The New York Times

N.Y. / Region – Arts, Long Island
Published: October 12, 2012

The Potato, as Art and Instrument

BITS OF WHIMSY “We the Made Lucky Few,” by Lucy Kippin, is among the potato-themed works at the Islip Art Museum. Uli Seit for The New York Times.

A TROUPE of 16 battery-operated, dancing Mr. Potato Heads, which can be set to skitter across a gallery floor, suggests the whimsical side of the three exhibitions on the subject of potatoes currently at the Islip Art Museum.

But they represent only part of what Jeffrey Allen Price, an artist and teacher who curated all three shows, calls the “potato-art spectrum,” ranging from the ridiculous to the socially relevant.

One of the exhibitions, “Potato Project Room: Unpacking My Potato Collection — Artifacts, Ephemera and Recent Acquisitions,” draws on about 5,000 potato-related items, including the Mr. Potato Heads, that Mr. Price has collected over several years.

Most of them, he said on the exhibitions’ opening day in September, are in the museum’s Historical Room, though many are in boxes that he said he would unpack, catalog and repack most afternoons throughout the run of the show as part of his conceptual-art installation.

The four galleries in the main part of the museum contain “Occupying Potato: The Cult of the Potato 2012,” a concurrent exhibition of 100 pieces of potato-themed art — including paintings, photographs, videos and sculptures — by 30 artists from 12 countries.

“Archie Rand: The Potato Prints,” an exhibition mainly in the museum’s gift shop, has 29 works that Mr. Rand, a Brooklyn artist, made in 1988 with Jon Cone, a printmaker. Rather than having potatoes as the subjects of his works, Mr. Rand used hand-cut chunks of color-stained potatoes to create intricate images of cartoonish people, stars, swirls and other figures.

Beth Giacummo, the museum’s administrator and curator, said she wanted to work with Mr. Price, whom she has known for a few years, after seeing a very different potato exhibition he organized at the Williamsburg Art and Historical Center in Brooklyn last year.

“Our mission is to present exhibitions that expose the community to contemporary art and make it accessible,” she said. “What is more accessible than the potato?”

The three-pronged show is “part parody and part sincerity,” Mr. Price, who lives in Lake Grove, said. There is humor in many of his own pieces, like a surreal video in which his face appears on a screen that is surrounded by a mound of real spuds as he continuously repeats the word “potato” for one hour.

But the potato is also important economically and historically, he said.

For instance, in a hallway at the beginning of the exhibition is a work of folk art embroidery showing a harvest on mountainous terrain. It is from Peru, which he called “the birthplace of the potato,” where the cultivation of potatoes as food started millenniums ago.

A 1979 totemlike sculpture by the Italian-born American artist Italo Scanga, “Irish Potato Famine No. 1,” refers to the famine of the late 1840s, Mr. Price said. He called the five-foot-tall work, which he placed in the center of the museum’s largest gallery, “poetic.” It arrived with spikes on which the museum had to place fresh potatoes, Mr. Price said, as specified by the artist, who died in 2001.

Another piece in that large gallery is based on the same tragic episode: a model of the Irish Hunger Memorial that the New York artist Brian Tolle designed for Battery Park City in 2002. The actual memorial covers a half-acre on the Hudson River.

Mr. Tolle refers to the scientific name for the blight that destroyed the Irish crops in “Phytophthora Infestans,” a 2009 sculpture that is actually about Levittown. The same disease affected potato fields on Long Island, Mr. Price said, causing many farmers to sell their land cheap, “helping to pave the way for Levittown and suburban sprawl.”

Mr. Tolle’s piece incorporates a wheelbarrow, plastic potatoes and a rubbery deflated-looking house.

At least two artists in the exhibition grew up on Long Island, though their works don’t refer to it specifically. Ryan Seslow, whose “ipotatoi” portrays a man with a large potato as his head, was raised in Island Park and now lives in Port Washington, according to Mr. Price, who said he knows Mr. Seslow as a colleague and a friend.

Anna Alicja Feitzinger, a former student of Mr. Price’s at the Art League of Long Island, grew up in Lindenhurst and now lives in Brooklyn, he said. She contributed “Solanum Universom,” a microscopic photograph of potato cells displayed in a light box.

Ms. Feitzinger’s work is in the same gallery as a video made by Viviane Le Courtois, an artist based in Denver with a French background: it focuses on her hands briskly peeling potato after potato. In the exhibition’s catalog, Ms. Le Courtois writes that her work “deeply connects with my heritage and the basic actions of life: women in my family have obsessively peeled and cooked potatoes for generations.”

Ms. Le Courtois’s video makes for a nice contrast with another one on a monitor in the entrance hallway, Mr. Price pointed out. Made by Ciprian Muresan, a Romanian artist, it shows five soldiers “resigned to the mundane task of peeling a giant heap of potatoes,” according to Mr. Price. The work is humorous in a deadpan way, he said.

Several other pieces have comic touches, including “Potato Portraits,” by Ginou Choueiri, a Lebanese artist. She transferred photographs of real people onto the wrinkly skins of odd-shaped potatoes and then photographed the results.

Andrzej Maciejewski, who was born in Poland, took close-up photographs of peculiar-looking spuds and gave each a name — one is “Mathilde Mol.” He writes in the catalog that he named his potatoes “not in order to suggest that they look like people, but simply to emphasize their individual uniqueness.”

The artists who lent their works, Mr. Price said, “are humble, generous and have a sense of humor,” qualities he also attributes to the lowly tuber. The artists, he said, “evoke the potato spirit.”

Three exhibitions of contemporary potato art, curated by Jeffrey Allen Price, will be at the Islip Art Museum, 50 Irish Lane, East Islip, through Nov. 18. Information: or (631) 224-5402.

A version of this article appeared in print on October 14, 2012, on page LI9 of the New York edition with the headline: The Potato, as Art And Instrument.