinez is a freelance art and music organizer living in Chicago, IL.
Hope Esser performing “Telegraph Progress” at The Watermill Center’s 20th Annual Summer Benefit.
Celebrites fawn over Chicago artist at Watermill
Hope Esser Goes Viral
Reportings coming in this evening from sources from Facebook to Bloomberg indicate that Chicago performance artist and occasional What’s the T? correspondent, Hope Esser, painted The Watermill red at the art center’s celebrity studded annual summer benefit. Esser could be viewed from on high, performing in a red dress with flag sleeves from atop the performance lab’s building. Her figure was made more striking by the red fabric draped rapunzel-like directly under her.
Bloomberg.com revealed celebrities from Abromavic to Gaga to bankers no one care about were seen at the event. The article smartly shouts out Esser as well. Watch out for Esser’s performance in the next Lady Gaga video, featuring Marina Abromavic.
Real collaboration at The Hills.
Drain & Reeder Create “On The Spot” Art Exhibition
Show in real time at The Hills Esthetic Center
This past Monday (yes, an opening on a Monday) evening at The Hills Esthetic Center “Jyson Deeder and Tim Rain” debuted “A Nerdier Red”, “community organized” by Josh Reames, at everyone’s “favorite” Garfield Park “gallery”, The Hills. The collaborative exhibition came together as it opened with Reeder & Drain turning the notoriously useless loft above the gallery into the command center from which the art was generated and then incorporated into the official gallery space.
Reeder & Drain tell it like it is.
Down in the gallery, visitors feed off the artists’ frenzied energy and joined in, painting a huge canvas, random hats and eventually joining in on a “drum circle.”
Visitor’s in various states of gallery attendance.
Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. Long-term installation in
Western New Mexico. Photo: The New York Times.
Reading is Fundamental
Some Unrequired Reading: As Jerry Saltz opens his piece on Deitch’s depature from LA MoCA, “It was always only a question of when, never if.” That being said, the internet is ablaze with opinions on the development. If you’re into that sort of thing, more here, here, and here.
Gay Marriage is Trending and TotallyFab-u-lous: The Gossip is that The Gossip’s Beth Ditto recently married her partner, Kristin Ogata, in Maui. Ditto and Ogata has my dream wedding: Ditto wore a Gaultier gown and it looks like they made all their guests coordinate. To. Die. For.
Don’t worry beaus, Buxom babes aren’t the only one getting hitched. Recently, our personal fav queen Latrice Royal made news by becoming ordained in order to officiate over a good friend’s wedding ceremony. Catch this great interview on Latrice’s killer outfit and her controversial opinions on gay marriage on Dragofficial.com.
Notes on the Art of Conversation: We’re really excited about what Claudine Isé has to say about all things art conversational during her Much Much More lecture hosted by the Humboldt Park branch of the Chicago Public Library and Philip von Zweck. Even more educational than reading, this event is not to be missed.
Printer’s congregate to prove printing not dead
Printer’s Ball takes over Hubbard Lofts
This past Saturday the Printer’s Ball, hosted by Spudnik Press with the support of the Poetry Foundation, took over the Hubbard Street lofts, once again proving print media’s vitality with displays, demonstrations, lectures, conversations and empanadas. WTT? was especially impressed with the Riso demonstrations provided by SPARE residency in the Post Family space.
Tony Fitzpatrick in conversation with Printer’s Ball founder, Fred Sasaki. Fitzpatrick regaled the audience with tales of Studs Terkel, Lou Reed, Haiti and Cuban cigars.
Spotted at the Printer’s Ball: Momentarily back from Ox-Bow, Lauren Anderson checks out photos and posters at Johalla Projects.
Work by Mark Adkins, Alberto Aguilar, Jane Fulton Alt, Marissa Benedict, Daniel Bruttig, Robert Burnier, Tom Burtonwood, Scott Carter, Stephen Cartwright, Andrew Copper Smith, Margaret Crowley, Matt Davis, Michael Dinges, Diana Gabriel, David Giordano, Emily Hermant, Alexander Herzog, Matt Irie, Elk Grove Village; Barbara Jeanne Jenkins, Evanston; Stacee Kalmanovsky, Buffalo Grove; Julia Klein, Barbara Koenen, Morgan Krehbiel, Katie Loomis, Ivan Lozano, Jorge Lucero, Bobbi Meier, Jackie Melissas, Holly Murkerson, Julie Oh, Joel Parsons, Karen Perl, Cole Pierce, Melissa Ann Pinney, Wolfie Rawk, Todd Reed, Patricia Rieger, Nicole Seisler, Lindsay Sherman, Soo Shin, Geoffry Smalley, Alex Tam, Xavier Toubes, Rafael E. Vera, Sarah Williams, Robin Woodsome, and Kaylee Wyant.
Evanston Art Center is located at 2603 Sheridan Rd., Evanston. Reception Sunday, 1-4pm.
Stephanie and I took the Metra to Hammond, Indiana, where Linda Dorman and Tom Torluemke picked us up at the station, and brought us back to their place. We ate pizza around their dining room table and then drank beer around a campfire in their backyard. (Linda drank Coke, Tom O’Doul’s.) Tom had built a perfect teepee fire, abashedly using compressed firestarters (which he called “cheating”) to light the fire.
Installation view of "Water" at Sidecar Gallery, featuring work by James Jankowiak, Tom Burtonwood, and Holly Holmes.
They took us to Sidecar Gallery to see “Water,” a show of work by Tom Burtonwood, Holly Holmes, and James Jankowiak. Tom Burtonwood created a wallpaper of a computer-generated alphabet consisting of isomorphic perspective renderings of three-dimensional blocks (like Tetris pieces), each rendered in a different, simple pattern of marks. It looked like a 1980s visualization of some kind of data set, but in fact represented an alphabet or code. Apparently it incorporated QR codes which stored a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for a website that would decode the alphabet for you…but, lacking a smartphone, we didn’t try it. Burtonwood also created some small wooden sculptures that mimicked the form of the wallpaper.
Painting and wallpaper by James Jankowiak, sculpture by Tom Burtonwood.
James Jankowiak also created a wallpaper of sorts, covering several walls of the gallery with parallel strips of brightly colored plastic tape. But his major works are small, square, incredibly precise paintings of minutely varying shades of color. The works in this exhibition consisted of concentric circles. In one, each circle was a slightly different shade of blue. In another, a green torus vibrates electrically against a red field. In a third, blues, browns, and whites alternate on a beige field. One’s first thought is of course of sectioned Jawbreaker candies but a moment’s thought links them more closely with Josef Albers’ color studies.
Work by Tom Burtonwood at Sidecar Gallery.
Both Jankowiak’s and Burtonwood’s wallpapers served as backdrops for their own, and each other’s, small paintings and sculptures, turning the exhibition into more of a collaboration than a group show. In the front room was one of Holly Holmes’ recent wooden sculptures, in which thin strips of wooden lathe are bent into a complex, looping form, like a diagram of the flight of a bumblebee, or a crazy zero-gravity roller-coaster. I’ve seen a previous work of this type by Holmes, at Chicago Urban Arts Society, as part of Wood Worked, in which the material of the piece was left raw and unfinished. In Water, it was painted in blue and white. In each case the color and surface seemed an homage to the theme of the exhibition.
We had tickets for the 11:10pm South Shore Line Metra train home, but Sidecar was shutting down at 10pm, so instead of waiting around the train station in the cold for an hour after the show, Linda hooked us up with her friend Erik, who agreed to bring us back to Chicago. But, he said, we had to make what he assured us would be a brief stop at a friend’s birthday party. That’s how we ended up at Cisa Studio.
The birthday boy is this kid Flex, one of the guys who runs Cisa Studio in Hammond Indiana. I call him a kid because he’s full of youthful energy, but in fact this is the eve of his 40th Birthday. The vibe is like a house party or maybe like the office Christmas party for a tattoo parlor. Erik introduces us as we walk in the door, and everybody is so nice, welcoming us with warm handshakes and cold beer. The bathroom is immaculately clean, and the main space is stylishly decorated, with mood lighting and music befitting the occasion. We meet Flex, see some of his work (a portrait, in spraypaint on canvas, very realistically executed), and then he shows us the backyard.
This involves three layers: first, downstairs to an indoor, basement-like space where people gather to smoke around a big plywood table covered in drawings and graffiti writing. A massive digital printer sits against one wall. Signs advertise various services: fine art paintings, signs, and airbrushed images for your motorcycle helmet, gas tank, leather jackets, and cars. There’s a motorcycle helmet with an absolutely flawless airbrushed rendering of the comic book character Venom on it: more of Flex’s work.
From there we moved into the garage, where a classic car sat, grind marks showing bare metal through the primer: a work in progress, speaking of infinite potential. In the back corner, a motorcycle sported a Minigun-type cluster of barrels emerging from its exhaust pipes. I don’t know, but I imagine that they spin and belch fire when the motorcycle is running. I sat there, spinning the barrels by hand, entranced.
Airbrushed motorcycle gas tank by Cisa Studio.
The backyard itself hosted a bench that had been airbrushed by some of Flex’s friends as part of a public art commission. I looked around, and admired the facilities: an absolutely gorgeous, spacious workspace. What’s more, Flex told me, their rent is less than what Steph and I pay for our bedroom-and-a-half apartment in Ravenswood! “This is why Indiana is the shit,” Flex explained. It’s hard to argue with that.
We smoked cigarettes, talked to the Cisa crew, and drank more beer. Then we were gathered, slowly and chaotically, into a rough herd, with the purpose of ambling down the alley to the studio’s exhibition space, a separate building a block down, to see Arte Muerte 2011, the 4th annual occurrence of this “Day Of The Dead” themed exhibition. On the way I met the crew’s photographer, the most heavily-tattooed guy there, long-haired, with a rock-and-roll aesthetic that goes some way towards explaining his nickname, “Tommy Lee.” To look at him you’d expect him to be biting the head off a bat or something, and turns out to be an incredibly sweet and super righteous dude.
Arte Muerte consisted of Day of the Dead altars and two-dimensional wall art, all encompassing themes of death, family, ancestry, tradition, ritual, and a Latino or Mexican cultural heritage. The aesthetic of the work ranged from psychedelic and graffiti to Aztec and Maya glyphic writing, Catholic saints, and plenty of skulls. What struck me most immediately about the show was that not a single thing in it felt ironic, exploitative, or appropriated: there weren’t sculptures of altars, they weren’t about altars, they were genuine and sincere embodiments of this tradition.
After checking out the exhibition we made our way back to the studios where some of the guys were breakdancing, and we all did tequila shots in celebration of Flex’s birthday. The Cisa studio crew talked to be about growing up together, and about how they hung out with Keith Haring when he was in Chicago. They showed me a picture of them all, years ago, hanging out with Haring. Erik mentioned working at Genesis Art Supply back in the day, and I asked him if he’d known Wesley Willis. They guys all started telling stories about hanging out with him back in the day, of setting him up in the store to sit there and draw. One of the guys proudly told me that Wesley had given him a drawing, which he still had. Another had Willis’ old Casio keyboard from when he was growing up.
Invitation card for Erik DeBat's exhibition, "Risk & Reward."
Many hours, many stories, and many beers later, we were all feeling pretty ready to head out. Another couple was catching a ride with us as well. Erik DeBat, our ride, had made sure to moderate his consumption and was quite sober and fit to drive. The rest of us were all pretty sauced, but I was still pretty lucid, and due to my long-leggedness our fellow passengers had afforded me the front seat, so I had much opportunity for conversation with Erik. We talked about his work, and he gave me a copy of the catalog from a recent exhibition he’d had: Risk & Reward, at The Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, in August of 2011. I open it up, and I see this painting of The Hulk, and something looks familiar about it. The catalog essay is by Tony Fitzpatrick and it all falls into place: I’ve seen Erik’s work, and probably Erik himself, at Tony Fitzpatrick’s place. He gave me a card for an upcoming exhibition (Recursion, at 2612 Space) featuring Erik’s work as well as James Jankowiak, Mario Gonzalez Jr., Victor Lopez, and William Weyna. I wasn’t able to make it to that one, but he also told me that he’s got a show coming up at Firecat Projects, in May 2012. I generally make it to all of the openings at Firecat, but I’m looking forward to this one in particular.